While human immune system is an integral part of overall health, certain events can elevate its importance in popular discourse. For example, during cold and flu season. Or, as we all know, the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are several “products” touted to improve immunity — but which ones actually work (if any)? Nurses are an excellent resource to consult. As critical healthcare providers, nurses understand how to bolster this defense system, especially given the emergence of new infections and diseases. In programs like the online Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) from the University of Maine at Fort Kent (UMFK), nurses can advance their education and strengthen their skills and knowledge to improve patients’ immune health.

What Exactly Is the Immune System?

The immune system is a complex network of tissues, cells, organs and the substances they produce. It is a remarkable and intricate system that protects against disease-causing microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. This system recognizes foreign substances or microbes entering the body and produces specific defenses to eliminate these invaders.

The immune system comprises two interrelated parts, “the innate, (general) immune system and the adaptive (specialized) immune system,” which perform the following functions:

  • The innate immune system provides the first line of defense against pathogens. It includes physical barriers such as the skin and mucous membranes, chemical barriers like stomach acid and enzymes in tears and sweat, and a variety of immune cells. These include phagocytes that engulf and destroy invaders, and natural killer cells that recognize and kill certain diseased cells.
  • The adaptive immune system, also known as the acquired immune system, comes into play if the innate immune defenses fail to eliminate the invading pathogen. This system is highly specialized and can remember past infections. Such a memory allows the immune system to respond quickly and efficiently to subsequent encounters with the same pathogen.

The immune system is finely tuned to distinguish between self and non-self substances. However, when this system malfunctions, it can lead to various disorders. For instance, if the immune system fails to recognize and combat a pathogen, it can lead to infectious diseases. Conversely, if it overreacts or targets the body’s cells, it can lead to allergic reactions and autoimmune diseases.

What Could Go Wrong (or Right)?

Numerous factors can influence the immune system’s efficiency, from diet and exercise to stress levels and sleep quality. However, there is no definitive way to “boost” the immune system quickly.

A balanced approach focusing on overall wellness is the most effective path to immune health. Nurses can guide patients and communities towards healthier habits, fostering stronger immune systems and, by extension, healthier individuals.

Tips to Optimize Immune Health

A balanced diet plays a vital role in maintaining immune health. According to the CDC, diets rich in fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats provide the necessary nutrients for the immune system to function optimally. Nurses can encourage patients to incorporate these elements into their daily diet, potentially reducing the risk of infections.

Exercise also plays a crucial role in immune health. Regular physical activity can improve cardiovascular health, lower blood pressure, help control body weight and protect against many diseases. Nurses can provide personalized exercise recommendations to patients based on their health status and lifestyle.

Adequate sleep and stress management are additional critical components of immune health. Lack of sleep and high-stress levels can suppress immune functions, leaving individuals more susceptible to infections. Nurses, through their education and training, can equip patients with techniques to manage stress and improve sleep quality — such as mindfulness and good sleep hygiene.

Further, vaccines are a significant component of public health and immune health. Vaccines train the immune system to fight specific pathogens, significantly reducing the risk of severe disease. Nurses play a key role in educating patients about the importance of immunization and dispelling vaccine myths.

Beyond the Bedside: UMFK’s Online RN to BSN Program

The role of a nurse extends beyond the hospital ward. Nurses are educators, community health advocates and crucial components of public health infrastructure. In their positions, they can guide patients and communities to make healthier choices, leading to improved immune function and overall health.

For instance, nurses in UMFK’s online RN to BSN program engage in courses such as Promoting Healthy Communities. Here, they learn about the importance of community health initiatives, including immunization programs, public health education and advocating for health equity policies.

The Health Promotions course emphasizes promoting good health practices among patients and community members. The course explores the “use of evidence-based practice and prominent nursing theories” to help nurses develop “practical and relevant interventions for persons from different socioeconomic, cultural and social backgrounds.” This is important, as many individuals have limited access to care and would benefit from preventative measures to protect their immune health.

Based on preference and flexibility, students can complete this online program in as few as 10 months. This allows motivated RNs to quickly progress to nursing positions requiring more expertise, creating opportunities for higher pay and greater community influence and health outcomes.

Learn more about UMFK’s online RN to BSN program.