Keep getting sick? Maybe your immune age is older than you think. Writer Anna Bartter has been exploring how we can slow immunological ageing.
If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that our immune systems are vital. Taking care of our health has never been more at the forefront of our minds, but did you know that your immune system has its own age – and it could be radically different from your actual chronological age.
Commonly thought of as the first line of defence against illness, the human immune system is incredibly complicated. In fact, it’s the second most complex system in the body after the brain.
Dr Jenna Macciochi, tamsulosin hcl drug interactions immunologist and author of Your Blueprint for Strong Immunity and Immunity: The Science of Staying Well, explains: “We often talk about it as though it’s one thing, but the immune system is actually a myriad of different components that all work collaboratively to protect your body.
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“It includes your white blood cells, internal organs like the spleen and lymph nodes, as well as the skin and lining of your gut, and your microbiome.”
We think about the immune system in terms of preventing us getting ill with colds and mild viruses, but Dr Macciochi says that “it’s also our main cancer surveillance system”.
“During Covid, we all learnt that a healthy immunological age is one of the most vital things we can aspire to when it comes to our health. The rate of immunological ageing can vary significantly between people and these differences can start as early as in our 20s.”
Why is immunological ageing important?
At 20, you might be relaxing on a sun lounger, drinking cocktails and socially smoking, but your body is hurtling into old age.
The good news is that with a few simple tweaks, anti-ageing your immune system could be as easy as boosting skin health with a good skincare regimen. We’re all aware of the importance of wearing SPF, but how many of us have actively tried to reduce our immune age?
From our early 20s onwards, our immune system begins to age and deteriorate. Interestingly, studies have shown that our immunological age can differ from our actual age by 10 to 20 years either way.
What ages your immune system?
The rate of ageing is determined by a number of factors including genetics, stress, diet and lifestyle. Dr Macciochi explains: “Even if you’re still fairly young, it doesn’t mean your immune system will act in a corresponding way. Just as a car is more likely to malfunction as it gets older, so too are our immune cells, leaving us less able to fight off infections and increasing our risk of certain cancers.”
As our immune cells age, inflammation in the body increases, putting extra stress on our overall immune function and leaving us prone to infection, something 56-year-old Jacqueline Carson discovered after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2014: “I became so much more aware of my immune system after my cancer diagnosis. I felt guilty that I hadn’t really respected my body before, so once I had recovered physically and emotionally, I put things right. I stopped smoking and drinking, gave up sugar and even retrained as a clinical hypnotherapist which meant I could leave my stressful job.”
Dr Macciochi agrees that the immune system can be triggered by “non-infectious stimuli” such as stress, toxins and pollutants, so going easy on those mojitos and not smoking will all help maintain a healthy functioning line of defence against nasties.
As well as improving her immune health, Carson discovered a host of other benefits in her new-found regimen: “I feel so much better in myself overall. I rarely get ill, even when those around me are ill. My sleep is amazing, and I have so much more energy and zest for life. I feel more alive than I ever did!”
How to de-age your immune system
So, what can we do to anti-age our immune system? Dr Macciochi recommends a “multipronged lifestyle approach”, but if overhauling your whole life sounds like too much, there’s one thing that really is key: exercise.
A 2018 study of 125 cyclists aged 55 to 79 showed that their immune systems were younger than sedentary 20 somethings. Regular exercise – in particular resistance work – meant the cyclists maintained both muscle mass and muscle strength, which, says Dr Macciochi, “are both markers of longevity. When active, muscles produce molecules such as interleukin-7, which act on our thymus gland (the gland which produces immune cells) to mitigate immune ageing”.
Check your vitamins
As far as your immune system is concerned, you really are what you eat. The recommended intake of omega 3 fats, vitamin D and avoiding any nutritional deficiencies are all vital components of a healthy functioning and youthful immune system.
Prioritise sleep and rest
But Dr Macciochi warns “don’t think you can supplement your way out of illness. A balanced diet, lots of movement, consistent quality and quantity of sleep and managing your stress have all been shown scientifically to support immune health”.
Take care of your mental health
Importantly, experts agree that self-compassion and taking care of your mental health has also been shown to support immune health, so if the only change you’re ready to make today is to take the stairs to your hotel room rather than the lift, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just make sure to throw a few mocktails and maybe a dip in the pool into the mix and, most importantly, enjoy.
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