It’s getting to be that time of year when its more likely to catch the common cold or the flu virus. Why is that? With the change of seasons and the quickly approaching holidays, family expectations and never ending to-do lists, we become more susceptible to illnesses as we burn the candle at both ends, attempting to get more done with the same number of hours we had during the summer months. How can we boost our immune system to avoid illness for ourselves and our families this season? We could just take a plethora of supplements purported to boost our immunity and hope that it get us through the season so we can keep plugging along.
And we’ll still get sick.
Unfortunately, our immune system doesn’t quite work that way. Throwing a bunch of herbs and supplements at it may help, but there’s more to the story. Our immune system is a complex and multifaceted system that is continually working in the background as we go along with our lives and plays a major role in our overall health.
Building and sustaining an effective immune system is essential for avoiding disease. While there are many factors that affect this system, stress can be a key component in the body’s ability to fight disease. Stress increases corticosteroid and catecholamine levels, as well as inflammatory cytokines which leads to the suppression of the immune system leaving the host susceptible to infection, carcinogenic illness and altered adrenal responses. Numerous clinical studies have repeatedly shown that immune suppression is proportional to the level of emotional and physical stress which leads to poor health and significant disease. To counteract the effects of stress, it has been well documented that maintaining a positive attitude, employing stress reduction techniques (yoga, meditation, time in nature), laughter and guided imagery can be greatly effective (1).
Improved immune function and natural killer cell activity increase when healthy life habits are practiced. These include not smoking, increasing green vegetable intake, regular meals, maintaining a normal body weight, at least seven hours of sleep per night, a vegetarian diet and regular exercise (2). Adequate hours of sleep is essential as immune function can greatly deteriorate with sleep deprivation.
Nutrition is also a crucial factor in supporting the immune system. Nutrient deficiency, excess sugar and allergenic food intake and increased cholesterol levels have negative effects and compromise the immune system, while adequate consumption of essential nutrients, antioxidants, carotenes and flavonoids can greatly improve immune function. A healthy and immune supportive diet includes whole and natural foods such as fruits, vegetables, grains, beans, seeds and nuts, without added sugars and excess fats. High quality protein should be consumed in adequate rather than excessive amounts. Sometimes, however, certain minerals and vitamins are lacking and a high-potency supplement may be required (2).
Nutrient deficiency that leads to suppressed immune function is related to decreased intake of vitamin A and carotenes, vitamin C, D, E, pyridoxine, folic acid and vitamin B12. Additionally, minerals that play an important role in immune dysfunction are iron and trace minerals such as zinc and selenium. Zinc supplementation can be especially important for the elderly.
When restoring a depressed immune system back to health, stimulating thymus function can be very effective. Increasing nutrients such as antioxidants (carotenes, vitamin C, E, zinc and selenium) help to protect the thymus from damage and oxidation caused by stress, chronic illness, radiation and infections. Herbs that can be supportive include elderberry, echinacea, astragalus, and medicinal mushrooms such as maitake, shiitake, and reishi. While these won’t cure an acute viral infection, they will shorten the duration and lessen the severity of symptoms, helping us get back on our feet and feeling better sooner. If taken proactively during times of high stress, these herbs can help us move avoid infection altogether.
So what’s the bottom line? Eat a healthy diet, free of processed foods that include a generous amount of green vegetables, don’t smoke, get plenty of sleep, exercise and maybe throw in a few supportive herbs for good measure.
(1) MacDonald, C. (2004).A chuckle a day keeps the doctor away: therapeutic humor and laughter. J Psychosoc Nurs Ment Health Serv. 42(3):18-25.
(2) Pizzorno J. E. & Murray, M. T. (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine (4th. ed.). St. Louis, MO: Churchill Livingstone.
(3) Slavich, George M. Life Stress and Health: A Review of Conceptual Issues and Recent Findings. Teaching of psychology (Columbia, Mo.) 43.4 (2016): 346–355. PMC. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.