A thriving immune system is the best defense against the common cold, the flu and every other form of seasonal nastiness that can ruin your wintertime fun. And this year, with COVID-19 in the mix, learning to strengthen your immune system with the assistance of immune-boosting foods high in vitamins, including vitamin C and vitamin E, is more important than ever.

But how can you boost your immune system? And what's actually going on in there? Here's a closer look at the hidden functions of the immune system — how it works, what immune system boosters are the most effective and the bad habits that may be impacting your good health.

How Does a Healthy Immune System Function?

The human body has developed a sophisticated immune response that allows it to respond to threats. Your body has a number of specific cell types, including T cells, a type of white blood cell that can be called up when an immune response arises. These cells protect your health by attacking invading organisms.

A strong immune system can mean your body responds more aggressively to the threat of disease. That's why you might have heard of people experiencing cold or flu symptoms after being vaccinated by a doctor for COVID-19 or other illnesses. As your immune cells learn to fight off the disease, they can mimic its symptoms.

How Your Routine May Suppress Your Immune Response

So, now you know how a healthy immune function should look. But how do you know if yours is functioning at peak capacity? One place to start when examining your immune system health is to consider your daily routine and the way it impacts the strength of your immune response.

In their book "Brain Wash: Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships, and Lasting Happiness," Austin and David Perlmutter break down the way the average person's routine damages the healthy functioning of their immune defenses.

Read: Everything You Need to Know About Stress and Hair Loss

Screen-Time Stress

It starts when you wake up. According to the Perlmutters, 79% of adults reach for their smartphones within 15 minutes of waking up. Unfortunately, what seems like a harmless habit could be damaging your wellness; studies show that too much screen time can increase stress levels throughout the day.

The Perlmutters believe that too much phone time can elevate levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. "Cortisol influences glucose and fat metabolism and plays a role in the functioning of our immune systems," they said.

R.N. Teri Dreher breaks it down. "When we’re stressed, our bodies produce corticosteroid, which lowers [the] production of lymphocytes — a white blood cell that defends against invading viruses and antigens," she said.

When experiencing stress, the body has a difficult time processing health information, which can lead to long-term damage, including elevated blood pressure, and even heart disease. High stress levels can also impact your hair wellness.

Here are a few simple steps you can take to cut down on your screen time:

  • Set concrete limits through screen time settings on your phone.
  • Delete apps that stress you out or drag you into a screen spiral.
  • Switch your phone to grayscale to minimize the dopamine reward your phone gives you.
  • Turn off unnecessary notifications, and leave your phone on silent when you can.
  • Set boundaries with co-workers about your online availability — that email can wait.

Sleep and Immunity

It's not just the doomscrolling that connects screen time to immune system strength. Studies show that above-average screen time levels have a negative impact on the quality and duration of your sleep — another critical factor in immune system strength."Being sleep-deprived and constantly surrounded by a flow of negative news not only puts us into a primal 'survival mode' but also profound downstream effects on our brain's wiring and resulting behaviors," the Perlmutters said.

Wellness coach Darlene Marshall agrees with the Perlmutters' assessment. "One of the best things you can do for your immune system is get deep, restful sleep," she says. "While it sounds cliche, your body can't recover from activity and stress without sleep — which means it can't defend itself."

Getting inadequate sleep impacts your immune system because it increases stress levels. "Sleep deprivation makes you susceptible to infection because it puts a damper on your immune system. The mechanism is twofold: important immune system cells that combat infections are diminished, and inflammatory molecules are released."

To increase the quality and quantity of your sleep, pay attention to these important protocols:

  • Establish a screen-free bedroom.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Increase your bright light exposure during the day by spending time outside.
  • Try to establish regular times to go to sleep and wake up.
  • If needed, consider trying sleep supplements like melatonin.

Related: How to Forest Bathe to Relieve Stress

Doing Good and Feeling Good

Happiness has been directly linked to immune system function, so the better you feel emotionally, the better you may feel physically. "In lab studies, happy people who were exposed to cold and flu viruses got sick at lower rates than their less-happy counterparts," says Dreher. "Happiness really does boost the immune system, so look for opportunities to be joyful."

Taking time to practice happiness means different things to different people, but the research shows that certain behaviors are closely linked to happiness levels. Check in with your community. Spend time outside as much as possible. And, according to the Perlmutters, making other people happy can actually boost your own immune system. "Generosity may boost the immune system ... [by] stimulating the reward center of the brain," they said. "Such stimulation releases a flood of feel-good chemicals that strengthen the immune system .... endorphins seek out sick-looking cells and exert a healing effect on them." Odds are, if you're happy, so are your cells!

Read: How to Challenge Yourself to a Month of Vegan Eating

The Immunity Health Diet

Making a lifestyle modification, like resolving to reduce stress or talking to your doctor about screen time, is a great place to start supporting your immune system. But when it comes to providing long-lasting support for your immune system health, you really are what you eat. Diet is closely linked to immune function, especially when it comes to the consumption of anti-inflammatory foods and immune-boosting supplements.

As the Pearlmutters put it, "Gut bacteria are key to our survival." Studies show a complex link between your microbiome and immune strength. An out-of-balance biome can mean your immune system will have a harder time functioning. Fortunately, according to the Pearlmutters, "The risk factors for an unhealthy intestinal microbiome are within your control ... conversely, there's a lot you can do to nourish the health of your microbiome." Your daily food intake has a huge impact on the health of your microbiome and, in turn, your immunity.

Also: Here's How Gut Health and Hair Loss Are Related

Immune-Boosting Foods to Eat

Eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is never a bad idea. But when it comes to immune support, the foods you eat, and the nutrients they deliver, are critical to the body's healthy function. Your body needs a wide array of nutrients to fuel immune system function, and eating a well-rounded variety of whole foods is the best way to get that support. As Dr. Waqas Mahmood, medical health specialist says, "When it comes to immunity, I strongly believe that a healthy inside is the key to a healthier outside!"

If you're looking to specifically target your immune system, here are a few foods you might want to add to your daily meals:

  • Anti-inflammatory roots like ginger and turmeric
  • Antioxidant-rich foods like chocolate, blueberries and green tea
  • Fermented foods like kefir
  • Foods high in vitamin C, like oranges, kiwis, and red bell peppers
  • Seeds and nuts high in vitamin E, like sunflower seeds and almonds
  • Green vegetables like broccoli and spinach

See: 3 Reasons to Add a Biotin Supplement to Your Daily Routine

Supportive Supplements

In addition to consuming a balanced diet, taking supplements is a great way to support your body's natural defenses. Increasing your body's intake of essential vitamins through the use of supplements helps provide targeted support. (There's a reason vitamin C tablets are so commonly touted as a folk cure for the common cold! )

Supplements provide a measurable dose of the most critical immune-support vitamins, so you know exactly how much you're getting. Some of the most powerful supplements include:

  • npeVitamin A
  • Vitamin B-6
  • Vitamin D
  • Vitamin C
  • Vitamin E

Read: Vegan Foods With Phytoestrogen

How Immune System Health Is Connected To Hair Wellness

So, obviously, a strong immune system is important, but how is immune health connected to hair wellness? "Many of us look for holistic approaches to enhancing our immune system health, and when you have a great immune system while taking proper care of yourself, you tend to have great hair, skin, and nails," said Dr. Chava Quist. Immune health and hair health are connected simply because your body is a holistic system — if one part is out of whack, everything gets unbalanced.

R.N. Sarah Johnson said that taking steps to improve your immune system will have repercussions for your hair health. "Healthy hair and a healthy immune system are not necessarily linked on a one-to-one basis," she said. "But there are many things you can do to boost your immune system that also help with hair health."

Just as what you eat supports immune system health, it can also boost hair wellness. "Eating foods that are high in omega fatty acids, as well as foods that contain antioxidants are good for your immune system and your hair health," Johnson said. "Omega fatty acids and antioxidants combined, preferably in your diet, but also in supplement form, can help strengthen your hair follicles from within, improving both density and diameter. Some studies have also shown that they are effective at helping delay or reduce hair loss."

Biohacker and health researcher Suman Chatterji agrees. "Omega 3 fatty acids are crucial for building immunity," he said. "All the cells in the body need these fatty acids to maintain cell integrity, proper energy generation and keeping inflammation under control. The same omega 3 fatty acids are also a wonderful addition for hair health. They help in moisturizing the scalp and the hair follicle inside, thereby promoting growth. These fatty acids are wonderful for the brain, skin, hair, heart and overall health, and we all should include them in our regular diet."

In addition to the follicle protecting power of Omega 3 fatty acids, Vitamin C — a folk remedy superstar for fighting off the flu and colds — might be your secret hair health weapon. "Other than iron absorption and collagen production, vitamin C strengthens the blood vessels supplying blood to the hair shaft," said Dr. Waqas Mahmood.

Basically, a balanced approach to food is the key to both a healthy immune system and gorgeous hair, but there are a few foods you might want to focus on introducing to supercharge your hair wellness. Some of the best foods for supporting both immune system strength and hair health include:

  • Foods high in omega fatty acids, including hemp, chia and flaxseeds
  • Foods that contain antioxidants like berries, curly kale and sweet potatoes
  • Omega 3 fatty acids from food or supplements
  • Vegetarian sources of Omega 3 fatty acids like flaxseed
  • Spinach (an immunity and hair health superfood, a good source of vitamin C, vitamin A and vitamin E)

By taking care of your immune system, you're not only boosting your hair wellness and strength but the well-being of your body as a whole while preventing getting sick. Win-win!

And with a prescription that includes eating well, going outside and enjoying yourself, it's easy to make the switch to an immune-supporting routine that helps you access a happier, healthier you. So get going!

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Photo credit: Rodion Kutsaiev/Pexels

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