Keeping your immune system strong can keep you from getting sick
Kenneth Ripp, M.D.
It seems to happen about this time every year. Your kids, neighbors, co-workers, and spouse are all sneezing, coughing, and sharing their germs with you. Is it inevitable that you get sick too? The answer can depend on the strength of your immune system.
The immune system is a network of cells and organs that work together to defend the body against illness and disease. Our bodies have the ability to identify when a foreign, infectious particle enters the system. When this happens, the body manufactures antibodies that search and destroy the infectious particles.
In addition to antibodies, the immune system contains a second protective response called the cell-mediated immune system. Immune system cells help the body create a memory of past defense against disease. When that same disease enters the body a second or third time, the immune system cells recognize the pathogen and immediately go to action, snuffing out the intruder cells.
When our immune systems are strong, we are better able to fend off disease. When they are weakened, we are more likely to become sick. Are there ways to keep the immune system running in top condition? The answer is yes.
Most people know that following vaccination recommendations can boost the body's powers against certain diseases, but there are other things that you can do outside of the doctor's office to optimize the powers of your immune system.
One is to reduce stress, which negatively impacts the body's ability to remain healthy. Decrease the stress in your life, and your immune system will benefit. There are many stress-reducing techniques. Meditation, a hot bath, long walk, a few deep breaths, stretching exercises, or even a good hearty laugh all can serve to decrease stress. The key is to find what works for you.
Getting enough sleep each night is another factor that can strengthen the immune system. When your body sleeps, it recoups energy spent during awake hours and repairs damaged cells. When sleep is lacking, these important jobs don't get done, and the immune system suffers. Most people need about eight hours of sleep each night.
In addition to stress and sleep, there is another S that can boost immunity: soap and water. Frequent hand washing keeps pathogens from entering your body, creating less overall stress on your immune system. In general, wash hands after using the bathroom, before eating, and whenever returning home from school, work, shopping etc.
There is a fourth S that can impact your immune system: social relationships. Studies show that having a healthy social support system, especially if it involves close relationships that include frequent physical touching, such as hugs or handshakes, plays a role in keeping the immune system healthy. When positive physical touching occurs, the body increases production of a protein called IGA, which helps the immune system fight infections.
Want to make double sure your body produces enough IGA? Listen to music with your best friend or sweetheart. Like social relationships, music has been shown to boost levels of IGA.
Moderate exercise -- like a 30-minute walk at least four times a week -- also helps us stay well. Too much exercise, on the other hand, will have the opposite effect. Overtraining will actually run down the immune system and make you more susceptible to illness.
Certain foods have a positive influence on the immune system. You mom was right on the mark when she made you homemade chicken soup when you came down with a cold. Studies have shown that chicken soup can increase the powers of your immune system, and help you get well faster if you do have a cold.
Low-fat yogurt also is an immune booster. Researchers believe the beneficial bacterial in the yogurt stimulates the production of substances that help the immune system fight disease.
Other foods that are immune boosters include fruits and vegetables, especially those that are dark green, red, yellow, and blue (as in blueberries). When it comes to protein, choose a diet low in red meat and high in fish content.
Don't wait until you are thirsty to reach for a tall glass of water. Drink plenty throughout the day. Water flushes toxins from your body as it rehydrates you. A typical, healthy adult needs about 64 ounces (eight cups) of water each day. Green tea also is touted for its antioxidant powers, which help the immune system. Try replacing your morning coffee with a cup of green tea.
Certain lifestyle habits and behaviors can actually work to make your immune system stronger, giving your body better defenses against illnesses and disease. Remember the four S's -- reduce stress, get plenty of sleep, use soap and water to wash your hands often, and cultivate positive social relationships. Music, moderate exercise, and a healthy diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and plenty of water help to round out a plan for a strong immune system. Everyone around you may be coughing and spreading germs, but by keeping your immune system in top condition, you can successfully ward of illness this winter.
Dr. Ripp is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.