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What is the immune system?

We sat down with Dr. Dennis Haslam, who has served as an emergency department physician at Texas Health Huguley Hospital Fort Worth South for 15 years. Dr. Haslam described the immune system as a team of soldiers whose job it is to fight against invaders and to recognize things as friend or foe within our environment. These soldiers serve as our body’s first line of defense against the invaders, which we call disease and infection.

These soldiers constantly fight for a balanced immune system, which is essential to leading a physically, mentally and spiritually healthy life. If your immune system is weakened, you are more likely to get sick, and are susceptible to illness. If your immune system is working too hard, the soldiers will attack harmless guests such as pollen or even their own body, resulting in allergies or autoimmune disease. The key is to find a sweet spot, says Dr. Haslam. Exercise, sleep, nutrition and stress are all factors that contribute to the health and function of the immune system.

To boost your immune system, Dr. Haslam recommends keeping active with an exercise level that elevates your heart rate for 30 minutes, three to five days per week. You should always consult with your physician when beginning a new diet or exercise regimen or if you have preexisting health issues.

Nutrition is one of the best ways to fuel your immune system’s soldiers. A naturally colorful diet with minimal processed foods is another great way to contribute to your immune system’s health. By eating antioxidant-rich foods, such a blueberries, beans and spinach, you should be getting the nutrients your immune system needs. For added support, Dr. Haslam suggests vitamin A, C, D and zinc supplements. “There is such a thing as too much of a good thing,” warns Dr. Haslam. “Sunlight is a great way to get your vitamin D. Your primary care physician can test your level if there is concern that you need to take a vitamin D supplement.”

Stress also has an impact on how hard your soldiers can fight. Too much stress can easily suppress the immune system. In turn, this slows your body’s healing process down, making you more susceptible to infection. If you are looking for ways to reduce your stress levels, Dr. Haslam’s recommendations include breathing exercises, counseling and journaling.

When it comes to sleep, we all know that we should get eight hours. How many of us still find ourselves scrolling on our phones or watching TV in bed? This habit can affect your sleep cycle and confuse your body, lowering your soldier’s ability to fight off invaders. Dr. Haslam recommends avoiding screen time for one to two hours before going to bed, and practicing bedtime routines, such as reading, journaling or taking a bath to help remind your brain that it’s time to get sleep.

Social distancing, being diligent with hand washing and wearing a mask help to decrease the number of enemy combatants our soldiers face during a time when it is critical that we keep our immune systems balanced. Make sure you are getting proper nutrition, sleep, exercise and care to keep your mind, body and soul healthy so that you can live your life to the fullest and be the best version of you for the ones you love the most.