10 Ways to Boost Your Immunity
By Eric Schneider
Don’t let sneezes and sniffles knock you off your game.
As predictably as temperatures drop and the cold and flu season sets in, many of us seek out virus-fighting solutions. This annual ritual serves to rally support around our immune system, the incredibly complex biological network that protects us against disease by destroying pathogens that attack the body. While a few of these immune-boosting tips may already be on your cold-weather radar, others may come as a surprise.
1. Exercise Regularly—In Moderation “We get a fraction of the normal, natural movement that we would get if we were in our native state. We have to make that up with exercise,” says J.E. Williams, OMD, FAAIM, an integrative medicine practitioner in Sarasota, Florida, and author of Viral Immunity (Hampton Roads Publishing). “Individuals who complete a moderate amount of physical activity on a daily basis—a minimum of 30 minutes—have a stronger immune system,” says Brian McFarlin, PhD of the University of Houston’s Laboratory of Integrated Physiology. Moderation is the key; McFarlin says that excessive training tends to suppress immunity. Be aware, though, that viruses can build up on fitness equipment in gyms. Walking and bicycling are good options, as is doing yoga at home.
2. Get a Good Night’s Sleep Short-term sleep deprivation can leave you vulnerable to every cold and flu virus that comes along. Len Saputo, MD, co-author of Boosting Immunity: Creating Wellness Naturally (New World Library) and A Return to Healing (Origin Press), says, “If you miss just one night of sleep—about five hours—your natural killer cells, which are what fight your viral infections, go down 30%.” In one study, investigators followed the sleep patterns of 153 healthy men and women who had been exposed to a cold-causing virus. Those who slept for shorter durations before exposure were more susceptible to illness (Archives of Internal Medicine 1/12/09). Williams points out that “if you exercise more, your sleep will be better.”
3. Stay Well Hydrated—Inside and Out Those who get sick will inevitably hear that perennial bit of advice, “Get lots of rest and drink plenty of fluids.” It’s a valid point. “If you get dehydrated, you’re not going to function well at all,” says Saputo. He suggests drinking filtered water, which contains significantly fewer impurities and pollutants. Atmospheric moisture is also an ally in supporting optimal immunity. Particularly during the fall and winter, indoor heating can dry out our mucous membranes, the body’s first line of defense. Williams says that running a humidifier at night can be critical for people who are susceptible to colds and flu, particularly in cold climates and in areas that are typically arid, such as the Southwest.
4. Take Daily Doses of Vitamin D Vitamin D supports the proper functioning of T cells, a key immune-system component (Current Opinion in Gastroenterology 7/15/10). Unfortunately, “we have an epidemic of vitamin D deficiency in this country because nobody is getting into the sun,” Saputo says. “The only time that we can make vitamin D is between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., because that’s when the UVB rays come through.” Since this timeframe is during work hours, which many people spend indoors, our bodies’ vitamin D production capacity goes sorely underused. While spending time in the sun is a good idea if you can manage it, Saputo recommends taking 5,000 IU of vitamin D3 per day as a good alternative.
5. Replenish Your Probiotics Did you know that the digestive system contains approximately 70% of the body’s immune cells? Most people don’t. So it stands to reason that “if the gut isn’t healthy, we’re not going to be healthy,” as Saputo puts it. One way of boosting digestive health is via probiotics, beneficial microbes normally found in a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Saputo suggests making plain yogurt a staple of your diet, particularly brands that contain live cultures and are relatively low in sugar. What’s more, probiotic microor-ganisms are not just found in the large intestine. Some, such as S. salivarius K12, reside in the mouth and nose; this strain produces proteins that appear to target disease-causing bacteria. Some supplements include both intestinal and upper airway probiotics along with prebiotics, or substances that help feed probiotic microbes.
6. Chow Down on Garlic Another edible immune-system booster is garlic. “Garlic is wonderful stuff. It has a direct toxic effect on microbes, and it tends to selectively get those microbes that are bad for us,” Saputo says. Packed with various vitamins and nutrients, garlic also contains the beneficial compounds cysteine and allicin.
While garlic is most potent raw, it is still quite effective when its cloves are roasted, giving it a slightly more subtle flavor and soft texture that makes it perfect for spreading on bread. It can also be consumed in supplement form.
While everyone knows it’s important to eat your fruits and veggies, Williams makes a significant distinction, saying, “Really, we should turn that around. It should be vegetables and fruits.” Many of us get enough fruit in our regular diet. What’s more, many kinds are grown to contain high levels of sugar, making them more appealing but less beneficial to our bodies. Berries, particularly blueberries, are high in antioxidants, making them the preferred immune-boosting choice. With vegetables, you can’t go wrong with varieties that are rich in color, including deep green (such as spinach and broccoli) or bright orange (such as carrots and sweet potatoes). Want to cover your nutritional bases? One study suggests that produce concentrated into supplement form may help reduce cold symptoms (British Journal of Nutrition 8/10).
8. Employ Herbal Remedies The herbs echinacea and goldenseal are often used together. “Echinacea is by far more of an immune booster, and goldenseal is much more of an anti-infective,” Williams says. Commonly used in supplements or teas, this combination is particularly useful after the first sign of a possible cold. Saputo notes that many people take them before illness strikes as a preventative measure. Echinacea and goldenseal aren’t the only herbal virus fighters; one study cited rooibos and black tea for their immune-enhancing qualities (Journal of Immunoassay and Immunochemistry 4/31/10).
9. Wash Your Hands Frequently This would seem to be a no-brainer. Problem is, there are some people who still haven’t gotten the good hygiene message. In a 2009 survey, 55% of the respondents admitted to occasionally rinsing their hands after using a public restroom without using soap. It’s easy for your hands to accumulate microbes throughout the day, so always wash them—with soap—after preparing food (especially raw meat), touching an animal, blowing your nose or changing a diaper. And make sure your kids, who can easily pick up germs at daycare or school, wash up too.
10. Break Out the Botanicals Dozens of different cells and chemicals make up the immune system, each with its own special role to play in fighting off infection. Fortunately, nature has supplied a number of plant-based immune aids. They include arabinogalactan (ARA), a fiber from the Western larch that boosts immune-cell activity; olive leaf, which contains a substance called oleuropein that has shown an ability to overcome many fever-causing microbes, including cold and flu viruses; and andrographis, an herb from India’s Ayurvedic medicine that boosts production of both white blood cells and interferon.