Constantly sick? Recurring infections and fatigue can indicate a weakened immune system. But there are other symptoms.
Find out here which alarm signals you should pay attention to and how you can prepare your immune system for the cold winter months.
How does the immune system work?
The immune system protects the body against pathogens such as viruses, bacteria and fungi, but also against pollutants from the environment and against pathogenic cell changes such as cancer cells. If the immune system recognizes substances as foreign and potentially dangerous, immune cells become active. A distinction is made between the innate immune system and the acquired immune system.
The innate immune system is also known as a non-specific defense system. It generally fights off pathogens with the help of immune cells such as “phagocytes” or “killer cells”. Whenever pollutants or germs that are harmful to health enter the body, be it through the skin, the respiratory tract or the mouth, the immune system becomes active.
The acquired immune system, also called specific immune defense, works closely with the innate immune system. The T cells and B cells of the acquired immune system learn from contact with pathogens and retrieve this knowledge when necessary: When it first comes into contact with pathogens, the acquired immune system forms so-called antibodies, which remember and become active again upon further contact. Both immune systems form a valuable protective shield.
“We become ill when the body is overloaded and does not have the opportunity to regenerate sufficiently,” explains Ingo Froböse, university professor for prevention and rehabilitation in sport at the German Sport University in Cologne . Then the immune system is weakened and pathogens have an easy time of it. The body’s defenses are still active and fight the intruders. “But warding off an infection before symptoms begin – that is no longer so reliable,” says the expert.
What are the symptoms of a weak immune system?
If the body’s own immune system works well, we are healthy and feel fit. The immune system does its job unobtrusively in the background. We don’t realize that it is constantly active and defends the body from pathogens and foreign substances.
Only when the immune system is weakened do we notice various symptoms. It’s not just that we get sick more often and it feels like one infection follows the next. We also generally feel weaker and less productive. Symptoms that may indicate a weak immune system include:
- Tiredness that doesn’t go away even with enough sleep
- Fatigue, physical exhaustion
- Difficulty concentrating
- frequent infections such as colds or gastrointestinal complaints
- long recovery phases after infections
- Fungal diseases
- poorly healing wounds
- frequent herpes infections
- Inflammation in the mouth, such as inflammation of the gums or canker sores
“An unhealthy diet, insufficient sleep, lack of exercise and too much stress are usually the causes of a weakened immune system. “More rarely, diseases such as diabetes mellitus, chronic inflammatory bowel disease, chronic respiratory diseases, cancer or autoimmune diseases weaken the body’s own defenses,” says Froböse.
“The more often we are exposed to pathogens with a weak immune system and the greater the viral or bacterial load, for example, the more likely we are to get sick.”
With these tips you can strengthen your immune system
A healthy lifestyle can contribute a lot to a strong immune system. For sick people, such as those with an autoimmune disease, it is important to treat the disease in order to relieve the burden on the immune system. Some chronic illnesses are only diagnosed because recurring infections and a constant feeling of illness plague those affected. The following seven tips will help winter-proof the immune system:
- Healthy diet: A balanced, wholesome and, if possible, fresh diet provides the body with important vitamins, minerals, trace elements, secondary plant substances, protein and healthy oils, which the body needs for its defense. The Mediterranean diet is recommended, which is based on plenty of vegetables, salad, fruit, legumes, whole grain cereal products, olive oil, fish and a moderate or small amount of dairy products, salt, meat and wine.
- Drink enough: Adequate fluid intake is also important. If the mucous membranes are moist, the defense against pathogens is easier. The German Society for Nutrition e. V. (DGE) recommends a daily fluid intake of 1.5 liters for healthy adults – ideally in the form of water, unsweetened teas and highly diluted juice spritzers. People with cardiovascular diseases or kidney diseases should coordinate their individual drinking quantity with their doctor.
- Keep the intestine healthy: A significant part of our immune system is located in the intestine. A healthy diet strengthens intestinal health and thus also the body’s immune system. However, if there are problems in the intestines, the immune system is often weakened. Digestive problems such as stomach pain, bloating, flatulence, constipation or diarrhea indicate that something is wrong in the intestines. Food intolerances are often the cause. See a doctor if you have persistent digestive problems.
- Sport and exercise: “Physical activity is an important building block for good body defenses. Those who are regularly active are generally less likely to catch colds or at least recover more quickly than inactive people,” says Froböse. “When it comes to sport, the immune system benefits above all from moderate training. Frequent, exhausting sporting stress, on the other hand, can weaken the body and promote infections.” The best place to be active is outdoors. The body can then produce vitamin D with the help of sunlight. The sunshine vitamin is important for the immune system. A vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to infections, as reported by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI).
- Sleep: Sufficient sleep is another important building block for a functioning immune system. Numerous regenerative processes take place during sleep. The coming day shows whether you sleep enough: If you start the day rested and perhaps even wake up before the alarm goes off, you have slept enough. If fatigue and a lack of concentration accompany you throughout the day, you should increase your sleep duration.
- Reduce stress: Prolonged stress weakens the immune system permanently. While acute stress activates the body and makes it ready to defend itself, the flood of stress hormones such as adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol in chronic stress puts a strain on the body’s defenses. Infections are more common in people under constant stress. In addition, in stressful phases you sleep worse and are more likely to lead an unhealthy lifestyle, which is unfavorable for the immune system.
In addition, studies indicate that smokers not only get sick more often, but also have colds that are more severe and last longer than non-smokers. “The ingredients contained in tobacco smoke make the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract more susceptible to pathogens,” says Froböse.Smoking also promotes inflammatory processes in the body, worsens blood circulation and damages the vessels. “For this reason, wounds in smokers usually heal more slowly than in non-smokers. Alcohol also affects the immune system and should therefore only be drunk in moderation.”