8 Signs You Could Have A Weakened Immune System, According To Doctors
In this new age of coronavirus, immunity is certainly top of mind. As it should be—after all, a healthy body is dependent on a strong immune system, which helps us fend off not only viruses like COVID-19 but also pathogenic bacteria and parasites.
While supporting the immune system is important, it raises the question: How do we know if our immune system is lagging in the first place?
Chronic diseases or autoimmune diseases are the most obvious risk factors for impaired immunity. But "there are definitely things lifestyle-wise that can set you up for infection," says Randy Horwitz, M.D., Ph.D., immunologist and medical director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. For the generally healthy population with no underlying medical conditions, these can include an unhealthy diet, a high-stress job or home environment, and poor sleep.
All of these factors, in turn, may lead to physical and even psychological manifestations (think frequently getting sick or feeling chronically overwhelmed and exhausted) that could indicate your immune health is less than ideal.
Below, experts break down these and other warning signs—and how to give your immune system some extra TLC.
Potential signs of a weak immune system.
It's important to keep in mind that the signs and symptoms below are not specific to a weakened immune system—they could also be related to a number of other factors or health conditions. For example, you might get sick all the time because you have a kindergartner who's constantly bringing home nasty germs. Or you might have chronic diarrhea because you keep eating dairy and you're actually lactose intolerant.
But here, experts share insight on how these signs relate to a weakened or taxed immune system, and what you can do about it:
1. You're constantly getting colds, and symptoms last forever.
"For the general population, for people who do get sick more frequently with a cold, or flu, or even pneumonia, it usually means that there's some break down in the immune system," says Heather Moday, M.D., physician and integrative immunologist.
According to the CDC, it's considered normal for adults to get two to three colds per year; and most people recover in seven to 10 days. In healthy people, this is plenty of time for your body to develop antibodies and fight off the disease. But if it takes you longer to recover—or you keep getting colds, sinus infections, ear infections, or really any infection—your immune system is struggling to keep up.
Try this: Whenever you have a persistent infection, head to your doctor to be safe. Also take steps to support your body in as many ways as possible, from reducing stress to getting more sleep to eating a nutritious diet. Certain supplements like zinc, vitamin D, vitamin C, and medicinal mushrooms may also give your immune system the edge it needs, says Moday.
2. You're often exhausted, and your sleep isn't consistent.
If you don't have good sleep hygiene and snag less than eight hours of quality shut-eye per night, you're missing out on some pretty big benefits—and you can pretty much guarantee your immune function isn't optimal.
Melatonin, the hormone your body releases when it gets dark so you get sleepy, is actually a really important immune mediator, too. "It causes certain immune cells to release cytokines, which, in turn, activate immune cells to fight infections," says Moday. "So when we sleep, we often have more recruitment and activity of certain white blood cells like macrophages and neutrophils, and natural killer (NK) cells, which are antiviral and anti-cancer."
Subpar sleep, on the other hand, can suppress the activity of these cells, and "we also see less vigorous antibody responses—we don't make antibodies as well," says Moday.
Try this: Your best bet is to get at least seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Establishing a consistent bedtime routine and minimizing light exposure and screen time in the evenings can be helpful. If you toss and turn at night, consider a magnesium supplement to promote quality sleep.
3. Your stress levels are off the charts.
If your work demands are nuts and you feel perpetually stuck in fight-or-flight mode, chances are high that your chronic stress is messing with your immune system. As with poor sleep, chronic stress can reduce the recruitment and action of certain immune cells and prevent the body from mounting the optimal antibody response, says Moday.
In fact, one study found that students' immunity decreased during a stressful three-day exam period. They produced fewer NK cells and their infection-fighting T-cells were less responsive.
Excessive stress also means excessive levels of the "stress hormone" cortisol are pumping through your system, which "can weaken the immune system by weakening the gut-immune barrier," says Moday. "It does that specifically by lowering an antibody called IgA, which lines all of our mucus layers through the digestive tract and acts as a first line of protection." When this happens, viruses are able to more readily invade through the lining of the intestinal tract.
Try this: If you can't get out of your stressful life situation or job, incorporate a daily habit that requires mindfulness such as meditation, breathwork (try this breathing exercise), or yoga. Getting adequate sleep also goes a long way in reducing stress.
4. You feel depressed or you've recently faced a loss.
Depression and grief are other examples of emotional stressors that can impair immune function. In fact, there's a whole field of immunology called psychoneuroimmunology, which examines the connection between the emotions and the immune system.
"In a famous study, [the researcher] went to people who had just lost their partners or spouses in the hospital and drew their blood, and he showed that extreme grief is linked to an acute drop in immune reactivity," says Horwitz. "So your B-cells and T-cells aren't as responsive in periods of extreme stress and grief."
Try this: Lifestyle factors such as regular exercise and a nutritious diet can help improve mental health and reduce emotional stress, but if you're really struggling, seek out the help of a therapist or other mental health professional.
5. You have chronic diarrhea or other GI problems.
Chronic diarrhea could indicate a weakened immune system for a number of reasons. For one, your diarrhea could potentially be caused by an infection or a parasite—and if you just can't seem to shake it, that might be an indicator your body isn't mounting a strong enough immune response to kill it, says Moday.
Chronic diarrhea could also be caused by a dysbiotic, or imbalanced microbiome, in which certain bacteria proliferate when they shouldn't. This can promote inflammation, reduce the integrity of the gut lining—both of which impair immunity. Think about it: About 70% of the body's immune system tissue is found in the gut, so it makes sense that unhealthy imbalances here would have reverberating effects on overall immunity.
Chronic diarrhea—whatever the cause—can also prevent you from absorbing nutrients. For example, if you're not absorbing enough fat, that could, in turn, prevent you from optimally absorbing fat-soluble nutrients, including vitamin D, that play a key role in immune health.
Try this: Get checked out by your doc to see if you have an infection or parasite (chronic diarrhea always warrants a doctor's visit). You can also support the gut microbiome, and thus overall immune health, by taking a probiotic and eating a wide variety of fiber-rich plant foods—ideally ones that are colorful since polyphenol pigments are helpful to the gut, says Moday.
6. Your diet is high in sugar or refined carbs.
"When you eat a high-carbohydrate diet, or consume refined processed carbs and sugar, you are putting your immune system at a disadvantage," says Ali Miller, R.D., L.D., CDE, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator.
According to Miller—and the scientific research—there are two mechanisms in which the immune system is hindered by blood sugar elevations:
- "When your blood sugar spikes, the function of white blood cells [part of the innate immune system] is reduced, and this affects our immune system's ability to battle pathogens," says Miller. A study in the American Journal of Nutrition found that the effectiveness of white blood cells is at just 50% efficiency after one to two hours of eating sugar, and this effect lasts up to five hours.
- "T-cells, which are the cells that regulate the acquired or learned immune system, are also hindered when insulin levels are elevated in excess," says Miller.
Your weight is another thing to consider—particularly if you fall into the obese category and/or have a high body fat percentage. Adipocytes (or fat cells) are pro-inflammatory and drive insulin resistance, which weakens the immune response.
Try this: Start eating a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet rich in healthy fats, antioxidants, and low in added sugar and refined carbs. The empowering news: You don't need to go on a crash diet or lose crazy amounts of weight to see an immune benefit if you're overweight. "The changes you make now can make quite a rapid impact," says Miller. "Studies support that insulin resistance can start to improve in as little as nine days, so every bite counts."
7. Your skin is often itchy, inflamed, or slow to heal.
The skin is often a window into what's going on in the body—including the immune system, which can regulate inflammation and affect the barrier function and microbiome of the skin.
"Recent research has highlighted that the immune system influences the types of microorganisms that live on your skin and affect your risk for disease," says Keira Barr, M.D., holistic and board-certified dermatologist. "So when the immune system is weakened, it can show up on the skin as eczema; allergic reactions; poor wound healing; bacterial, fungal, and viral infections such as herpes—and, depending on how weak the immune system is, the area affected could be localized or widespread."
Skin symptoms related to the immune system could be manifesting for a number of reasons. For example, a poor diet and stress, which can cause immunosuppression and make your skin more vulnerable to problems, says Barr.
Try this: Address these issues at the skin level and from within. Using gentle, unscented personal care products including cleansers and detergents, and keeping skin moisturized, can help support a healthy skin microbiome. Taking steps to reduce stress and improve your diet will also help support the immune system and boost the skin's ability to be resilient.
8. You've been drinking more alcohol than usual.
If your alcohol consumption has spiked since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, there are more than a few reasons to scale back. But as it relates to immunity, "even if you're not an alcoholic, alcohol actually directly weakens white blood cells," says Moday. "It also causes a lot of inflammation of the gut, which can distress that gut-immune barrier."
Try this: No one's going to tell you not to have a casual glass of wine now and then, but if you've been leaning on alcohol to de-stress (and you certainly wouldn't be alone), consider a healthy stress-busting alternative like full-spectrum hemp extract. And if drinking is more about the ritual, consider sipping on kombucha or a booze-free craft cocktail, instead.
How to support your immune system naturally.
The signs above are some of the more obvious indicators that your immune system may be weak—or that it could be soon. To get it back into fighting shape, the suggested lifestyle changes can make all the difference. Here's a recap, plus a few more ways to support your immune system:
- Aim for at least eight hours of sleep per night.
- Reduce stress through mindfulness practices like deep breathing or yoga.
- Scale back on sugar and refined carbs, and load up on nutrient-dense whole foods—consider making lunch your biggest meal of the day, too.
- If you're always getting sick, give your body extra support in the form of nutrients like vitamin D, vitamin C, zinc, probiotics, and medicinal mushrooms.
- Breathe through your nose instead of your mouth (weird but true!).
- Move your body every day—exercise promotes improved circulation and oxygenation, which helps blood cells do their job.
- Reduce your alcohol intake and find healthier ways to chill, like hemp.
- Manage any underlying health conditions you may have.
Oh, and don't forget to wash your hands! That advice never gets old.
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