5 issues that can weaken the immune system



Immune System Expert
@AVogelUK
Ask Dr. Jen Tan


12 February 2020

What causes a weakened immune system?

Whilst it is quite common for adults to get around 2-3 colds per year, the average child may get more – around 6-8. If the immune system is weakened, the frequency of colds and flu will increase.

Some common factors that can weaken the immune system include:

  1. Stress
  2. Poor sleep
  3. Bad nutrition
  4. High alcohol consumption
  5. Smoking.

1. Stress

Stress comes in many forms, with a heavy workload, a new job and moving house being some of the most common worries. These issues can affect the immune system, making it weaker and more vulnerable to infection.1 If you come down with an illness, stress can make it harder to shift as well.

During a stressful period, levels of the hormone cortisol increase which makes it harder for the body to regulate inflammatory responses. Stress also reduces the production of white blood cells which are part of the immune system and help protect the body from infection.

On top of this, we are more likely to turn to unhealthy habits, such as drinking alcohol and smoking, when stressed. These, as I'll later discuss, can further inhibit immune function.

What's more, when under pressure we are increasingly likely to opt for comfort foods, such as chocolate and crisps, which fail to provide the supportive nutrients required by the immune system. Stress may also make it harder to get a good night's sleep which is yet another factor that can negatively influence the state of the immune system.


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2. Poor sleep

Sleep provides an opportunity to rest and recover. Insufficient sleep can disrupt immune function, increasing the likelihood of developing colds and flu.

Sleep, for example, helps the immune system produce cells needed to fight infection.2 As such, studies show that levels of immune cells are higher in those who had slept well the previous night, whilst those with poor sleep tend to have lower levels.3

We generally need 7-9 hours of sleep a night, though if you're ill you may need to get a little more to help your body rest and recover.

3. Bad nutrition

Nutritious foods, including fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and wholegrains, provide vitamins and minerals that keep the immune system strong and healthy. Vitamin C, in particular, is one vitamin that supports immune function and is found in a variety of foods including oranges, strawberries, kiwi and broccoli.

Another helpful nutrient to focus on is zinc which, again, gives the immune system a boost. This nutrient is abundant in beans, nuts, kale and wholegrains so there are plenty of ways to keep your intake up.

Opting for processed foods, such as microwaveable meals and pre-packed jars of sauce, on the other hand, offer much less nutritionally, meaning they are less able to support the health of the immune system.

If your diet includes a lot of these ready-made options, it is likely your immune system will suffer as a result. Here at A.Vogel, we recommend opting for food in its freshest form – such as snacking on a banana rather than a processed cereal bar, or some home-cooked chicken instead of fried or breaded varieties.

4. High alcohol consumption

Research shows that alcohol, particularly when consumed in high quantities, can weaken the immune system and make you more susceptible to infections.As alcohol can disrupt sleep, this demonstrates one way in which it may hinder immune function. As I've just explained, we need good sleep to keep the immune system functioning contentedly.

Heavy alcohol consumption can also affect the body's ability to take in nutrients, including magnesium, zinc and vitamin C which are essential for the immune system. Further to this, alcohol hinders the ability to plan and prep meals which may reduce the amount of nutrients consumed.

There is also the issue that alcohol can inhibit the ability of immune cells to kill bacteria, again increasing the risk of infection.5

It is recommended that adults consume no more than 14 units of alcohol per week and that these should be spread out over the course of several days. It might also be a good idea to have a few days a week where you abstain from alcohol completely.

5 signs of a weakened immune system

  • Frequent colds and flu
  • Fatigue
  • Long bouts of colds and flu
  • Regular cold sores
  • Wounds that are slow to heal

5. Smoking

Figures show that the number of smokers in the UK is falling.6 This will have a positive effect on the overall health of the nation, as well as on the immune system specifically.

You see, this is another habit that can hamper general immune function. It is also known to affect the balance of the immune system which makes autoimmune disorders more likely.7 These kinds of conditions (which include rheumatoid arthritis) can cause the immune system to mistakenly attack its own tissues and cells, resulting in various symptoms.

The NHS website has some helpful tips for anyone looking to quit smoking, and indeed for anyone who may be suffering the effects of an autoimmune disorder.

References

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361287/ 

2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17524612 
3 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9127011 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4590612/ 
https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1513/pats.200507-065JS 

https://publichealthmatters.blog.gov.uk/2018/07/03/turning-the-tide-on-tobacco-smoking-in-england-hits-a-new-low/ 
7 https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/sgr/50th-anniversary/pdfs/fs_smoking_overall_health_508.pdf 

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