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sick woman at home on couch blowing her nose into a tissue - immune systemA strong immune system is the body’s primary protector against invaders such as the common cold, different flu strains, coronavirus, or other more serious conditions. Unfortunately, many factors compromise the power of this natural defense, including drugs and alcohol.

What Does the Immune System Do?

If it’s been a while since your last biology class, here’s a refresher on immune system function from the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).

The immune system has two parts that work together:

  • The innate immune system, which you have from birth.
  • The adaptive immune system, which your body develops over time through continual exposure to microbes or their released chemicals.

NCBI indicates that these systems have specific work to do so you stay healthy. Here’s the exact definition of their functions:

  • Recognize and neutralize harmful substances from the environment.
  • Fight disease-causing germs (pathogens) such as bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi, and remove them from the body.
  • Fight disease-causing changes in the body, such as cancer cells.

Just as your brain acts as one giant computer constantly processing information, the immune system does the same thing. When your body faces a particular pathogen for the first time, it “stores information about it and how to fight it.” If you come into contact with that germ again, your immune system recognizes it and starts fighting it more quickly. That’s the good news.

Unfortunately, people with autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and even some thyroid conditions experience the opposite effect: the immune system perceives the body as the invader and attacks “healthy, harmless cells” resulting in these and dozens of other autoimmune disorders.

Taking care of your health to maintain balance in the immune system is a top priority. Without its defenses, you’re more likely to get sick, and stay sick longer. Without proper health, a weakened system also makes autoimmune disorders more complicated.

How Alcohol and Drugs Weaken the Immune System

Quite simply, not paying attention to the basic foundational pillars of your health constantly keeps your immune system on high alert. Simple things, such as eating a whole foods diet, exercising regularly, and getting proper sleep provide a big immunity boost.

But even if you do those things, drugs and alcohol wreak havoc on your system in numerous ways.

  • Smoking drugs irritates the lungs and increases the chance of respiratory illnesses, such as pneumonia.
  • Other drugs like meth, speed, and cocaine cause dehydration and exhaustion. When the immune system fights too hard to recalibrate the body after such extremes, it has a harder time warding off infections and other health complications, especially for someone with a chronic health condition already, such as HIV, hepatitis C, or cancer.
  • Heroin interferes with a person’s ability to take care of basic health needs, such as proper meals and rest. Insomnia, in particular, is a major problem that weakens the immune system and also results in a lack of proper nutrition.
  • Prescription drugs, especially sedatives such as sleeping pills and pain relievers like opiates and morphine, suppress “brain-to-body” signals and complicate the immune system’s ability to prevent someone from contracting viruses and infections.
  • According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “Excess alcohol consumption may lead to immune deficiency, causing increased susceptibility to certain diseases. Life-threatening complications of alcoholism such as liver disease and liver failure may have a component of autoimmunity, in which the immune system turns on the body’s own tissues.” Immune deficiency due to alcohol use disorder can also result in some of the autoimmune conditions previously referenced.

Whether you’re new to recovery or seasoned in sobriety, it’s always beneficial to focus on immune health.

Improving Immune Health After Addiction

Medically-supervised detoxification during residential addiction treatment is usually the first step in the gradual process of boosting immunity. The body is an amazing machine, and while some people might need time after detox to manage other withdrawal symptoms, the immune system is ready for a tune-up.

Harvard Medical School recommends the following—most of which you probably already know:

  • Focus on healthy eating. Create a diet rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants through a rainbow of fruits and diverse vegetables, especially leafy greens. Choose lean protein options, “good-for-you” fats, and limit sugar, especially soda. Make certain to stay hydrated, too, with plenty of water each day.
  • Keep moving! Even a walk for 30 minutes a day, five days a week helps, but consider other ways to incorporate strength training, stretching, and other forms of cardio into your routine. Aim for at least 4–5 days a week of moderate exercise.
  • Maintain proper weight. Think about what’s a healthy range for your size, build, and age.
  • Avoid infection. Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, cook meats to the recommended temperature, and use safe cleaning products.
  • Get proper sleep. Up to 70 percent of adult Americans have some type of sleep disorder, so good sleep hygiene is essential to immune health. Most of us need more sleep than we think.
  • Quit smoking. Yep. Living healthfully doesn’t include this habit.
  • Learn to manage stress. Sometimes easier said than done, right? Stress forces your immune system to work twice as hard, so give it a boost with these techniques.

Find additional tips for boosting immune health on the Harvard site.

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