11 Ways You’re Unknowingly Sabotaging Your Immune System
Sure, germs can make you sick, but it's also how your body responds to them. Our experts say these simple habits can put your health at risk—here's what to watch out for.
Help your body defend itself
Everyone wants to build a strong immune system to fight off infectious diseases. But how? The best way to stay healthy is to remember practical, usually low-cost tips and tricks that help your body defend itself. Here are a few mistakes many of us are making.
You forget that germs are everywhere
Now more than ever, you must avoid touching surfaces that might be contaminated with viruses or bacteria, recommends Sanjai Sinha, MD, Director of the Care Management program at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City. He suggests that it’s smart to wear gloves when touching heavily used surfaces including grocery cart handles, cell phones, elevator buttons, and gas pumps. Avoid touching surfaces in areas where you’re more likely to be exposed, including public restrooms, public transportation, fitness centers, and schools—essentially anywhere there are groups of people who may spread infections. As much as possible, practice social distancing when in public settings.
You don’t wash your hands frequently
Because viruses and bacteria can linger everywhere, you have to be vigilant about keeping your hands clean to prevent infectious diseases, warns Dr. Sinha. Washing your hands frequently with soap and water is the best technique, but if washing facilities are not available, a hand sanitizer can work. Just make sure you aren’t committing any of these common handwashing mistakes.
You fail to take caution while traveling
Although most people aren’t traveling right now, airplanes and hotels challenge your immunity because you’re exposed to more pollutants and infectious organisms. Pre-pandemic, air travel moved three billion passengers annually. It serves as a conduit for infectious disease spread, including emerging infections and pandemics, according to a 2019 article in the journal Microbial Ecology. When airline travel becomes relatively safe again, make sure to bring sanitizing wipes to clean tray tables, seats, and armrests on airplanes. When you arrive at your destination, don’t forget that the remote control, desk, and phone in hotel rooms can expose you to germs. Bring alcohol wipes for these surfaces and practice regular hand washing to help reduce your risk of getting sick. And try these 10 habits doctors use to avoid the cold and flu.
You overdo supplements
Many people are mega-dosing on vitamins and minerals thinking they’ll protect them from infectious diseases like Covid-19. That can backfire, says Seattle based registered dietitian Ginger Hultin, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “While it’s great for people to be focusing on their health, too much of a good thing can be bad for you,” she says. For example, high levels of vitamin C—1,000 milligrams or more a day—can aggravate kidney stones and cause gastrointestinal distress. “People say ‘your body just pees it out,’ but that’s not true,” she adds, noting that very high doses of vitamins and minerals can potentially make you more vulnerable to disease.
You overuse antibiotics
Antibiotics are for bacteria, and they won’t work against colds or flu. The overuse and misuse of antibiotics are key factors contributing to antibiotic resistance, says Dr. Sinha. When antibiotics destroy good bacteria, they can leave your immunity compromised. Research has shown that individuals who take antibiotics for chronic infections are at a greater risk for a weakened immune system.
You drink too much
While there are potential health benefits to the occasional glass of wine or beer, downing a lot of booze can impair your immune system by interfering with the bone marrow’s production of white blood cells. According to a study published in Alcohol Research, alcohol is actually a toxin that promotes pro-inflammatory immune responses, impairs the body’s defenses, and reduces overall healthy functioning. Here are 17 simple ways you can cut back on drinking.
You’re not socializing enough
Even though social distancing is important, people who are lonely for extended periods tend to have a higher risk of disease and changes to the immune system over time. Here’s how to keep isolation from harming your health even when you have to avoid contact with others.
You overdo sweet stuff
A high-sugar diet creates inflammation and prevents your immune system from functioning properly, according to data published in Experimental Cell Research. Sugary drinks should also be avoided, and it’s best to stick to water to meet your hydration needs, notes Hultin. If you get bored with water, try adding a few slices of lemon, lime, or cucumber, she advises. Here are some more reasons to stick with water and avoid soda.
You’re not sleeping well
You know how you feel run down, even sick, when you don’t get enough sleep? It’s not just exhaustion. Research indicates that people who don’t get quality sleep—or fail to get seven to eight hours a night—have a weakened immune system and may be more vulnerable to infections like cold and flu. Use these sleep tips from doctors to get better rest.
You’re not managing stress
Chronic stress can weaken the immune system. Here’s why: When you’re feeling stressed out, your body goes into fight-or-flight mode, releasing hormones and other chemicals that can make your natural defenses go down. Reducing stress in your life, which is easier said than done, can boost your overall health. Check out these 33 ways to manage stress and feel better.
- Sanjai Sinha, MD, Director of the Care Management program at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City
- Microbial Ecology: "The Airplane Cabin Microbiome"
- Ginger Hultin MS, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Pl0S One: "Clinical pattern of antibiotic overuse and misuse in primary healthcare hospitals in the southwest of China"
- Alcohol Research: "Alcohol’s Effect on Host Defense"
- The Journal of Experimental Biology: "Dehydration enhances multiple physiological defense mechanisms in a desert lizard, Heloderma suspectum"
- Experimental Cell Research: "A high-sugar diet affects cellular and humoral immune responses in Drosophila"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Common Colds: Protect Yourself and Others”
- National Foundation for Infectious Diseases: "Coronaviruses"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Show Me the Science - Why Wash Your Hands?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "About Antibiotic Resistance"
- The American Journal of Public Health: “Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "How Covid-19 Spreads"
- American Academy of Family Physicians: "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (Covid-19)"
- International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents: "Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and coronavirus disease-2019 (Covid-19): The epidemic and the challenges"
- Journal of Travel Medicine: "Isolation, quarantine, social distancing and community containment: pivotal role for old-style public health measures in the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Social Distancing, Quarantine, and Isolation"