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Habits That Suppress Your Immune System

We do many things to support our health & wellness, but have you ever taken stock of some of the things that might be suppressing your immune system? Let's explore.
Published: May 5, 2021
Categories: Health & Wellness
Strengthening Your Immunity During COVID-19: Nutrition & Natural Supplements

It’s 2021.  Even if it doesn’t feel like a different year than 2020 – because we’re still dealing with the lingering impacts of Covid-19 – it’s still a new year, and you know what that means… more seasonal colds, flus and infections on top of this pesky pandemic.  If you’re one of those healthy, active individuals who rarely falls ill then you probably don’t feel so nervous now that winter is officially over, and the sun is out-and-about. However, even if you boast a strong immunity to common illnesses, this pandemic has thrown our previous assumptions about health & safety into the blender.

Most people consider themselves to be “healthy” until something like a cold or flu brings them down a few notches.  Do you ever wonder:

  • How strong is my immune system?
  • What am I doing that might be weakening my immune system?
  • Does quarantine weaken the immune system?
  • Are any of the medications suppressing my immune system? What about my diet? Do I exercise enough?
  • Or is staying inside weakening my immune system?

These questions are just a few of the burning conundrums that many of us face in the midst of a world that is hyper-conscious about health & wellbeing.  The lines of “is this healthy” or “is this unhealthy” have continued to blur as we learn more about our health & fitness.  Researchers, medical professionals and fitness instructors continue to help us evolve in our ever-persistent quest for self improvement.  If you’re already taking your health seriously, have you ever catalogued how healthy your immune system is?

Before you can understand how to strengthen your immune system, you need to know what things to avoid.  This article will explore the worst immune suppression habits and provide some of the best ways to strengthen your immune system instead.  Whether there’s another wave of Covid, or you’re just trying to avoid a cold or flu running around the office – and you probably just got back to working again – let’s build our immunity for a healthier future.

WHAT WEAKENS YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM?

Whenever we talk about “things we shouldn’t do” there’s undoubtedly those moments of dread where we hope that we aren’t committing high treason against our own health.  Some of the worst things you can do that suppress your immune system are very common.  Before we get started, we just wanted to make sure that you don’t beat yourself up too much.  All of us make mistakes and bad choices that are contrary to our optimal health & wellbeing.  Life is full of complicated checks & balances we need to make in order to be both happy and healthy.

So, instead of getting upset at things you do that might be on this list, try to focus on how you can improve your chances at being healthy by limiting their influences on your life.  With that said, let’s check in on the top 8 things that lowers your immune system.

1. Consuming Too Much Sugar

Whether you get your sugars from fruits or vegetables, or you’re prone to snacking on sweet treats and other processed sugar foods, there is a sugar epidemic affecting the world today.  Processed sugars and its derivatives have found their way into an inordinate amount of foods – from juice, to breads, sauces and supplements, sugar additives are hard to avoid.

Most people have come around to the dangers of consuming large volumes of sugar, and yet many people do not realize just how much sugar is in the foods & drinks they consume on a daily basis.  Eating sugar-laden foods or drinking over-sweetened beverages can lead to all sorts of health problems (i.e. diabetes, weight gain, poor dental hygiene, lethargy, bloating and much more).  However, one of the most prominent side effects of a sugar-rich diet has to do with your white blood cells.

Researchers have keyed in on the direct impacts of high-sugar intake and decreases in white blood cell counts.  A study from the University of Loma Linda determined that white blood cell activity drastically fell as much as 50% when participants were given large amounts of various processed sugars.  Why is this a staggering conclusion? Well, your white blood cells are the frontline defense against bacteria, viruses and infections. 

Whenever your body detects the presence of invasive bacteria or viruses, your white blood cells attack the contaminants and try to prevent them from getting a foothold in your system.  The higher your white blood cell count or the higher their activity, the stronger your immune system response will be.  Case in point, one of the major reasons that people experience weakened immune systems after surgery is due to white blood cell counts being affected by disease, treatments or a combination thereof.

Immune suppression can occur if you consume more than the recommended 75 grams of sugar per day.  Keep in mind that this is the ceiling for sugar intake, not a recommended daily dose for health or wellness.  The less sugar you can consume per day, per week or per season is one of the best ways to strengthen your immune system. 

When it comes to sugar, moderation or limitation is the key – not so much the what, but the how often.  That being said, you can certainly benefit more from focusing on natural sugar sources, like fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds and others.  Nevertheless, you have to make sure you’re eating/drinking within the MAXIMUM 75 grams of sugar per day, or you’re going to be setting your immune system up for failure.

In summary, to avoid ingesting too much sugar every day, be very cognizant of how much of these foods you eat (they are the likely culprits for your sugar overdosing):

  • Breads (pizza, sandwiches, burgers, wraps)
  • Sweet sauces (BBQ, ketchup, salad dressings, teriyaki, syrup, etc)
  • Treats (chocolates, candies, pastries, desserts)
  • Breakfast foods (cereals, pancakes, donuts, baked goods, waffles)
  • Sugary drinks (soda, juice, milk, sports drinks, protein shakes)

2. Drinking Too Much Alcohol

The second most common habit that leads to immune suppression is a lot less of a surprise than even sugar was.  Drinking large volumes of alcohol, consuming it frequently and developing a reliance on this addictive substance is very counterproductive to your immune system.  There’s really no evidence that drinking alcohol has any real health benefits – sorry “one glass a day” wine drinkers – so it comes as no shock that drinking to excess can lead to immune suppression.

Even if you’re the type of person who controls their drinking all week long and only lets loose a little on weekends, the normalization of alcohol in society can lead us down the path of poor health if we’re not careful.  A couple beers here, a bottle of wine with friends there, some cocktails with coworkers and a round of shots to celebrate a birthday, and all of the sudden you’ve got a drinking problem.

We’re not here to tell you how many drinks is safe – that is up to your individual health & lifestyle, your doctor’s advice, and your comfort level with alcohol.  We will touch on the kinds of immune suppression you can encounter when you knock too many back, too often.  For starters, your liver, kidneys, heart, gastrointestinal system and even your lungs can be forced to work overtime if you get sauced too frequently.  Alcohol consumption is known to be linked with frequent bouts of pneumonia, tuberculosis, septicemia, bacterial infections, liver disease and kidney failure.

Consuming a lot of booze is also linked to one of our other top 8 immune suppression behaviors – dehydration.  We’ll get into the nitty gritty of not staying hydrated later on in this list, but suffice to say when you drink a lot of alcohol you’re doing the opposite of hydrating.  Being hungover is your body’s way of trying to tell you “why are we consuming this poison-like drink, over and over?”. 

Nausea, vomiting, dehydration, headaches and chills are your body’s response to ridding itself of a substance like alcohol.  So, obviously alcohol is not conducive to support your immune system strength – it in fact weakens your immune system by overwhelming your regular bodily functions.

None of this should be news to anybody – we are all aware that drinking alcohol has no real benefits, but we do it anyway because it’s fun, it’s rewarding, or we feel a certain way under its influences.  That being said, you need to carefully monitor your intake of alcohol or immune suppression might be least of your worries.

3. Smoking/Vaping

What usually goes hand-in-hand with drinking alcohol (literally)?  Smoking.  Vaping is a newer development that has already shown to have numerous negative impacts on your health as well, but in general one of the worst things you can do for your health is to consume tobacco products.  Smoking cigarettes, chewing tobacco, even breathing second hand smoke can have devastating effects on your major organs and lead to various forms of cancer.

Vaping or smoking in particular can harm your lungs, which in turn can have lingering immune suppression effects.  Do you know anyone who is a chainsmoker or avid vaper who is always complaining about being sick? Well, turns out that the science suggests that anyone who inhales the chemicals found within tobacco and vape products will greatly diminish their immune system. 

Think of smoking or vaping like diversions for your body’s defenses – while your major organs and immune system are working hard to suppress the negative effects of inhaling tobacco and chemicals into your lungs, your immune system is left in a weakened state.

Tobacco and the chemicals found in cigarettes and vaping cartridges can also cause oxidative stress on your mind & body.  Beyond the obvious addictive properties that these products can entail, smoking and vaping actually counteract the beneficial antioxidants like Vitamin C that many of us take to boost our immune systems.  So, if you needed any more reasons to quit smoking or vaping, not falling ill to every cold, flu or virus should be enough to convince you.

4. Over-Reliance On Caffeine

If you like to drink, you enjoy a smoke or vape once in a while, AND you’re a coffee drinker then you’re not going to like this next section either.  Caffeine in large amounts is another contributor to a weakened immune system (go figure, if it’s fun to consume, then it’s probably bad for your immunity).

When we’re talking about immune suppression brought on by caffeine consumption, we’re aiming at the “multiple cups of coffee” people, or the “energy drink junkies”.  A cup of coffee to start your day or a hot mug of tea to help you power through can be safe and even have some health benefits.  However, when you start drinking entire pots to yourself or relying on multiple energy drinks just to get through the day has a laundry list of risks to your health.

The reason many of us rely on caffeine for our mental/physical boosts have to do with their influence on adrenaline and cortisol.  Adrenaline increases whenever we ingest caffeine, making us feel more energetic, focused, alert and active.  This can be great for studying, working or exercising, but when you continue to ingest caffeine and not give your body a break between energy rushes you begin to experience a build up of cortisol.

Cortisol is an essential compound found in our bodies, but when we produce too much of it we can experience immune suppression, lethargy, fatigue, and worse.  Increased levels of cortisol can lead to a reduction in T-cells – specialized white blood cells that help to inhibit infections or bacteria.

Take the safe approach and try not to drink caffeine everyday – but if you do, stick to one cup per day to avoid turning your coffee/tea from a cup of bliss to a blemish on your immune system.

5. Dehydration

You might have wondered “does fasting weaken your immune system?” or “does taking medication weaken your immune system?”, when the thing that you wash both food and medicine down with can actually impact your immunity more: water.  Dehydration is one of the most prominent issues that millions of people deal with every single day.  Affecting both people in developed and third world countries, dehydration has seemingly reached epidemic proportions around the globe.  Even those of us who have never struggled to access clean water sources seem to be undermining the foundations of our wellbeing by “forgetting” to drink enough water, or by relying on other beverages for our hydration needs.

How can a glass of water influence your body’s immune system? Just like with sugar or caffeine, a lack of hydration can lower your levels of neutrophils – another white blood cell that are very important for immune function.  Simply by drinking water each day, you can support your body’s production of these neutrophils and other essential bacteria-, virus-, and infection-fighting cells.

Dehydration has a bunch of other nasty effects on your mind and body, but with respect to your immune system it’s something that helps your body to be in equilibrium.  After all, if all life on Earth is reliant on water, it goes without saying that your ability to fight off harmful bacteria or viruses will require this all-important, life-giving element.

6. Lack of Sleep

Sleep could easily be at the top of the list, but because many of us struggle to get enough of it even when we’re feeling healthy, we included it towards the end.  Sleep is ultra important for your body to be able to rest, heal and strengthen itself for the challenges of another day.  Similarly, your mind needs sufficient sleep in order to reset – without sleep your brain would easily become overwhelmed, much like a computer needs a software update or time to power down.

Sleeping too little (or even too much) can cause a number of ill effects on your physical wellbeing, mental health and how strong your immune system is.  A Washington State University study in 2011 tackled this very subject and found that sleep quality & consistency had enormous impacts on patients’ immunity to infections or illnesses.

According to WSU researchers, the amount, quality and frequency of a patient’s sleep determined their ATP synthesis, neurological activity, inflammation response and many white blood cell counts.  Based on these findings, it seems like the better someone’s sleep is, the stronger their immune response and functionality can be.

In addition to these findings, it’s no secret that whenever we’re sick you automatically kickback, relax more, stay in bed and sometimes sleep the days away.  This is your body’s natural response to falling ill or becoming injured, so it’s not something that we can let life get in the way of.  Animals know to do it, babies sleep more to fight viruses, so why do we often let work or play interfere with one of the most basic (and most effective) immune system responses?  Don’t get caught up with how you’re “too busy” to sleep properly – go to bed consistently, and you’ll be healthier & happier for it.

7. Sedentary Lifestyle

As much as we want to relax, splay out on the couch and just chill after hectic days at work or when the kids finally go to sleep, being sedentary too often can have just as much of a negative impact on your immune system as smoking, drinking or eating unhealthy.  There’s no secret formula for “how much activity is enough activity” that suits everyone – our lives are our own, and different lifestyles suit different people.  That being said, it’s all about balancing your moments of relaxation with enough physical and mental stimulation.

What does a balanced active-relaxed lifestyle look like? Well, for some it might mean only watching TV at night after hitting the gym in the morning, getting some fresh air with friends/family during the day, and maybe some yoga after dinner to stretch out that stuffed feeling.  For others, playing video games or reading a book for hours-on-end is okay because they have a very busy, physically demanding job.

Whatever your vocation, and no matter what you enjoy doing, you HAVE TO find a healthy balance between work, play and chill.  Think of it this way: our minds and bodies were designed to exist in the natural world, where we’re constantly fighting for survival, for food, for shelter and for the opportunity to reproduce.  Modern advancements have made life very convenient, but that doesn’t mean that our immune systems recognize these facts of a few thousand years of human lifestyle changes.

The more you laze about, the less exercise you get, and the worse we eat/drink will create a looming immune suppression problem.  Don’t get caught lying on the couch doing nothing all week by some nasty cold or flu.  Find your ideal balance of work & fun to avoid getting run down by injuries or illnesses.

8. Overactive Lifestyle

The final point we want to touch on is in direct opposition to #7 – living an overactive life.  Huh? Didn’t we just tell you to get OFF the couch and do some crunches?! We can already hear many of you calling for the contradiction police to pay us a visit, but hear us out….

Even those physically fit, mentally tough individuals (like pro athletes, gym junkies or overall health-nuts) can experience immune suppression problems brought on by their lifestyle choices.  Now, exercise, healthy diets, mental stimulation and proper rest are nothing to worry about when it comes to maintaining a strong immune system.  Nevertheless, some people can go “above and beyond” the limits of what their minds & bodies can take, causing a slew of health problems like inflammation, pain, insomnia and a weakened immune system.

Just like with our pleas for striking a balance between sedentary lifestyles and mental/physical activity, the name of the game is finding what works best for you.  It can be tough to ride the fine line between challenging yourself and overdoing it, but when you cross that line and injure yourself you might also risk falling ill while your body does the hard work of repairing itself.

You’d probably have a tough time pointing out somebody who bikes to work everyday who also suffers from frequent illnesses, but the potential is undeniable if you’re not careful with how much/how little activity you maintain.  Your BMI, genetics, diet, medical history and a number of other factors will determine “what’s a safe balance of relaxation and stimulation”, but don’t just take our word for it.  Get outside, get that vitamin D, get your blood pumping, run, jump, have fun, relax, chill out, and make sure you don’t overdo any of it and you’ll be healthy as can be – no pressure, right?

WHAT ARE SIGNS OF A WEAK IMMUNE SYSTEM?

If you suspect that you might have a compromised immune system, you need to go and see your physician as soon as possible.  A weakened immune system can cause a lot of stress, fatigue, sickness and even injuries – especially in today’s Covid-wracked world.  The signs of a weak immune system can be obvious, such as is if you’re sick constantly or struggle to overcome colds, flus or viruses.  However, there are many other indications that your immune system may be not be optimal, including but not limited to:

  • Elevated stress or anxiety levels
  • You constantly feel a cold or flu coming on
  • Persistent nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Wounds take longer to heal than usual
  • Frequent infections
  • Chronic fatigue, lethargy combined with insomnia
  • Lack of appetite, digestive issues

These symptoms can indicate that your immune system has become compromised – possibly by an infection, virus or serious illness.  Even if you’re a healthy, fit person who normally can fight colds/flus off without much need for medications you can still fall victim to a weakened immune system throughout your life.  If you or someone you care about are exhibiting these signs of a weak immune system, see your doctor or healthcare practitioner right away.  Testing, bloodwork, examinations and more are often needed to determine the underlying causes of a weakened immune system.  Some can be quite serious, so don’t approach this subject lightly if you are showing signs of a weakened immune system.

HOW TO NORMALIZE AN OVERACTIVE IMMUNE SYSTEM

On the other side of the immune system fence, some people can suffer from what is referred to as an overactive immune system.  The signs of an overactive immune system are very similar to a weakened immunity, so it can be tough to figure out which one you’re suffering from without help from a doctor or healthcare professional.  Some of the more obvious symptoms of an overactive immune system include:

  • Joint pain, inflammation
  • Skin irritation
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Abdominal discomfort, pain or problems digesting
  • Swollen lymph nodes and other glands
  • Persistent fever
  • Lack of energy

An overactive immune system typically occurs as a result of your genetics – some people are more prone to an overactive immunity response to their environment.  What you eat, how active you are, what kinds of supplements you take and your overall lifestyle can contribute to having an overactive immune system.  Allergic reactions are one of the most common signs that your immune system may be overly active, but autoimmune diseases come in many different forms (Systemic lupus erythematosus, Vasculitis, etc).

One of the best things you can do for your overactive immune disorder is to instill calm into your daily life wherever possible.  Calming your nerves, settling your mind & body, and easing the burden on your mental & physical health is critical to overcoming autoimmune disorders.  Medications and treatments are often necessary as well, but you need to invest in calming activities or supplements to increase your chances of relaxing your overactive immune response.  Yoga, meditation, exercise, plant-based diets, and intermittent periods of relaxation are some ways you can try to manage your overactive immune system.  If eating healthy and committing to a stress-free lifestyle are not enough to curb your overactive immunity, then you might need to seek help from nutritionists, therapists and healthcare professionals.  

FAQ’s

What depletes the immune system?

A combination of poor diet, laziness, stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, and a sedentary lifestyle (no exercise) are the most common causes of what lowers your immune system. 

What foods are bad for your immune system?

Foods and beverages that are very highly concentrated in sugar or salt, trans-fats or chemical processing agents are not conducive to a healthy immune system.  Fast food – meals that have an overabundance of protein in lieu of vegetables & fruits – are obviously among foods that can lead to immune suppression.  Excess consumption of alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and other similar substances can also negatively impact your immunity to sickness or infection.

What are the five signs of a weak immune system?

If you think you might be suffering from a weakened immune system, you are likely exhibiting these five most common symptoms: high-stress & anxiety, frequent colds or flus, gastrointestinal problems, slow healing or frequent infections, and an overwhelming lack of energy/lethargy.

What things strengthen your immune system?

A balanced diet & lifestyle are key to maintaining a strong immune system.  For instance, avoiding things that weaken your immunity like smoking, drinking, staying up late or being sedentary for long periods of time will help you to steer clear of immunity suppression.  Conversely, staying active, eating healthy, getting lots of fresh air and sunlight and sleeping consistently are excellent immune boosting practices.

How do you reset your immune system?

Resetting your immune system is essentially about strengthening it by changing certain aspects of your lifestyle, diet or activity levels.  Switching to a plant-based diet or one with more focus on fruits and vegetables, quitting smoking or drinking alcohol, starting a new rigorous exercise routine, or changing your sleeping habits can reset your immunity for the better.

At what age does your immune system weaken?

Circumstances are different for everyone’s health & wellbeing, but typically a person’s immune systems weaken later in life – ages 55 – 75+.  Diet, exercise, sleep, genetics and lifestyle will ultimately determine the strength of your immune system, but as we get older it can become more difficult to maintain a healthy immunity to life’s ailments.

What are the signs of a strong immune system?

If you rarely get sick, or even if you do you only experience minor symptoms over a short period of time, then you’ve probably got a strong immune system. Other examples such as healing quickly from insect bites, cuts or scrapes are signs of a strong immunity to bacteria or infections.

Does your immune system get better with age?

Although this can certainly be the case, most peoples’ immune systems begin to weaken in their later years.  Living a healthy lifestyle of exercise, healthy diets, and consistent rest & relaxation can increase your chances of maintaining a strong immune system even in older age.  However, as your body begins to deteriorate over the years of your life, immune suppression is just a common effect of aging.

How do you know if your immune system is bad?

If you are sick very often, and when you fall ill you experience the entire spectrum of symptoms in their fullest capacity (i.e. always stuffed up, coughing, feverish, sore, tired, etc) then you likely suffer from a weakened immune system.  Staying inside too much weakens your immune system, or having a weakened immune system after surgery are some of the more common occurrences of bad immunity to colds, flus, viruses and bacteria.  Always be careful whenever you start a new medication, had a medical procedure done, or have been somewhere for travel as these instances are when sicknesses or infections are likely to occur.

Written By

George Philips

George is a Boston based health writer with over 10 years experience. He has worked for various news outlets and online publications throughout North America. Over the last few years George has focused on the evolving health industry of cannabinoids.

DISCLAIMER: These statements have not been evaluated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Verlota Inc. products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Information contained in or made available through Verlota.com website is not intended to constitute or substitute legal advice or consultation from medical or veterinary professionals. See verlota.com/terms-and-conditions

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