So, you’ve caught your third cold this season and instead of offering sympathy your friend just shakes her head in amazement. “Are you sick again? I never get sick,” she proclaims proudly. Are people like this just lucky or are they doing something right? While a tough immune system may be in part genetic, there’s a lot the average person can do to improve the odds staying healthy. The immune system involves complex functions of the skin, intestines, mucus membranes, and specialized cells, so supporting your body’s defense mechanisms really means keeping the whole body healthy. Despite what supplement makers might want you to think, maintaining a healthy immune system doesn’t require pill-popping and picky eating. The most important factors are simply eating a varied diet of fresh foods, getting adequate rest, and managing stress.
Eating for health
To work properly, the immune system needs a variety of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, and proteins in the correct amounts. Vitamins A, C, E, and B complex and the minerals selenium, zinc, iron, copper are some of the most important for immune health. Because these nutrients work in concert with each other, vitamin pills can’t take the place of fresh, whole foods. It’s not a matter of taking extra doses any one particular vitamin, but of including sufficient amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains in your diet.
While no single food can stave of colds, many foods do contain high concentrations of those nutrients the immune system needs the most. Vitamin C, widely used for cold prevention, can be found not only in citrus fruits, but in chili and sweet peppers (particularly red bell peppers), parsley, broccoli, and cauliflower. Papaya is another good source.
The B complex vitamins are also important for the immune system. Believe it or not, brewer’s yeast is an excellent source of B vitamins and many other valuable nutrients. A tablespoon sprinkled on food is a simple way to raise a meal’s nutritional value. Wheat germ, another great source of B complex vitamins as well as vitamin E, can be used in the same way as brewer’s yeast. Whole oats and barley, wheat bran, and avocados also supply B complex vitamins. For a healthy dose of vitamin A, the next time your in the mood for mashed potatoes, try using sweet potatoes. Other orange/yellow vegetables and fruits such as carrots, butternut squash, peaches, and cantaloupe are also rich in vitamin A.
If you’re looking for an immune-boosting snack, try Brazil nuts. These nuts are one of the best sources of selenium and also contain vitamin E. Cold-pressed oil from wheat germ, soybeans, sunflowers can be used in cooking or on salads for additional vitamin E. Dried apricots, rich in vitamin A, are another good snack choice.
There are also products that suppress the immune system. White sugar is one of the most common culprits. One soft drink contains some 10 teaspoons of sugar-enough to reduce the immune system’s efficiency by over 30 percent for several hours. Coffee, which elevates levels of immune suppressing stress hormones, is another item to avoid. Anyone who smokes has heard plenty about the health hazards of cigarettes, including their impact on immunity. The good news, though, is that the immune system begins to regain its strength within 30 days after you quit smoking.
Herbs and the Immune System
While some herbs do act as general tonics, no single herb can inure you against colds and flu. One group of herbs that does support overall health is the adapogenic group. Adaptogenic herbs such as Siberian ginsing, Rhodiola rosea, and Leuzea carthamoides were first used as folk remedies for long-term illnesses, but their immune enhancing effects have also been demonstrated through decades of clinical research. Licorice root tea, green tea, and rooibus (red) tea also contain substances that support the immune system. While a few cups of tea aren’t going to make you impervious to illness, these teas are better choices than coffee or high-caffeine black tea.
Lifesysle and the Immune System
How you treat your body also affects how often you fall ill. Lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and excessive stress can all increase your susceptibility to illness.
Not getting enough sleep can reduce the effectiveness of your immune system by half. If you aren’t able to get eight hours of sleep a night, try sneaking in fifteen minute naps when you can. In addition, moderate exercise, such as a brisk walk, will pep up your metabolism, which in turn helps your body keep illness away. High-intensity exercise, however, increases the body’s level of stress hormones and can weaken certain components of the immune system.
Finally, finding ways to manage stress is also important for your health. Your thoughts physically affect your nervous system, which interacts with your immune system either to hinder or help it. Under stress, the body releases epinephrine and norepinephrine, chemicals that, after a certain period, suppress the immune system. Psychological stress can literally make you “worried sick” with more than just a headache. Whether you watch a sit-com, work with pottery clay, or mediate, taking just an hour a day to relax can have a positive impact on your health.
Avoiding colds and flu doesn’t require adhering to a strict diet or a regime of vitamin pills. Just eating a variety of fresh, whole foods and treating your body gently by getting adequate rest and exercise may be enough to make sure nex time it’s you saying, “I never get sick.”