12 Ways You May Be Hurting Your Immune System

It’s time to wise up to things you do every day that sap your immune system and slash your chances of staying healthy for the long haul……

  • Drinking Too Much Alcohol

Raise a glass too frequently and your health may suffer. Both drinking heavily on a single occasion and drinking often can compromise your immune system, according to researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester who reviewed published studies on alcohol use, infection, inflammation and immunity from 2000 to 2008. Too much alcohol can leave you vulnerable to infections, poor wound healing, and heart, liver, and pancreatic diseases. “It’s not good for white blood cells [which defend the body against infectious diseases], either,” says Neil Schachter, M.D., professor of medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu. Your best bet: Drink moderately, defined as a max of one drink per day for women and two for men

  • Eating Too Much Fat

High-fat diets may make certain immune system cells more sluggish and less functional, compromising their ability to protect you from illness. Fortunately, cutting back on fat can kick your immune function up a few notches. Researchers at Tufts University compared the effects of a typical Western diet (containing 38 percent fat) with a cholesterol-lowering diet (28 percent fat) on immune function. The findings: the lower-fat diet enhanced the function of T-cells, a type of white blood cell that helps ward off infections. Your to-do: Curb fat intake, particularly saturated and trans fats (polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are healthy). For starters, try the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet or a Mediterranean diet, advises Dr. Schachter


  • Stress Overload

Chronic stress can take a toll on your body and mind — and your immune system isn’t, well, immune to these effects. “Ongoing stress suppresses circulation of immune cells, as well as inhibiting the activation of the immune response, which is key to clearing viruses and bacteria,” explains Bruce McEwen, Ph.D., head of the Harold and Margaret Milliken Hatch Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York City and author of The End of Stress As We Know It. Recent research from Tel-Aviv University in Israel found that continuous stress can even disrupt the effectiveness of pharmacological and behavioral treatments designed to stimulate immune function. Get ahead of your stress by incorporating meditation, yoga or deep breathing into your daily life. Do it for the sake of your peace of mind and your immune system.

  • Skimping on Sleep

Healthy women who get less sleep have sluggish “natural killer” cells, a type of white blood cells that defend against tumors and viral infections, according to research at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. Research from Germany also suggests that adequate sleep is important for T-cell function. According to McEwen, too little sleep triggers elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and triggers the inflammatory response, both of which compromise the immune system. The inflammatory response is part of the immune system’s defenses against injury, helping to repair it. When it’s inadvertently triggered, it can actually cause tissue damage. So make sleep a priority. Most experts recommend seven to nine hours a night. If you do lose sleep one night, make up for it with a midday nap.

  • Being Overweight

obesity02wj6Being overweight can wreak havoc on your immune system: The body’s fat tissue produces hormones that activate the immune system’s inflammatory response, according to researchers. The potential fallout: These elevated inflammatory substances can increase your risk of developing heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and other diseases. (Obesity can also depress T-cell function, says Schachter.) Fortunately, losing weight — by decreasing your calorie intake and increasing your calorie burn through physical activity — can help improve immune function, Schachter says. In a study at Tufts University, researchers had slightly overweight adults with elevated cholesterol levels go on a low-fat diet (with 15 percent of their daily calories from fat). After 12 weeks, the subjects lost weight, lowered their cholesterol and boosted their immune response. That’s called a triple win!

  • Experiencing the Letdown Effect

Have you ever wondered why you can make it through a pressure-packed series of deadlines with your health intact, only to get sick on vacation? This phenomenon, called “the letdown effect,” has to do with a too-rapid de-stressing process that sparks physiological changes in the body, lowering immunity and increasing inflammation, according to Marc Schoen, Ph.D., assistant professor of medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine. “When the stress is over, you’re left in a physiologically vulnerable state so any germs you may encounter pretty much have an open window to make you sick.” To avoid this, help your body downshift gradually out of stress mode: Engage in short bursts of exercise (like a 5-minute brisk walk or jog), mental problem-solving stints (like playing Scrabble or board games) or relaxation-visualization techniques that create a floating feeling in your body, Schoen advises. “Doing any of these two to three times a day for a few days after the stress ends will kick up your immune response and help you avoid the letdown effect.”

  • Leading the Frequent-Flier Life

Chronic jet lag can hurt your immune system. The diminished immune function isn’t related to sleep loss, but disruptions to the body’s internal clock (though researchers don’t know precisely why). What to do if you’re a frequent, long-distance flier? “Those who travel frequently should make sure they get adequate sleep, and do things that improve health for anyone — eat well, exercise and reduce stress,” advises study coauthor Alec Davidson, Ph.D., assistant professor of neurobiology at Morehouse. That way, you can improve your chances of having a bon voyage!


  • Being a Member of the Lonely-Hearts Club

According to research from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, lonely college students with small social networks had a poor antibody response to the flu shot. Similarly, older adults who didn’t have much social support also had a diminished response to the flu vaccine, according to research from the University of Rochester Medical Center in Rochester, New York. Consider this a good reason to stay socially connected — by making new friends and acquaintances and reaching out to old ones regularly.

  • Repressing Your Feelings

Research suggests that repressing your emotions can have a detrimental effect on immunity. Stifling your feelings instead of actively coping with an ongoing crisis or frustration can strain your entire body, influencing your immune, cardiovascular, and hormonal system in negative ways, explains James Pennebaker, Ph.D., professor and chair of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. The solution: Express your feelings about upsetting issues in order to deal with the emotional stress. A study at King’s College in London found that writing about a traumatic event led to enhanced healing of physical wounds over three weeks. People who wrote about traumatic events had a stronger immune response to the hepatitis B vaccine, according to research at the University of Auckland Medical School in New Zealand. “Writing or talking about an unresolved trauma helps you put the event into perspective, organize it, and ultimately get through it,” notes Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us. “Afterwards, people sleep better, feel and think better, and have richer social lives,” all of which can bolster the immune system.

  • A Vitamin or Mineral Deficiency

Deficiencies in vitamins A, C, B-6, D, E, and folic acid, and insufficient levels of the minerals selenium, zinc, iron and copper can negatively alter immune function even if the deficiencies are relatively mild, according to numerous studies. So it pays to make a concerted effort to consume all the nutrients your body needs from a well-balanced diet. If you can’t get all the vitamins and minerals you need from food, talk to your doctor about taking a multivitamin and mineral supplement. Your immune function may depend on it.

  • Prolonged Depression and Grieving

images878789Research from Belgium found that people who had major depression or a chronic form of mild depression also had depressed immune systems, particularly the natural killer cells. Similarly, research at the University of Birmingham in the U.K. found that women experiencing bereavement due to the recent death of their husbands had significant reductions in natural killer cell activity. The take-home message: If the depression interferes with your ability to function in everyday life for longer than a few weeks, or the grieving process does not improve over several months, seek professional help. Besides improving the quality of your life, treating depression or prolonged grief with psychotherapy and/or medication may make a difference to your immune function, too.

  • Being Surrounded by Noise

If it seems as though your world is getting louder and louder, your immune system has probably noticed, too. Excess noise has long been recognized as a form of environmental stress, one you often don’t have any control over. Now, research from Japan suggests that chronic exposure to noise may suppress immune function on a cellular level, as well as antibody responses, which can increase your susceptibility to illnesses and infections. Try to turn down the volume in your life by upgrading to quieter appliances, installing double- or triple-pane windows or wearing ear plugs at bedtime.


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