- Some causes of a weakened immune system are out of our control, like age and autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s.
- However, there are plenty of unhealthy habits — like not getting enough sleep and a poor diet — that can weaken your immune system and leave you more susceptible to infection.
- To give your immune system a boost, make sure you’re eating right, exercising regularly, and controlling stress levels.
- Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
If you’ve been experiencing persistent, recurring infections, you may be suffering from a weak immune system. According to internist Louis Malinow, MD, the most common cause of a weakened immune system is age, but that isn’t the only potential factor.
Malinow says, “A weaker immune system opens the door for a higher likelihood of infection and for cancer.” Thankfully, there are ways to detect and treat a weakened immune system.
What weakens the immune system?
Beyond age, there are many other factors that can lead to a weakened immune system.
“Inadequate sleep is another incredibly common cause of a weakened immune system and even a single terrible night’s sleep impairs immunity,” he says.
However, if you’re young and getting enough sleep but still think you may have a weakened immune system, then here are some other potential reasons:
- An unhealthy lifestyle: Malinow says an unhealthy lifestyle consists of inadequate sleep, activity, and sunlight as well as eating processed foods (instead of whole foods). Healthy foods “have the right ingredients to amplify immune response,” he says, adding, “Alcohol is a direct bone marrow toxin and too much alcohol immediately impairs immune defenses.”
- Medications: Chronic steroid use and other immune suppressant drugs (including Imuran, Plaquenil, and biologic agents) are primary culprits for a weak immune system, says Malinow. These medications are often used to treat autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Crohn’s and therefore should be continued unless instructed otherwise by a healthcare professional.
- Immune system disorders: This is any condition where the immune system is not operating as it should. A person could be born with a weak immune system (otherwise known as primary immune deficiency) or have a condition that weakens the immune system (such as AIDS or leukemia).
- Autoimmune diseases: One type of immune system disorder is autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s, whereby the immune system misidentifies a part of the body as a potential for infection and attacks it. Experts aren’t sure what causes autoimmune diseases, though it is believed to be a combination of genetics and a triggering event.
Signs you have a weakened immune system
Recurrent, prolonged infections: The immune system’s job is to identify, target, and destroy viruses, bacteria, and cells that do not belong in the body. If a person is routinely getting sick, their immune system probably isn’t doing its job. Other causes of recurrent infections may include severe stress or a history of tobacco use.
Persistent fatigue: Research has shown an intricate relationship between the nervous and immune systems. When the immune system is not operating properly, those other systems experience an imbalance which can contribute to chronic fatigue. Other contributors to fatigue may include hormone issues, mental health problems, and heightened stress levels.
Skin rashes and irritation: People often forget that the skin is an organ that interacts with, and relies on, the immune system as much as any other organ would. Weakened immune responses have been associated with a variety of skin conditions, including contact dermatitis (an allergic reaction) and psoriasis (an autoimmune condition). These conditions can also be linked to genetic predispositions.
Stomach issues: A growing body of research has found the immune and gastrointestinal systems to be intricately linked, with a weakened immune system potentially being associated with gut issues such as irritable bowel syndrome. Genetics, certain medications and illnesses, and even recurrent surgeries can all be potential causes of stomach issues as well.
Slow-healing wounds: The immune system plays a key role in wound healing, which is why it’s no surprise that a weakened immune system would be linked to slow-healing wounds. Other causes of delayed wound healing might include low levels of human growth hormone, zinc deficiency, or diabetes.
If you or someone you know is experiencing any of these signs of a weak immune system, a visit to your healthcare professional is warranted.
The immune system plays an important role in your overall health. But a variety of circumstances — from lifestyle choices to medications and health conditions — can weaken it.
The result can be an increase in infections, chronic fatigue, skin rashes and irritation, gastrointestinal distress, and slow-healing wounds — all of which should be signs you should schedule an appointment with a healthcare professional.
Malinow says the best advice he has for improving an already weakened immune system is to: