With cold and flu season firmly upon us, thousands of Americans are looking to boost their immune system to try and gain more immunity to illnesses that cost us all valuable time at work and play every year. Many will turn to herbal and vitamin-loaded supplements, some of which can be pricey and most of which have not been objectively and/or clinically shown to give your immune system a significant boost. Meanwhile, there are other more cost-effective and proven ways to increase your immunity and fight the inevitable cold going around your office or school before you reach for your first tissue. Even better? These ways to strengthen your immune system all improve your health and appearance overall.
A recent study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM) has confirmed what many have observed for years, that people who exercise regularly suffered from significantly fewer upper respiratory illnesses,and when they did get sick they improved more quickly. How exactly physical fitness improves your immune system is unknown. An article on immunity from the Harvard Medical School suggests that some of the benefit may be due to increased circulation, strengthening your immunity by getting nutrients and white blood cells that fight disease to where they are needed more efficiently.
How much exercise do you need? According to the BJSM study, participants who exercised five or more times a week, and said that they “felt fit” reported almost half as many days with illness symptoms than other participants. That’s huge! Given all the other well-known benefits of exercise from weight management to reducing your risk of certain cancers, the appeal of possibly spending fifty percent fewer Saturdays surrounded by cough syrup and tissues or missing fifty percent fewer days at work (here in Seattle at least, sick days were truly meant for sunny Friday afternoons) should finally get you into the gym. What about if your immune system has already let you down? If your symptoms are from the neck up and you don’t feel too poorly, go ahead and work out. If your symptoms are from the neck down, your best bet is to give your body some rest to let the immunity you already have do it’s best.
Popular immune system supplements such as Airborne have been the subject of controversy in the media and successful lawsuits, according to various online sources. While mega-doses of various vitamins and minerals and herbal supplement have not been shown to give you much if any significant immune boost over a balanced diet with healthy levels of nutrients, or even a multi-vitamin, several animal studies have shown that having adequate levels of essential nutrients did significantly affect immune function. The nutrients generally associated with better immunity? According to the Harvard Medical School, selenium, vitamins A, B2, B6, C, D, E, and Zinc have all been shown to either be linked to increased illness when deficient, or to increased immunity when levels are healthy and adequate. But, how do you know you aren’t already getting plenty of one nutrient, or not enough of another?
A great way to see how you’re doing when it comes to getting enough nutrition from your diet to keep your immune system strong, is to track your diet for 3-7 days using an Internet or phone based food diary. Many of these diaries are free, such as www.fitday.com, Calorie Count, and MyNetDiary (my personal favorite) and often you can customize what nutrients the diary tracks for you. These diaries have huge databases of foods so you only have to search, not enter nutrition data yourself. You may be surprised to learn you don’t get nearly enough vitamin D, for example, a very common deficiency. Once you have a good idea how you’re doing, you can adjust your diet accordingly, and/or add a reputable multi-vitamin or specific supplement to your daily routine. If you’re already taking a multi-vitamin, your food diary can help you determine if it’s meeting your needs for a healthy immune system.
The effect of stress on our immune systems is well documented, and one of the most sure-fire ways to strengthen your immunity during flu season is to manage your stress level. According to the Mayo Clinic, the stress hormone cortisol can alter your immune function, leaving you more vulnerable to illnesses like the common cold and flu. Stress can also leave you more susceptible to depression, weight gain, and digestive problems, which can only make you feel worse when your immune response fails to keep you from getting sick.
Different people deal with stress in different ways. Fortunately for our quest to give our immune system an edge, two of the Mayo Clinic’s recommendations are exercise and a healthy diet. Getting enough sleep, taking time to have fun and be social with friends, taking steps to maintain your mental health can also be crucial to keeping stress in check in healthy ways, and your immunity up.
How to boost your immune system : Harvard Health Publications, “The Truth About Your Immune System”, Harvard Health Publications
Physical fitness curbs frequency and severity of colds, study finds,
- David C Nieman,
- Dru A Henson,
- Melanie D Austin,
- Wei Sha,
British Journal of Sports Medicine
Stress: Constant Stress Puts Your Health At Risk – Mayo Clinic, The Mayo Clinic