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Like any system, your immune system needs balance and harmony to function at its best.
While there is no proven direct link between lifestyle and improved immune performance, researchers are studying the effects of diet, exercise, age, psychological stress, herbal supplements and more on the immune response and preliminary results are beginning to emerge.
According to The Truth About Your Immune System, published by Harvard Health Publications, ‘Your first line of defence is to choose a healthy lifestyle’.
Find sneaky ways to pad your diet with extra wholegrains, wheatgerm, nuts — especially sunflower seeds and almonds — and leafy green vegetables. These foods are rich dietary sources of vitamin E, which scientists at the Agricultural Research Service found may help to reduce the chance of older adults contracting the common cold.
These nourishing foods also benefit the rest of us, including children, so make sure the whole family is eating their greens.
When your body is stressed it releases a hormone into the bloodstream called cortisol. This is known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormone. It has the effect of suppressing other bodily functions until the stress response calms down and cortisol levels return to normal.
As well as slowing your metabolism, the presence of cortisol inhibits your immune system. Chronic stress becomes a problem because it leads to an immune function that is always in a low gear. Identify your own stress triggers and find practical ways to stay calm when you’re under pressure.
We all know exercise makes you feel good, look good and perks you up. But did you know it can stave off a virus too?
Research from the Appalachian State University in North Carolina found that people who walked briskly several times a week reduced the number of sick days they took by about 40%.
‘Regular aerobic exercise, 5 or more days a week for more than 20 minutes a day, rises above all other lifestyle factors in lowering sick days during the winter cold season,’ says Professor Michael Nieman, one of the authors of the study who is an expert on exercise immunology.
However, be careful not to overdo it. Super-strenuous exercise can put the body under stress, leading it to produce more cortisol, which, as we have seen, can lower your immune function once more.
Whistle while you work and always look on the bright side ... not the advice you expect from a health practitioner when you show up with a runny nose. But a positive outlook can strengthen your body’s defences.
Psychological scientists Suzanne Segerstrom of the University of Kentucky and Sandra Sephton of the University of Louisville studied how law students’ expectations about the future affected their immune response. Their conclusion: optimism may be good for your health.
The study interviewed 124 law students 5 times over 6 months to find out how optimistic they were about their studies. Each time their immune response was measured. As their outlook about law school waxed and waned, so did their ability to fight disease.
5. Natural remedies
Garlic and Echinacea have both come up trumps in preliminary studies as immune-boosting warriors.
A study in the Journal of Nutrition says: ‘Currently available data strongly suggest that garlic may be a promising candidate as an immune modifier that maintains the homeostasis of immune function.’
Meanwhile, the College of Family Physicians of Canada’s review of evidence supporting complementary medicine found Echinacea to be ‘most consistently useful’ in combating a cold,being effective in 5 out of 6 trials.
Sound too good to be true? Psychologists at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania have found that people who have sex once or twice a week naturally boost their immune systems.
Scientists measured the levels of immunoglobulin A (igA) in 111 university students. The results showed that participants who had sex less than once a week had a tiny increase in IgA over those who abstained completely. Those who had 1 or 2 sexual encounters each week had a 30% rise in levels. But students who had very frequent sex — 3 times a week or more — had lower IgA levels than the abstainers. So don’t get too excited, tiger.
Did you know if you don’t sleep enough you are more susceptible to viruses?
A study from Carnegie Mellon University, also in Pennsylvania, found that people who sleep fewer than 7 hours a night are nearly 3 times more likely to catch a cold than those who average 8 hours or more. Broken sleepers and those who lie in bed struggling to nod off have an even worse time of it. People who spend more than 8% of their time in bed awake are 5.5 times more likely to get the sniffles than those who sleep through the night.