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Five Factors that Affect the Immune System

Posted January 04, 2021

The Immune System's Job: Detect and Destroy

The immune system is designed to detect and destroy foreign invaders inside the body like bacteria and viruses. When working optimally, the immune system can prevent sickness when we’re exposed to germs. Several factors like sleep, diet, stress and hygiene can affect the immune system’s performance, and any offsets in these behaviors can cause havoc on immune function. Often times the impact of these factors go unnoticed, but if you tend to get sick after a big project at work or during finals at school, it’s likely because your immune system has suffered due to stress, lack of sleep, binge eating or unhygienic behaviors.

1. Hand Washing

People tend to overestimate their hygiene. Studies show that only 67% of people wash their hands after using a public restroom, vs. 85% who report washing their hands after public restroom use. 1,2 And even if you do wash your hands, you may not be doing it correctly: Centers for Disease Control recommends 15 seconds of scrubbing your hands with soap, or humming the “Happy Birthday” song TWO TIMES! 1 You should try it - it feels like an eternity when you’re standing in front of a mirror in a public restroom, next to a stranger that you might be trying to avoid talking to.

As you probably know, the restroom isn’t the only place you should be washing your hands. But studies show we do a better job in the restroom, likely due to social pressure and the convenient location of soap and a sink. An even smaller percentage of people report washing their hands after participating in other activities that significantly increase risk of exposure to microbes like petting a dog or cat (42% of people), handling money (27% of people), and coughing or sneezing (39% of people). 2

2. Sleep Cycles

The immune system is influenced by the sleep-wake cycles of our circadian rhythms. Studies suggest that while we’re sleeping we have decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can suppress immune function, and increased signals that activate the immune system. 4 Even though we know that sleep is important, it can be difficult to get enough, especially during busy times of the year. According to a Gallup survey, 56% of adults say they get enough sleep. However, 7 hours is the minimum recommended amount of sleep for adults and only 40% of us are averaging 6.8 hours of sleep per night. 3

3. Nutrients From Food

Everywhere we turn, we see PSAs, news stories and blogs boasting the importance of fruits and vegetables for a plethora of health reasons, and the same applies to immune health. Studies show vitamins C, A, E, B6 and B12 and minerals like iron and zinc are important for the maintenance of immune function, all of which can be found in fruits and veggies. 7 If you’re a clean-eating enthusiast, you’re probably getting enough of these vitamins and minerals, but many of us aren’t. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 4.5 cups of fruit and vegetables per day. 5

4. Cortisol Levels

Another challenge that plagues our immune system is a familiar foe to many of us. STRESS. Hectic work schedules and abundant daily responsibilities can leave us frazzled. Increased levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, makes it difficult for the immune system to function properly. The American Psychological Association reports that 75% of Americans experience moderate to high levels of stress. 8,9 In addition to the direct impact of stress on immune function, unmanaged stress can influence our sleep patterns, our mood, our dietary intake and our physical activity levels. All of these factors are associated with immune system function . 8

5. Supplement Intake

To promote and support healthy behaviors, supplements and fortified foods have been widely used to support immune health. According to Nutraingredients, 29% of supplement users take an immune health product. 11

Beta-glucan is an emerging ingredient in immune health supplements. Beta-glucan is a naturally occurring glucose polymer or insoluble fiber found in cereal grains like oat and barley, certain types of mushrooms, yeast, seaweed, and algae. Although all types of beta-glucan have some health benefit, the beta-glucan found in yeast, mushrooms and algae can provide benefits that support immune health. 10

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1. Control CfD. When & How to Wash Your Hands. In: Control CfD, ed.

2. Interactive H. A survey of hand washing behavior (trended): Prepared for the American Microbiology Society and the American Cleaning Institute. New York, NY: Author. 2010.

3. Jones JM. in U.S., 40% Get Less Than Recommended Amount of Sleep. Gallup News2013.

4. Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archiv. 2012;463(1):121-137.

5. USDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020. In: UDSA, ed. Vol Eighth Edition: USDA and HHS; 2015

6. Control CfD. State Indicator Report on Fruits and Vegetables. In: Promotion NCfCDPaH, ed2013.

7. Gleeson M, Nieman DC, Pedersen BK. Exercise, nutrition and immune function. Journal of sports sciences. 2004;22(1):115-125.

8. Wiegner L, Hange D, Björkelund C, Ahlborg G. Prevalence of perceived stress and associations to symptoms of exhaustion, depression and anxiety in a working age population seeking primary care - an observational study. BMC Family Practice. 2015;16:38.

9. Stress Facts. 2017.

10. Volman JJ, Ramakers JD, Plat J. Dietary modulation of immune function by β-glucans. Physiology & behavior. 2008;94(2):276-284.


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