The single best way to stay healthy is to strengthen your immune system. A strong immune system aggressively fights diseases ranging from common colds to arthritis and cancer. It can even prevent a wide range of ailments particularly heart disease and cancer.
As the number of antibiotic-resistant bacteria increases, a strong immune system is your best defense against illness.
The body’s police force
To help you understand your immune system, think of it as a police force of cells that conducts surveillance missions throughout the body. There are cells of different rank, and each has a different job to do. Like any good militia, all of the immune cells cooperate with each other to identify and arrest “invaders” bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, etc. They also rush to each other’s aid when necessary.
The cells’ marching orders originate in the brain and certain organs, such as the thymus, a gland located behind the breast bone. The thymus acts as a “training school” for immature white blood cells.
Enemy viruses are captured by “field officers” immune cells including T-cells, B cells and protein molecules called antibodies. These immune “officers” communicate by spewing various “messenger” molecules that travel to other “troops” moving throughout your body.
When we don’t have enough immune cells to conquer invading infections, we become ill. We can also become sick when our cells don’t receive the proper messages because the different levels in the cell hierarchy fail to communicate with each other.
In the case of arthritis and other autoimmune diseases, our immune cells mistakenly attack our own cells, causing inflammation and crippling pain. Put differently, the police attack suspects who are really innocent.
Sizing up your immune system
How can you tell if your immune system is dangerously weak?
Although there are numerous expensive tests that are used to diagnose immune deficiency, such specific conditions are rare. Most people have suboptimal immune function because they are run down.
An easier, more affordable way to assist your immune system’s strength is to ask yourself a series of questions…
• Am I constantly fighting bouts of colds
Am I constantly fighting bouts of colds, the flu or bronchitis that last for two or more weeks at a time?
• Am I fatigued throughout the day
Am I fatigued throughout the day or on a regular basis?
• Do I suffer from chronic conditions
Do I suffer from chronic conditions such as allergies, asthma or arthritis?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, your immune system is probably flagging. Consult your doctor but also consider taking several immune-boosting steps.
Strengthening your immunity
• Improve the quality of your diet
High fat diets and a lack of vital nutrients compromise your immune system. That’s because excessive intake of animal fats, such as red meats and whole-fat dairy products, trigger free radicals unstable molecules that can harm immune cells. Eating polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which are found in many snack foods, sauces, margarine and salad dressings, also produces free radicals.
• To lower fat cut back on red meats
Instead, eat skinless chicken, fish and beans, which are excellent sources of protein.
• Use moderate amounts of the safest
Use moderate amounts of the safest oils olive and canola instead of butter and other vegetable oils.
• Eat more vegetables and fruits
Nearly all are fat-free and contain nutrients that boost the immune system, such as vitamins A and C as well as phytochemicals. These compounds are found in plants and can fight disease.
Helpful: To get the proper amount of vitamins in your food each day, doctors advise that you eat a steamed vegetable side dish and a salad that includes dark leafy lettuce, peppers, bean sprouts, radishes and carrots at lunch and dinner. They also suggest you eat two to three pieces of fresh fruit each day.
• Consider a vitamin/mineral supplement
In a study of 96 people at the Memorial University of Newfoundland, some of the participants received a supplement with 18 nutrients while the other group received a pill with only calcium and magnesium in it. Those who received the larger supplement had fewer infections and half the number of sick days compared with others in the study. And blood tests proved they had stronger immune responses to viruses.
Essential: Be sure that any multivitamin and mineral supplement contains the vitamins A, C, D and E, the B vitamins, beta-carotene and the minerals zinc and selenium. Each nutrient plays a role in strengthening your immune system. Consult your doctor or nutritionist for doses.
Important: Avoid mega doses of specific vitamin supplements. Such doses can be dangerous and won’t boost your immune system any more than if you had taken the recommended amount.
• Get into the habit of exercising daily
Regular exercise has been shown to strengthen a particular group of immune cells that kills viruses and cancer cells. Researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health have shown that regular exercise can even prevent breast and gynecologic cancers among women.
Contrary to popular opinion, however, excessive exercise is not necessarily better for you. One study showed that excessive exercise several hours a day of strenuous activity for five or more days a week may actually dampen immunity, making you more susceptible to various ailments.
Do nearly 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, like bicycling, walking, or swimming three to five times every week. If that isn’t possible, try a comfortable walking routine for 15 minutes a day.
• Learn to reduce stress
Learn to reduce stress and control your emotional health. In a famous 1991 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine, scientists at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh injected cold viruses into people and studied their stress levels. The researcher’s discovered that the chance of catching a cold was directly proportional to the amount of stress the volunteers had experienced.
Though most busy people can’t avoid stress entirely, they can protect themselves from becoming consumed by it and learn to manage anxiety and pressure more efficiently. Strategies…
• Write about your anxiety
Holding in negative emotions has been shown to worsen stress levels and weaken immune cells.
James Pennebaker, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, has shown that one can bolster immunity and prevent illness by jotting down thoughts of fear, grief and anger about stressful events both past and present.
Dr. Pennebaker suggests writing about such events for 20 minutes a day without stopping or censoring yourself.
By keeping a stress journal for three or four days, you will train yourself to identify toxic thoughts and unhealthy stress levels. You will develop a private way to release them and avoid letting them build up and aggravate and harm you.
• Teach yourself to be more assertive
Studies show that the patients who beat the odds against cancer and other serious illnesses are often assertive types who stand up for themselves and take charge of their own well-being. Strategies for becoming more assertive…
Use quiet contemplation or meditation to develop an awareness of your needs and rights versus those of everyone else.
Engage in assertive communication in which you clearly state your needs.
Learn to say no. Conquer the habit of saying yes to every request or obligation when your energy is at stake. Remind yourself that your health comes first and taking on too much can risk your immune system.
• Practice relaxation
A study at Ohio State University showed that people who practiced relaxation techniques had stronger immune system cells. Two relaxation techniques that are easy to practice any time of day are meditation and deep breathing.
Useful exercise: Sit in a quiet room. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Say the word om in your mind as you breathe in, and say the word sah as you exhale.
If your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breathing. Allow each exhale to be an opportunity to let go of tensions in your body and mind. Practice this at least once a day for 20 minutes or whenever you feel that stress and tension have risen to an uncomfortable level.