Everyone’s been obsessed with immunity for the past several years (for obv reasons). And concerns about immunity are especially relevant to people with obesity—because having excess weight makes you more likely to get infections and not fight off illnesses as effectively as those with a lower body mass index (BMI). You need this internal defense system to protect you from inflammation and diseases. It’s responsible for sensing harmful invaders like toxins, fungi, bacteria and viruses, and other potentially threatening substances—also known as antigens—and getting rid of them. Your immune system also helps remember those bad guys, so if they come around again, it can ramp up its defenses and help eradicate them.
There are many ways in which obesity can impact your immune system. For example, excess weight is known to have a tight-knit association with chronic, low-grade inflammation in the body. And chronic inflammation has been tied to nearly every major disease—including metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. Excess fat may reduce levels of the anti-inflammatory hormone adiponectin and trigger an immune-inflammatory response. (Low levels of adiponectin are linked to obesity, as well.)
Additionally, metabolic inflammation, a systemic type of inflammation known as meta-inflammation, is associated with a constant activation of macrophages—a type of white blood cell that repairs damaged tissues and supports immunity. But let’s back up for a sec. There are two types of inflammation—the short-term kind and the chronic, systemic kind. You can think of it like this: Short-term inflammation is like a small house fire that firefighters (your white blood cells) can quickly put out. It is a completely normal—and needed—inflammatory response to things like a a cold bug or a cut on your finger. On the other hand, systemic inflammation is like having a gas leak in your home. It’s not as obvious, and your white blood cells may spend a lot more time trying to discover and fix the problem. And, here’s what can happen with this constant activation of macrophages: they can change the way they behave depending on what’s going on in your body or environment. This is important because when macrophages don’t behave as they should, it can cause a variety of metabolic disorders—including obesity.
We’ve just hit you with a lot of science. But the takeaway is that there’s pretty clear evidence that obesity is linked to impaired immunity, which may lead to an increased risk of infection and illness. It’s important to note the exact cause of the link between obesity and meta-inflammation is not entirely understood by researchers—since both obesity and the immune system are complex, and your immunity changes over your lifespan. But there are ways you can support your immune system, even if you have excess weight. So let’s get to the goodies.
1. Manage stress
When you’re feeling frazzled, your immune system’s ability to fight off foreign invaders declines. In fact, more than 300 studies show a link between psychological stress and reduced immune system function. Both acute (temporary) and chronic stress can lower your number of natural killer cells (or lymphocytes)—a type kind of white blood cell that, well, kills the bad guys in your system. Think: Pac-man. That’s why you should make stress management a priority. Research shows that meditating, journaling, moving your body, getting outside in nature, and a deep breathing practice are effective strategies for lowering stress. You can also check out these six lifestyle changes to lower cortisol.
2. Eat a healthy diet high in fiber, antioxidants, and polyphenols
A healthy diet supports cell function, including cells in your immune system. There’s strong evidence that undernutrition or malnutrition impairs immunity. For example, diets high in sugar and fat may make you more likely to get sick because they can lead to heightened blood sugar levels or oxidative damage. Oxidative damage is when there’s an excess of free radicals in the body compared to the number of antioxidants. This imbalance makes it more difficult to detoxify cells leading to increased chances of infection. And a risk factor for meta-inflammation includes a sedentary lifestyle and Western-type diet that’s high in sugar and saturated fats and low in dietary fiber, complex carbs, micronutrients, and omega-3 fatty acids. Studies show that diets high in fiber, antioxidants, and polyphenols—from whole foods like fruit and veggies plus protein—help support your immune system functions (and reduce inflammation!). So aim to eat plenty of whole foods (fruits, veggies, and protein) to provide the necessary nutrients to support your immune system.
3. Aim to get 7 to 9 hours of quality sleep each night
In the journal Sleep, a study of 164 healthy adult men and women that measured sleep found that after participants were exposed to a cold virus, those who didn’t get adequate rest (less than seven hours a night) were more likely to get sick than people who got enough shut-eye. When you sleep, your immune system releases cytokines, which help you fight off viruses and other invaders. But lack of rest can have the opposite effect. So aim to get seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night. That’s what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for adults. It’s also an important part of weight care.
4. Get regular exercise, but don’t overdo it
Research shows that movement boosts immune cell activity in the body. A review of studies published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science found that bouts of moderate-to-vigorous aerobic exercise that were less than 60 minutes long boosted levels of several protective immunity cells. Exercise also appears to help reduce inflammation and improve metabolic health. Score! But it’s important not to go overboard because the same review found that heavy exertion (90 minutes or longer of vigorous exercise at a single time) may ding your immune system and lead to an increased risk for upper respiratory infections and inflammation. At Found, we encourage you to focus on any type of movement that you enjoy and to go at your own pace, so it’s easier to make exercise a habit for the long term.
5. Support your gut health
Did you know that most of your immune cells are found in your GI tract? For example, certain cells (called dendritic and M cells) act as immune surveillance in your gut (and trigger immune responses). In contrast, B cells and T cells protect against pathogens; they’re responsible for producing antibodies and immunoglobulin to help the immune system. Your gut microbiome is made up of trillions of microorganisms, which positively or negatively impact your health and immunity, depending on how many of each you have. There’s a lot more to it than that, but W-O-W. Eating a diet high in a variety of plant foods (at least 30 a week) is one way to feed those good gut bugs. And check out these other ways to boost your gut health.
Found is among the largest medically-supported weight care clinics in the country, serving more than 200,000 members to date. To start your journey with Found, take our quiz.