Habits that Wreak Havoc on Your Immune System—and What to Do Instead

In a perfect world, we’d all make healthy choices all the time. But we don’t live in a perfect world—and for many of us, our habits don’t always contribute to our health. In fact, many of our habits can actually harm our health—and, more specifically, wreak havoc on our immune system. And while supporting immune function is always important, it’s especially important now.

So, the question is, what are some of the habits we’re partaking in every day that are having a negative impact on our immune systems—and what should we do instead to support our immune function and make healthier choices?

The Habit that Wreaks Havoc: Eating in Front of the TV 

Are you the kind of person who, in an effort to multitask, eats their meals in front of the TV while they catch up on the day’s news? If so, you may want to rethink your dining habits.

There are a lot of stressful things going on in the world—and consuming that stress while you consume your meal isn’t doing your immune system (or your digestive system) any favors. “So many people have the TV or other media on in the background while they are eating, much of which creates stress,” says Functional Medicine Certified Health Coach Jane Hogan. “This keeps the autonomic nervous system in a state of fight-or-flight—hampering digestion and deactivating the immune system.”

What to do instead: Practice mindful eating. Take the time to enjoy your meal mindfully. Turn off the TV, sit at the table, and be present while you eat your food. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to lower stress—which, over time, can help support a healthy immune system, get better sleep, help make progress toward your weight goals, and more

The Habit that Wreaks Havoc: Not Getting Enough Exercise

Exercise is hugely important to support a healthy immune function—but many of us aren’t getting our workouts in on a consistent enough basis. “Most of us do not get enough exercise,” says Maria N. Vila, DO, a board-certified physician and medical advisor for eMediHealth. And especially during the pandemic, many of us are moving less; but that doesn’t mean we should beat ourselves up over it. 

What to do instead: Make exercise a priority. If you want to support healthy immune function, try to make exercise a habit. How you exercise is up to you; you can lace up your shoes for a run, hit your mat for a yoga session, or do some bodyweight exercises in your backyard—just make sure you’re working enough workouts into your schedule to support your health and immune function. “The recommended amount of exercise [from the American Heart Association]…is 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly or 75 minutes of vigorous activity weekly,” says Vila. That means a 25-minute jog three times a week. Or, if you’re not into running, you can take a 20-minute “sanity walk” around the block seven times a week.

The Habit that Wreaks Havoc: Getting Your Sweat On Even When You’re Not Feeling Well

Exercising regularly is a must for supporting optimal immune function—but the opposite can be true when you’re feeling under the weather. “One of the worst things I see people do is working out while they’re unwell,” says Brendan Lee, coach, Ironman triathlete, and editor at The Fit Brit. “Often we consider it some kind of victory if we get to the gym even if we’re not feeling well, but exercise is the last thing your immune system wants [when you’re sick].

When you’re sick, your body needs energy to fight the illness. But if you spend your energy going for a run or doing a HIIT workout on YouTube, your body is going to have less energy to combat the illness—and it’s going to be harder to recover.

What to do instead: Rest! If you’re feeling under the weather, give your body the time it needs to heal. “Illness is your body telling you to rest,” says Lee. “Make sure you listen!”

The Habit that Wreaks Havoc: Scrolling through Social Media Before Bed

Getting proper sleep plays a huge role in immune function. But if you’re spending the hours before bed scrolling through social media on your phone or watching videos on your laptop, you’re not going to be able to catch the Zzz’s you need for your immune system to function at a high level.

“The blue light emanating from screens tricks the brain into thinking it’s still daytime, messing with the natural circadian rhythm, hampering the production of melatonin and ultimately adversely affecting sleep,” says Hogan. “Without sufficient sleep, the body makes fewer cytokines, a type of protein that targets infection and inflammation, effectively creating an immune response.”

What to do instead: Ban screens from the bedroom. If you don’t want screens to mess with your sleep schedule, plan to turn them off at least an hour before bedtime—and if you don’t want to be tempted (“just one more email!”), try banning electronic devices from your bedroom altogether.

The Habit that Wreaks Havoc: Taking “Shortcuts” for Your Health (While Ignoring Your Diet)

There’s nothing wrong with taking vitamins or supplements to support your immune system. But if you’re taking that vitamin or supplement as a kind of “shortcut” to compensate for a less-than-ideal diet, you’re not going to get the immunity-boosting benefits you’re looking for.

“You can’t out-supplement a poor diet,” says Laura DeCesaris, DC, MSACN, IFMCP, and founder of Heartroot Health and Wellness. “If you’re eating the Standard American diet—which is generally full of inflammatory processed foods, added sugar, and way too many unhealthy fats and carbohydrates—taking an ‘immune-boosting’ supplement without first improving your regimen will generally not be helpful.”

What to do instead: Eat foods that support your immune system. “Focus on a balanced, anti-inflammatory eating style, rich in whole foods and low in processed junk food,” says DeCesaris.

Incorporate nutrient-dense, immunity-supporting foods (including fruits, veggies, and healthy fats) into every meal—and swap out your processed snacks for healthier options, like almonds or blueberries.

If you’ve struggled to adopt a healthier diet in the past, no worries! Just take things one step at a time. 

“The best way to adopt a newer diet regimen is to start small but plan big,” Dr. Tina Gupta, co-founder of health and wellness website The Lifestyle Cure. “Try reducing the number of processed goods that you eat and slowly start to replace them with nutrient-dense food like vegetables and fruits. The nutrients within these substances will naturally enhance the immune system and provide you with the protection that you need.”

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