Ask The Expert: How To Strengthen Your Immune System

With the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, it’s more important than ever to boost your body’s natural “fighting force”. 

By Sasha Gonzales        26 August 2021

Social distancing, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated aren’t the only ways to stay healthy during the Covid-19 pandemic; it’s also important to look after your immune system. When our immune system is in excellent shape, we don’t just have a better chance of staving off infections; if we do fall sick, our symptoms are less likely to be severe and we tend to heal faster from the infection or disease. 

Dr Chen Yiming, Medical Director of Vitacare Family Clinics and Founder of fitivate.com, explains how our immune system works and shares some tips for keeping it healthy.

Q: What exactly is our immune system?

Dr Chen: This complex system protects us from invading, disease-causing bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. We have all have “soldier” cells that serve various specific functions. The neutrophils and macrophages, for instance, patrol our body and destroy harmful bacteria, while the B and T lymphocytes identify viruses that enter the body and release antibodies to help destroy these viruses. We also have T lymphocyte cells called Regulatory T cells that can suppress the immune system when needed. 

Gut health is important for a healthy immune system. We all have both beneficial and harmful bacteria living in our gut. When more beneficial bacteria are present in our gut, our immune system works better at fighting off the harmful ones.  

Q: What are some signs of a healthy immune system?

Dr Chen: There’s no way to measure how healthy your immune system is, but you can assume that your immunity isn’t very strong if you’re constantly falling sick or always feeling lethargic. Conversely, if you have a lot of energy, feel good most of the time and rarely fall ill, then you probably have a healthy immune system.

Q: What might weaken our immune system?

Dr Chen: Getting older, and taking certain medications like steroids and chemotherapy drugs may suppress our immune system. Some lifestyle factors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, not getting enough quality sleep, chronic stress, a poor diet and a lack of exercise, can compromise the health of your immune system, too. 

Q: How does diet play a part in maintaining a healthy immune system?

Dr Chen: Studies have shown that adequate protein is crucial for optimal antibody production. Vitamins A, C and E, zinc, carotenoids and polyphenols also have immunity-boosting effects. These micronutrients can be found in abundance in vegetables and fruit, particularly colourful ones like berries, peppers, tomatoes and grapes. I recommend a balanced diet made up of a variety of fresh produce, especially bright-coloured fruits and veggies.

Q: How does long-term stress weaken our immunity?

Dr Chen: Studies have found that chronic stress – stress that plays out over months or years – may suppress our immune system. How this happens is quite complex and not very well understood, but it’s clear that stress isn’t good for our immunity as a whole.

Q: Can good hygiene practices keep our immune system healthy?

Dr Chen: Since the pandemic began, we’ve become more aware of how good hygiene practices can help prevent the transmission of diseases, such as those borne by viruses. 

We contract most of our viral and bacterial infections through three main methods – eating, breathing and sexual activities. Pathogens have a high chance of entering the body through these daily activities. 

As such, good hygiene is a must. It’ll reduce your risk of catching an infection and thus, keep your immune system healthy. You can maintain proper hygiene by: 

– Washing your hands often throughout the day, especially before and after meals, before and after touching your face, and after using the toilet.

– Wearing a mask if you have an upper respiratory tract infection (this applies in pre- and post-Covid-19 pandemic periods only). Make sure the mask covers your nose and mouth.

– Not sharing food and utensils if you are unwell

– Keeping to a single sexual partner

Note: Please consult a medical professional if you have questions about boosting your immune system.

How do you boost your immune system? Share your tips with us at magnsman@sph.com.sg!