6 Common Threats to the Immune System (and How to Combat Them)

6 Common Threats to the Immune System (and How to Combat Them)
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Written by: Dr. Elena Enioutina of the Health Sciences Advisory Board

The common cold and flu season is coming to the northern hemisphere. This is a good reminder of how important it is to keep your immune system in tip-top shape. In this blog, I will discuss some common threats that affect your ability to fight infections and how to deal with these threats.

The immune system can be divided into two arms: innate immunity and acquired immunity. Innate immunity is your first line of defense that initially fights infections. Innate immunity educates your acquired immune system on how to take care of remaining infections. Your innate immunity also develops memories of invading pathogens.

Your immune system is a complex network of cells that communicate with each other by producing molecules called cytokines. Inflammatory cytokines help fight infection, and anti-inflammatory cytokines stimulate the repair of damaged tissues.

Threats to the Immune System

Many threats can dysregulate immune system function. Among these threats are excessive alcohol and cigarette use, eating too much processed food, viral infections, diseases, and chronic stress. Let's discuss how these threats can affect your immune system and how you can deal with them.

Drinking Alcohol

Heavy alcohol drinkers may experience more heath complications and serious conditions than those who don't drink or only drink occasionally. Heavy drinking definitely affects your immune system. Excessive drinking impairs both the innate and adaptive immune systems. Excessive drinking weakens defenses against infections, predisposes chronic drinkers to infections, and leads to systemic inflammation1.

The use of alcohol by pregnant women can interfere with the fetus' immune system development. Consequently, newborn babies whose mothers consumed alcohol become more susceptible to infections2. It is recommended that pregnant women avoid alcohol.


Smoking compromises the balanced response of the immune system to infections3. Smoking alters the function of adaptive immune system cells like T and B cells. For people who smoke, their T cells produce more inflammatory molecules that can damage organs in their body. Smokers’ B cells also produce fewer antibodies. These antibodies neutralize microbes and help phagocytic cells. You need your B and T cells to work properly, and smoking inhibits their function. Chemicals present in cigarettes may worsen pneumonia, the common cold, flu, and tuberculosis, and smoking also makes these health challenges harder to treat. Smoking also makes people more prone to developing allergic reactions.

Eating Processed Foods

Processed food contains high amounts of unhealthy fats and sugar, which can damage your immune function4,5. Eating too much processed food may cause bacterial imbalance in the gut, which stimulates immune cells to produce inflammatory cytokines, which can cause problems.

Viral Infections

All of us have had viral infections like the common cold, flu, diarrhea, and others. Usually, viral infections are self-limiting, which means the immune system can take care of the infection. Unfortunately, some viruses overstimulate your immune system to produce a lot of inflammatory cytokines. Certain viruses disrupt the cooperative work of innate and adaptive immune systems and cause uncontrolled activation of innate immunity, which can cause potential damage to the lungs, heart, and other organs. Overactive phagocytic cells in the body secrete enormous amounts of inflammatory cytokines to control viral infection. This overproduction of inflammatory molecules is called "inflammatory cascade" or "cytokine storm." A cytokine storm may lead to unnecessary organ damage.

Cell Damage

Similarly, overproduction of inflammatory molecules can happen when a patient has a lot of damaged cells in the body, for example, due to a heart attack6, trauma, or chronic illness. Phagocytic cells usually remove damaged cells and initiate the healing process. In the case of extensive tissue damage, phagocytic cells, upon activation, produce increased amounts of inflammatory molecules that can cause even more damage.


Lastly, I want to discuss stress and its role in harming your immune system7. Stress is a physiological and psychological reaction to challenging situations. During acute stress that lasts a few minutes, your immune system sends immune cells to the blood and prepares the body for potential infection or injury. Chronic stress, similar to acute stress, stimulates immune cells to produce inflammatory molecules. This can last for days or even months. The short-term production of inflammatory molecules leads to bacterial and virus elimination. In contrast, extended production of these molecules results in immune system dysfunction and can worsen many chronic diseases.

How to Build Up Your Immune System

Many immune threats can lead to an imbalanced immune reaction, infection, or cell damage.What can you do about this? Maintain a healthy lifestyle and support your immune system.

Cut Out Alcohol and Smoking

To restore immune balance, stop drinking alcohol or at least limit drinking to a low or moderate level. According to the CDC, this means limiting to two drinks or less a day for men, and one drink or less a day for women. Another good way to support your immune system is to quit smoking. This will restore immune system function and decrease the chance of lung cancer.

Exercise to Reduce Stress

Exercising, walking in the park, or taking a stroll around the block can help fight chronic stress and, therefore, support proper immune function.

Eat Healthy, Immune-Boosting Foods

It is always a good idea to avoid unhealthy food. Certain foods may help control inflammation. Among these foods are fish, vegetables, and olive oil, which are good for your health and immune system.

Practice Good Hygiene

One of the best ways to avoid viral infections is to maintain good personal hygiene, including washing your hands frequently and wearing masks when needed.

Additionally, there are many 4Life® Transfer Factor products that can help you to keep your overall health and immune system balanced by utilizing the power of 4Life Transfer Factor. Check out a few of our favorite 4Life Transfer Factor supplements to support immune system health. Click the links below for more in-depth studies about Transfer Factor and its role in immune system modulation.*

Stay healthy and happy,

Dr. Enioutina



1 How Does Alcohol Consumption Affect the Immune System?
2 Prenatal Alcohol Exposure and the Developing Immune System
3 Smoking and Overall Health
4 Strengthening the Immune System and Reducing Inflammation and Oxidative Stress through Diet and Nutrition
5 Advanced Glycation End Products in Foods and a Practical Guide to Their Reduction in the Diet
6 Unraveling the thread of uncontrolled immune response in COVID-19 and STEMI
7 Stress induced proinflammatory adaptations: Plausible mechanisms for the link between stress and cardiovascular disease

**External links provided in 4Life blog posts are provided strictly as a courtesy to blog readers who may find the linked pages interesting. 4Life is not endorsing these websites or vouching for the accuracy of any information found on these external sites.