Infections are as inevitable as death and taxes. You spend your first years catching (or being caught by) colds, influenza and strep throat. You sniffle, scratch, cough, vomit, ache, sweat and shiver. Your immune system remembers the microbes it has encountered and protects you the next go around.
At the other end of life, your immune system wearies from years of fighting. In that great expanse of active, productive life in between, you still get colds and flus and “stomach bugs.” You may wonder why you are sick more or less often than the people close to you. The answer is that not all immune systems function alike.
A number of factors affect immune system health. Some you can’t control. Here are ways you can strengthen your immune system.
1. Eat Real Food
Malnutrition impairs immune function. French fries, soft drinks and bourbon don’t build strong white blood cells either. Diets high in fruits, vegetables and nuts promote immune health, presumably because they’re rich in nutrients the immune system requires. Adequate protein intake is also important.
Medicinal mushrooms such as shiitake, maitake and reishi contain beta-glucans (complex carbohydrates) that enhance immune activity against infections and cancer and reduce allergies.
One substance to avoid is simple sugar. Sugary foods and juices may impair immune function.
If you’re a new mother, breast milk provides essential nutrients and immune system components to your developing child. Compared with formula-fed babies, those nourished at the breast have fewer serious infections.
2. Stress Less
When you’re stressed, your adrenal glands churn out epinephrine (aka, adrenaline) and cortisol. While acute stress pumps up the immune system, grinding long-term duress taxes it. For instance, psychological stress raises the risk for the common cold and other viruses. Less often, chronic stress can promote a hyper-reactive immune system and aggravate conditions such as allergies, asthma and autoimmune disease.
3. Move Your Body
Moderate exercise discharges tension and stress and enhances immune function.
4. Sleep Soundly
Sleep is a time when growth-promoting and reparative hormones knit up the ravelled sleeve of daily life. Sleep deprivation activates the stress response, depresses immune function and elevates inflammatory chemicals (which cause you to feel ill).
Chronic sleep deprivation raises the risk of the common cold. Mothers whose small children interrupt their sleep have more respiratory infections.
5. Socialize More
People with richer social lives enjoy better health and longevity than loners do. You may think that the more people you interact with, the more chances you have for picking something up, not so. Researchers blew cold viruses up people’s noses and sent them into the world. Compared with the lone wolves, the social butterflies were less susceptible to developing common colds, and, if they did get sick, they had fewer symptoms for a shorter period of time.
Many of us count furred and feathered companions as friends, and it turns out they do us a world of good. Animals such as dogs and horses get us outside exercising. Stroking an animal stirs feelings of well-being, lowers blood pressure and, according to recent research, boosts the immune system.
6. Make More Love
While having lots of friends is healthy, science also shows that intimate, sexual relationships have immune system perks. A 2004 study shows that the close contact of lovemaking reduces the risk of colds. Couples who had sex once or twice a week had 30 percent more salivary IgA antibody than those who had sex infrequently.
7. Consume Friendly Bacteria
Beneficial microorganisms colonize our intestinal, lower urinary and upper respiratory tracts. They out-compete bad “bugs” and enhance immune function. You can consume such bacteria in the form of live-cultured products such as yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchi. Probiotic supplements may reduce the risk of antibiotic-induced diarrhea, viral diarrhea, vaginitis and respiratory infections.
8. Expose Yourself
Vitamin D plays a number of roles in promoting normal immune function. Vitamin D deficiency correlates with asthma, cancer, several autoimmune diseases, and susceptibility to infection (including viral respiratory infections). One study linked deficiency to a greater likelihood of carrying MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) in the nose.
Because few foods contain much vitamin D, your best bet is to regularly spend short periods of time in the sun (without sunscreen). Guidelines for the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of vitamin D, currently set at 400 IU/day, are being revised. Experts predict that the new RDA will be about 1,000 IU/day (25 ug/day).
9. Choose Vitamin and Mineral Supplements Wisely
Studies link deficiencies of zinc, selenium, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, D and E to reduced immune function. A varied, plant-based diet and a good multivitamin supplement should meet your needs.
10. Familiarize Yourself With Immune-Enhancing Herbs
A long list of medicinal plants contain chemicals that enhance immune system activity, including echinacea, eleuthero (also called Siberian ginseng), ginseng (Asian and American), astragalus, garlic, and shiitake, reishi and maitake mushrooms.
Garlic is the favorite choice of many. In addition to boosting the immune system, it’s anticancer and antimicrobial against a variety of bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Key ingredients don’t survive cooking, so add a clove or two of raw, minced garlic to meals just before serving.