You do your best to keep yourself as strong and healthy as possible, from filling your plate with organic, antioxidant-rich foods to ensuring you sleep at least 7 hours per night.
And yet, every winter season, you’re still bombarded with a head cold that doesn’t just take the dazzle out of life but floors you.
Sound familiar? You’re not alone. While we may strive for wholesomeness—and check off boxes from stress maintenance to vitamins and supplements—sneaky things can creep into our life that take a huge toll on our immune health: The ability of our body to push out toxins and ward off infections.
Here are five surprising things that may be compromising your immunity—and how to combat them naturally:
1. You’re mourning a breakup
You may have used your recent heartbreak as an excuse to sign up for a dance class, get serious about your diet, and run on the nights you used to spend with your significant other. While all of this is great, your immune health could still be paying for your pain.
According to the National Institutes of Mental Health, grief—from losing a loved one to a pet—may increase the production of certain hormones and nerve chemicals that wreak havoc on your body’s natural defense system, leaving you more susceptible to that stomach bug that’s going around the office.
Do this: Set down that glass of wine. You may think that alcohol will help numb your despair but it might cause a trip to the doctor’s instead: Drinking in excess has long been associated with adverse immune-health effects, and may even up your risk for certain cancers. Try a cup of ginger tea instead. You’ll calm your mind and bolster your overall health.
2. You’re over exercising
Seem impossible? Think again.
While a healthy immune system is dependent upon adequate exercise, over exercising—whether that’s running or vinyasa or weightlifting—can lead to what’s been identified as "overtraining syndrome." As the National Institutes of Health reports, this can put undue stress on your immune system—and weaken its capacity to fight off infection.
Do this: Treat yourself to a bowl of fruit post-moderate workout. Citrus fruits, kiwis and papayas are all rich in vitamin C, which organically facilitates white blood cell production (a key to combatting colds).
3. You haven’t been out in forever
Deadlines at work, errands to run, traffic to get through—by the end of the week, you’re done in and want to socialize with no one else than the cast of The Big Bang Theory.
It’s understandable, to be sure, but extended isolation—and the loneliness that so often arrives with it—can do a number on your immune health.
A study on rats published in the Journal of Neuroimmunology found that “increased anxiety associated with loneliness leads to greater suppression of the immune system and more oxidative stress, or damage caused by free radicals.”
And it isn’t just a cold you might be avoiding by stopping by a co-worker’s desk for a chat: Data shows that the less we interact at home, at work, and in our community, the more prone we’ll be to live shorter lives than our peers.
Do this: In the name of longevity, reach out. You don’t have to plan a night on the town with your pals—or a long lunch with your sibling—in order to experience connection. Even a brief cup of coffee and a warm hug from an old friend will do wonders for your mood and health.
Recently moved to a new town, or going through a transition of some kind? Sign up for a community yoga class, volunteer at your local food bank, or join a book club. You’re bound to meet like-minded souls who share your interests.
4. You sneak a cigarette here and there
A puff on your friend’s smoke at a party, a cigarette after an extremely stressful day—seems like no big deal, right?
Wrong. Nicotine not only boosts cortisol levels (itself a health-wrecker) but it also inhibits both innate and adaptive immune responses, placing you at a higher risk of respiratory infections. (Your brain suffers too: Increasing evidence shows that smoking influences various neurological diseases.)
Do this: Flip to the comedy station on Pandora. Laughing naturally decreases stress hormones associated with lowered immunity and activates good immune cells.
5. You’re always borrowing something
Thank your closest friends for always carrying around an arsenal of goods, but if you’re constantly asking to borrow things from their bags—whether it’s a ballpoint pen or a mint—you’re also increasing your risk of catching a cold.
Why? Germs are readily passed from hand-to-hand contact, including germs that lead to a cold or the flu. This goes for touching public objects, too, whether it’s a doorknob or an ATM.
Do this: Besides ensuring that you’re leaving the house with all that you’ll need for the day—including hand sanitizer—dive into a bowl of buttery clams, or go for crab in your sushi: Shellfish is loaded with zinc, which fosters immune health. Just in case you needed an excuse to splurge on that lobster as you heed #3 and enjoy a sumptuous dinner with a friend.