Body & Soul – Turbo-Charge Your Immune System
It’s cold and flu season, and you’re probably already in the habit of washing your hands or using hand sanitizer often and coughing and sneezing into your elbow.
But why stop there? Here are more easy ways to mobilize your immune system’s illness-fighting forces—the T cells, natural killer cells and antibodies that can protect you from illness—this winter and beyond.
Give yourself a shot against illness. Vaccines aren’t just for kids. Adults need them too. In fact, there are 11 vaccine-preventable diseases adults can protect themselves against, such as shingles (for adults 60 and older), hepatitis B (for adults with diabetes or who are at risk for hepatitis B), and measles, mumps, and rubella.
Except for the flu shot, which is recommended yearly for everyone age 19 and older, many of the vaccines require only one or two doses over the course of a lifetime. Protecting yourself safeguards others too.
It’s now recommended that adults, especially those in close contact with infants younger than 12 months, such as parents, grandparents, babysitters, and nannies, get the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccine and a booster every 10 years. For a complete list of the vaccines for adults, visit the CDC at www.cdc.gov/Features/AdultVaccines.
Get some shuteye. Studies suggest that sleep deprivation causes sluggish production of natural killer cells, a type of white blood cell that can obliterate certain microbes and cancer cells. Similarly, a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that catching a cold is more likely if you sleep less than seven hours a night.
All 153 participants in the study were given a solution containing live rhinovirus (a common cold virus). Those who slept eight hours or more each night were three times less likely to catch the cold. If it’s not possible to get a solid eight hours of sleep each night, catch a nap when you can.
Don’t be a fat phobic. A diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish like salmon) may help reduce your body’s production of eicosanoids from omega-6 fatty acids, hormone-like substances that can over-stimulate your immune system, says Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., founder and president of the Center for Genetics, Nutrition, and Health in Washington, D.C.
That might explain why high levels of eicosanoids are associated with autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, diverticulitis, multiple sclerosis, and lupus, which occur when a hyper-alert immune system attacks the body’s own cells as a “foreign invader.”
To up your diet’s omega-3 intake, eat fatty fish at least two times a week, says Simopoulos, echoing the recommendation of the American Heart Association.
Pile on the produce. A healthy diet has the power to prevent heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders, and some forms of cancer.
Only 25 percent of adults and children consume the minimum recommended intakes of vegetables, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. As a general rule, half of your plate should be produce.
“Focus on eating more produce in whatever way it’s convenient for you,” says Marisa Moore, R.D., L.D., a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. Minimize nutrient loss during cooking by steaming or microwaving veggies in a small amount of water until just tender-crisp.
Guard against weight gain. Research shows that obesity may alter your immune-system response.
Add to that the many health risks associated with being overweight (including heart disease, diabetes, and sleep apnea), and avoiding the 20- to 30-pound gain that many adults pack on as they age becomes an important way to safeguard your well-being, says Madelyn H. Fernstrom, Ph.D., founding director of the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
The number you don’t want to hit: a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or higher, which is considered overweight.
Exercise your options. Moderate workouts (like walking or jogging) for at least 30 minutes five or more times a week can increase the circulation of immune-boosting natural killer cells in your body, even when you’re at rest, according to Susanna Cunningham-Rundles, Ph.D., director of the Weill-Cornell Cellular Immunology Laboratory in New York City.
But more isn’t better. The stress of intense exercise (approximately 75 minutes or more at a strenuous pace, or anything that makes you feel as if you’re pushing yourself too hard) may stimulate stress hormones like cortisol, which some studies suggest can suppress natural killer cells.
The upshot? If you’re a long-distance runner or serious athlete, you may be at increased risk for colds and flu.
Take a breather. Evidence suggests that unmanaged stress sets off a chain of hormonal events that can decrease the activity of natural killer cells, says Gailen Marshall, M.D., Ph.D., director of the division of allergy and immunology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Runaway stress can also make you susceptible to colds and aggravate chronic conditions such as asthma and allergies.
“Recognize your limitations and give yourself permission to have time just for you,” Marshall advises. Schedule in at least 20 minutes of daily downtime and find a hobby.
Get more zinc. Beef, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts are excellent sources of zinc, a trace mineral that’s needed to enhance the quality and number of your body’s T cells, your immune system’s front line against viruses and bacteria.
Many older Americans fall short of the daily recommendation for zinc (8 milligrams for women, 11 milligrams for men). So be sure to fill your grocery cart with these zinc all-stars. If you feel a cold coming on, try a zinc-based cold remedy, such as Cold-Eeze.
“It can help boost your immune system to lessen the duration of a cold and severity of symptoms,” says Bob Stout, a pharmacist in Candia, N.H. Cold-Eeze works by sealing the receptors on cells so that cold viruses can’t enter and replicate.
For best results, pop a lozenge or give yourself two spritzes of the oral spray version within 24 to 48 hours of the onset of symptoms.
Don’t go it alone. Can you name someone who’d help you in a pinch? Do you have a confidante? Answering yes puts you at lower risk for illness, particularly heart disease.
Studies show that people who have a diverse social network (including friends, family, coworkers, etc.) have greater resistance to colds too. But don’t just “friend” someone on Facebook. Strengthen your connections by meeting in person occasionally for coffee or a fun night out. BW