During cold and flu season, we are all looking for ways to keep healthy and avoid catching a bug. Getting sick makes us feel miserable and can cause us to lose valuable time, energy, productivity, and even money.

What we need is a strong, germ-fighting, virus-busting immune system; and while there are hosts of products claiming to give us a boost, many are quick fixes. For this reason, we want to focus on the long-term benefits of boosting your immune system through lifestyle. The good news is that this method is simple and effective. The better news is that these changes will pay dividends, not only for your immune system, but for your overall health and longevity as well.

Be Socially Active:

First, let’s take a look at the way other people can effect our immune system. This happens in more ways than you may be aware. Actually, we are not going to talk about the people who sneeze on salad bars or leave the bathroom without washing their hands. Our point is different entirely. Being around people is part of having a healthy immune system.

Social isolation, or what we usually call loneliness, is not just unpleasant, but it is actually linked to poor health. Experts believe these effects may be hard-wired to our genes. When researchers observed the immune systems of people who were socially isolated over time, they were able to identify a distinct, “Fingerprint,” which loneliness has on our genes.[1] Specifically, long periods of social isolation can change the expression of genes controlling inflammation, the immune system, antiviral responses, and antibodies.[2] These changes in genetic expression weaken the body’s ability to fight off sickness.

So while it is reasonable to avoid sick people, humans are meant to be social beings. We need to be involved in the lives of others. We need to focus on having relationships with the people around us, whether it is a large group of people or a few close friends. This will be a benefit to both our physical and emotional health.

Get Some R&R:

Have you ever heard that not getting enough sleep can weaken your immune system? Well, this bit of folk wisdom was recently tested scientifically. A study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine tested the importance of sleep on one’s immune system. In the study, researchers actually dripped drops containing a rhinovirus (the common cold) in the participants’ noses. Talk about exposure! After taking note of who got sick and who didn’t, researchers concluded that getting poor sleep in the weeks before exposure to the common cold was associated with lower resistance to illness.[3],[4]

Like a lack of sleep, chronic stress can weaken your immune system and make you more vulnerable to disease. We are not talking about short-term stress, (which we all experience from time to time,) but stress that lasts for long periods of time or is recurring.[5] Chronic stress causes large volumes of cortisol (the primary stress hormone) to be released into the blood stream. This alters immune system responses and slows many bodily processes. Besides this, long-term overexposure to cortisol increases your risk of numerous health problems.[6]

What we really need are boundaries. We need to set aside time to rest and unwind. Ignore your cellphone and turn your computer off for a while. Spend some quality time laughing or relaxing with your family or friends. At night, set some time aside to reflect on your day, read a book, or spend time in prayer. If feel you don’t have enough time, think of it this way: would you rather spend time resting or recovering from an illness?

Eat More Fruits and Vegetables:

Nowadays, we hear a lot about diet. There is a good reason for this; amongst other things, a healthy diet boosts your immune system. A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition measured the antibody response to a pneumonia vaccine in two groups of people. The first group ate less than two portions of fruits and veggies a day while the second group ate about 4.5. The immune response in the group eating more vegetables was over 50% stronger. The researchers concluded that fruit and vegetable intake was an achievable dietary goal that improved immune system function.[7]

So what’s the moral of the story? Eat fruits and vegetables. Have a salad for dinner a couple times a week or snack on carrots and peppers around lunchtime. Put some fruit in a bowl and snack on it when you are hungry. Even on the go, an apple or banana makes a great snack; it’s God’s version of fast food. For those really looking to boost their immune system, pick up some kale. A study recently found that adding a small amount of kale to your diet (even a few pieces) can quadruple your antibody production.[8],[9]

Get Up and Get Active:

I had a friend who went for a jog every time he was feeling sick. He claimed exercise helped him beat colds. He said exercise, “Burned it out of him”. It turns out there is some truth to this. Exercise helps our immune system in several ways. It boosts the levels of antibodies and white blood cells in the blood stream. This way, our bodies can detect and deal with bacteria or viruses more effectively.[10] Exercise also helps flush bacteria out of our lungs, which decreases your chance of becoming infected from an airborne illness (such as the cold or flu). Another bonus is the fact that exercise slows down the release of stress-related hormones,[11] which, as we discussed above, can lead to an impaired immune system.

The best thing about this is that you don’t need to run 20 miles a week to achieve these benefits. Go for a few 10-minute walks during the day, ride a bike for a half an hour, play racquetball, basketball, or lift weights a few times a week. Exercise will also cause your body to release endorphins, which will improve your mood and help you sleep.

One final thing to remember: diet and exercise are also key in maintaining a healthy body weight, which—not coincidentally—is also a factor in boosting your immune system.

So there you have it, four simple ways to turn your hello kitty immune system into a roaring lion. Look out germs, here we come!

 
[1] Cole, Steve W, Louise C Hawkley, Jesusa M Arevalo, Caroline Y Sung, Robert M Rose, and John T Cacioppo. “Social Regulation of Gene Expression in Human Leukocytes.” Genome Biology 8, no. 9 (2007): R189. doi:10.1186/gb-2007-8-9-r189.

[2] “Why Loneliness Can Be Deadly.” LiveScience.com. Accessed January 8, 2013.

[3] Cohen, Sheldon, William J. Doyle, Cuneyt M. Alper, Denise Janicki-Deverts, and Ronald B. Turner. “Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold.” Archives of Internal Medicine 169, no. 1 (January 12, 2009): 62–67. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2008.505.

[4] “Sleep & Immunity | NutritionFacts.org.”

[5] “Stress Weakens the Immune System.” American Psychological Association.

[6] “Stress: Constant Stress Puts Your Health at Risk.” Mayo Clinic.

[7] Gibson, Andrew, J David Edgar, Charlotte E Neville, Sarah Ecm Gilchrist, Michelle C McKinley, Chris C Patterson, Ian S Young, and Jayne V Woodside. “Effect of Fruit and Vegetable Consumption on Immune Function in Older People: a Randomized Controlled Trial.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96, no. 6 (December 2012): 1429–1436. doi:10.3945/ajcn.112.039057.

[8] Nishi, Kosuke, Ai Kondo, Takeaki Okamoto, Hiroyuki Nakano, Miho Daifuku, Sogo Nishimoto, Kenji Ochi, Terumi Takaoka, and Takuya Sugahara. “Immunostimulatory in Vitro and in Vivo Effects of a Water-soluble Extract from Kale.” Bioscience, Biotechnology, and Biochemistry 75, no. 1 (2011): 40–46.

[9] “Kale and the Immune System | NutritionFacts.org.”

[10] “Exercise and Immunity.” MedlinePlus, May 15, 2012.

[11] Ibid.


About the Author

Jonathan Ewald

“If man thinks about his physical or moral state he usually discovers that he is ill.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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