Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
Bookmark and Share

Boost your immune system

Fortify your body's defenses with this 8-point plan

You might wonder why a professor of immunology would deliberately place behind his desk a bottle filled with a swirling elixir that lists among its ingredients echinacea, the supposedly immune-boosting wonder tonic. It sits there to illustrate a point. "The human immune system is extraordinarily robust, meaning it isn't easy to push off base," says Andrew Saxon, M.D., who specializes in clinical immunology and allergy at UCLA. "But once it is thrown off base, beware of simple fixes." If a potion that a pimpled clerk in a convenience store rings up along with your Powerball ticket and beef jerky could really fend off a microorganism, the bugs that cause colds would be history by now.

Fad cures will fail, but your factory-installed immune system goes all the way back to the Model T versions of Homo sapiens. And in the intervening millennia, evolutionary fine-tuning produced impressive victories over everything from bubonic plague (a bacterial disease) to the Great Influenza of 1918 (a viral disease). Alas, these were fleeting leads in a race that won't end, short of human extinction—and even something as pesky as a common cold has left us in a dead heat today. "Every time we make a move, the viruses, pathogens, and bacteria think of a countermove," says Hidde Ploegh, Ph.D., a professor of biology at MIT. "And there are some nasty customers in every category."

Indeed. Few are nastier than HIV, which causes an immunological pileup by disarming the very system needed to brake its advance. So, in addition to everything else mentioned below, cover your joystick with a condom before having sex. (But you already knew that.) To keep your immune system fully operational outside of the bedroom—with a tune-up and a power boost for good measure—make sure you can answer in the affirmative the eight questions that follow. Once you can, the bugs will start cruising around in search of easier competition, and you can perform at top speed.

Eat Enough Calories

Why it's important: It takes calories to form antibodies and dispatch them to the front lines when germs invade. When your calorie intake dwindles, your body's priorities become keeping your heart beating and your lungs pumping—the functions needed to survive at that instant—while your immune system is left to operate at a deficit.

The test: "To see if you're consuming enough calories, monitor your body weight (without clothes) on the scale in the morning," says nutritionist Christopher R. Mohr, Ph.D., R.D., owner of Mohr Results. "Unless you're on a weight-loss program, your body weight shouldn't move more than a pound or two in either direction in a given week."

The solution: "If you're losing weight, slowly add some healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and mixed nuts," says Mohr. "If you're gaining, cut back a bit on your portions. Don't skip meals." Either way, dietary variety is vital. In fact, researchers at Colorado State University recently found that even if your consumption of fruits and vegetables is limited, you can boost the health benefits. The easiest way: Make sure there are always at least five different colors of produce in your supermarket shopping cart.

Get Sufficient Rest

Why it's important: Insufficient sleep depresses the immune system, opening the door to colds, upper-respiratory infections, and other nagging ills. You don't have to be wearing an orange jumpsuit and bedding down in Guantánamo, either: A study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that even minor sleep disturbances caused a significant drop in the number of cells whose job is to kill invaders.

The test: Take the self-test in our sleep feature to see if you're getting enough shut-eye. Nodding off during the test is an automatic F.

The solution: Consider your caffeine intake. If it's excessive, it might be not only screwing with your sleep patterns but also sabotaging your immune system. Studies show that caffeine suppresses the functions of key immune agents, such as lymphocytes and T cells. So what's considered "excessive" caffeine? Researchers in Ireland recently concluded that consuming more than 4 cups of regular coffee a day is probably enough to give your immune system an unwelcome jolt.

Consume More Glutamine

Why it's important: Your immune cells treat an amino acid called glutamine as if it's high-test, and sometimes their tanks need topping off. "Glutamine comes from protein foods, and if you're not eating enough of those, your body will borrow from skeletal muscle, especially if you're working out," says Jose Antonio, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., CEO of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. In one study, marathon runners who took glutamine instead of a placebo had less chance of experiencing an upper-respiratory infection after racing.

The test: Are you working out regularly? If so, keep it up—but down some glutamine.

The solution: After exercising, try taking 5 to 15 grams of GNC Pro Performance L-Glutamine. Your white blood cells will thank you. And, for that matter, so will your muscles. When German researchers analyzed a series of muscle biopsies, they discovered that levels of glutamine decreased as the donor's age increased, suggesting that supplementing with the amino acid now may help slow the steady muscle loss that usually occurs along with aging.

Fuel Up Post-Workout

Why it's important: Working out does wonders for your body, but it sends free radicals scurrying around to clean up all that cellular debris. That's also an immune function, so you need to make sure your system has all it needs to stay strong on its other flanks: fighting bacteria and viruses. And the key to this? What you swallow after you sweat. In addition to boosting performance, postworkout nutrition helped stave off illness among Marine recruits in boot camp, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Physiology.

The test: If some or all of the following apply, you're not sleeping enough, eating enough, or both, for the amount of training you're doing:

You're exhausted most of the time, but you have trouble sleeping at night. You're achy all over. You're getting weaker in the gym. You're injuring yourself (sprains, pulled muscles, and so on) frequently in small ways at the gym.

The solution: Your workouts have worn down your immune system. Along with dialing back the frequency and duration of your training sessions, the quickest, easiest, cheapest solution is drinking 17 ounces of chocolate milk as soon as you put that last dumbbell back on the weight rack. A study published recently in the International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism found that it was more effective as a form of postworkout nutrition than Endurox, a popular recovery drink.

Strengthen Your Stomach

Why it's important: A chronically inflamed gut ultimately may play a role in everything from heart disease and cancer to auto-immune disorders—the unfortunate consequences of the immune system running amok and launching unprovoked attacks against healthy tissues. "When you're constantly in a heightened state of immune-function alert, it can have negative consequences for the whole body," says Susan M. Kleiner, Ph.D., R.D., author of The Power Food Nutrition Plan.

The test: Often feel a burning sensation in your stomach? You have either a bad habanero habit or, more likely, an infection.

The solution: Mohr recommends eating a daily helping of one of the yogurts made by Stonyfield Farm. Its offerings help lay down healthy bacteria in the GI tract. And if you do happen to get sick—hospital-stay sick—don't stop spooning down the yogurt. When you go inpatient, you're at risk of being infected by the bacteria Clostridium difficile, which, as its Latin name suggests, is tough to beat. But while antibiotics are often useless, yogurt—specifically the bacteria L. acidophilus—is an antidote.

Protect Your Entry Points

Why it's important: Most of these tips focus on strengthening the host organism (that would be you) and its internal capacity to fight off microorganisms, rather than on the bugs themselves. But you should still keep your mouth, eyes, nose, ears, and other entry points hard to penetrate. Whatever you do, avoid using your own fingers to force bugs into those openings. Don't forget about your skin, either. It's no coincidence that burn victims often die of infection, or that eczema leads to recurring staph infections.

The test: Check your skin for scabs. Think they're healthy, or at least macho? Think of them instead as crack houses for wayward bacteria. "A scab is a bacterial-culture medium," says Dr. Saxon. "With no blood supplying it, the scab cannot be healed by your immune system."

The solution: "A scrape should always receive antibiotic ointment and a bandage and be cleaned up until you have nice pink, healthy tissue," says Dr. Saxon. "That's what we do to people in the hospital."

Here's another skin tip: Don't shake a hand and make a friend if that person has a cold, or you may get one in return. Sounds obvious, but Dr. Saxon sees immunologists at conferences failing to take heed. If you shake a bugged hand by mistake, immediately wash your hands with semisoft natural soap. (Perfumed ones can irritate and actually provoke an immune response, while antibacterial soaps can lead to resistant bacteria over time.)

Keep your fingernails trimmed short, too, and dig them into the bar while washing—most of the pathogens congregate around the nails. Also, your cuticles are designed specifically to keep bacteria out of your body, so if you're in the habit of using them as a snack, opt for a handful of nuts instead.

Drink More

Why it's important: Even overnight, during what amounts to an 8-hour fast, your immune reserves are being drained. Hydration becomes even more important when you're sick. Fluids not only transport nutrients to the illness site, but also take toxins away for disposal.

The test: Check the color of your urine the first time you pee upon waking. Dark yellow? You need more water at night.

The solution: When you wake up, drink water to replenish all the systems that have been active during the night. "Green, black, or white (not herbal) tea is another immune-friendly vehicle for consuming water," says Mohr. He also suggests Tropicana Pure Premium Immunity Defense orange juice. The added zinc and vitamin C won't prevent a cold, but they might decrease the severity and duration of symptoms.

Get a Flu Shot

Why it's important: To boost your immune system, start with lifestyle moves and rely on medical science as needed—like when it's time for a flu shot. "You're priming the immune system for when the real thing shows up by giving it a weakened form of some of the component parts of the virus you'll be exposed to upon infection," says Ploegh. "So it's already making antibodies and mounting the necessary cells to attack anything that might come in."

The test: Shots aren't necessary for everybody, but if you have respiratory problems, heart problems, or asthma, for example, you definitely need protection from something as virulent as the flu.

The solution: If you fall in any of these categories, by all means get inoculated. If you don't, it's still not a bad idea to go for a shot every year or so, just to boost your immunity. The Centers for Disease Control recommends October and November as the best months to get stuck, although studies show that after mid-November, the shots become less effective.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments

Post a comment