You can remember a time when you hardly ever got sick. Now, it seems, you pick up every bug that goes around. And you don’t bounce back from illness as quickly as you used to.
Even when you aren’t sick, you don’t feel truly well. You’ve thought about going to your doctor, but you’re not sure how you’d explain how you feel. The only word that comes to mind is blah.
Your doctor has probably heard that word before. It tends to come up in conversations with people whose immune systems are functioning below par. When your immune system isn’t healthy, it has a hard time protecting your body from disease-causing invaders. It can’t keep you optimally well.
Mainstream medicine has traditionally focused on the end result of impaired immunity: treating disease. Alternative medicine, on the other hand, offers numerous effective approaches for strengthening the immune system. And a strong immune system can prevent you from getting sick in the first place.
Your immune system has two main functions, according to Ronald Glaser, Ph.D., vice president for health sciences research at Ohio State University in Columbus. First, it monitors your body for invading microorganisms, which it is able to distinguish from your body’s own tissues. Second, when it identilles anything as threatening, it attempts to destroy the offenders-and usually succeeds.
In the battle for your health, your frontline defenders are your white blood cells. Actually, you have several different kinds of white blood cells: neutrophils, granulocytes, monocytes, and lymphocytes. All of them engulf and devour foreign invaders.
How do they know when to jump into action? They are alerted to the presence of invading microorganisms by chemical messengers called interferons, interleukins, and immunoglobulins. These compounds are released when other cells in your body come under attack-a sort of chemical SOS.
With so many components carrying out so many different tasks, your immune system is a marvel of coordination and efficiency. But it’s also quite fragile. If anyone component fails to do its job properly, the entire system is weakened. That’s when germs get the upper hand.
Many things can impair your immune system. People over 65 generally have reduced immunity responsiveness, and the same goes for people under a lot of stress. Your immune system can also be affected by depression, social isolation, nutritional deficiencies, dieting, lack of exercise, or sleep deprivation.
While many factors can weaken your immune system, you have control over most of them. You can take steps to boost your body’s disease defenses so that you stay healthy-even when those around you get sick.
Prevent disease with produce. “Eat your fruits and vegetables,” says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., chairperson of nutrition and food studies at New York University in New York City. “About one-third of cancers are caused by poor diet-too much fat and too little of the nutrients found mostly in fruits and vegetables that equip the immune system to prevent cancer.”
Master the language of mushrooms. Forget those bland, almost tasteless specimens that you find in the typical mushroom omelet. Your immune system craves exotic mushrooms, notably shiitake, maitake, and reishi. “Shiitake and maitake mushrooms strengthen the immune system,” notes Santa Cruz, California, herbalist Christopher Hobbs, L.Ac., the author of several authoritative herb guides. “Reishi mushrooms build up bone marrow, where white blood cells are made.”
Shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms can be found in most health food stores as well as in a growing number of supermarkets. Use them as you would any mushrooms.
Say yes to yogurt. In Eastern Europe, where yogurt originated, it is revered as
health-enhancing. Now research suggests that it may indeed have immune-enhancing benefits.
At the University of California, Davis, School of Medicine, George Halpern, M.D., of the department of internal medicine, and his colleagues used blood tests to analyze the immune activity of 68 adults between ages 20 and 40. They found that those who ate live-culture yogurt experienced what Dr. Halpern describes as a striking fourfold increase in immunity-enhancing chemicals.
Not all yogurt contains live cultures. To find one that does, read the product labels.
Develop a multi personality. Take a daily multivitamin rather than single-nutrient
supplements, recommends immune system researcher and two-time Nobel Prize nominee Ranjit Chandra, M.D., head of the immunology and allergy departments at Janeway Child Health Center in St. John’s, Newfoundland, in Canada. “If you take certain vitamins and minerals by themselves, levels of others go down,” he explains. “It’s best to get some of everything from a multivitamin/mineral formula.” He adds that multivitamins containing modest amounts of nutrients-up to twice the Daily Values-appear safe even when taken for a long time.
Boost immunity with melatonin. “I’ve been impressed by Italian studies suggesting that the hormone melatonin has immune-enhancing properties,” says Alan P. Brauer, M.D. He recommends taking 3 to 9 milligrams of melatonin before going to bed.
Work out regularly. A great deal of research has shown that as sedentary people become physically active, their immune systems become invigorated. In one study, one group of women took brisk walks for 45 minutes a day, while another did not. After 15 weeks, the exercisers experienced cold symptoms on half as many days.
Exercise also revs up your immune system against some cancers, notably breast and colon cancers. In one large-scale study, Harvard University researchers monitored the health of 47,000 male health professionals for 5 years. Compared with men who were inactive, those who worked out for at least 2 hours a week were 30 percent less likely to develop colon cancer.
How much exercise do you need? Most experts recommend being physically active for at least 30 minutes every day. But talk to your doctor before starting any new exercise program.
Tai Chi and Qigong
Move your whole body. Many studies have shown that tai chi’s graceful, dancelike movements increase vitality, diminish anxiety, elevate mood, burn fat, exercise the heart, increase respiratory efficiency, and promote longevity. All of these benefits add up to improved immune function.
Keep qi in balance. In Asia, qigongthe forerunner of tai chi-has a well-deserved reputation for preventing disease. To test its effectiveness as an immune enhancer, Korean researchers taught qigong exercises to a group of volunteers. Another group didn’t practice qigong. When all of the participants had their immune function evaluated, those who had learned qigong showed greater vitality.
Use your mind to boost your defenses. At Washington State University in Pullman, a team of psychologists showed a video describing the immune system to 65
college students. Then the students were divided into three groups. Those in one group learned to visualize their immune systems growing stronger and then practiced the visualization twice a day. Another group meditated twice a day. The third group did nothing. After a week, the students practicing visualization experienced the greatest increases in white blood cell counts.
Here’s a visualization that you can try on your own. Begin by breathing deeply. Close your eyes. Imagine your immune system as a doorman at a nightclub. As people enter, the doorman sizes them up, letting some right in, asking others for identification, and insisting that anyone acting rowdy, obnoxious, or at all violent leave. Watch the doorman size up a dozen imaginary people. Then look around the club, where all is calm and everyone is having a good time. Open your eyes.
Give your immune system a hand. “We know that massage reduces stress, depression, and social isolation, all of which impair immune response,” says psychologist Tiffany Field, Ph.D., professor of psychology, pediatrics, and psychiatry at the University of Miami School of Medicine. “So it should come as no surprise that massage improves immune function:”
Turn on some tunes. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to give your immune system a boost is to listen to music. In one study, Carl J. Charnetski, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Wilkes University in WilkesBarre, Pennsylvania, measured students’ levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA), a protein that helps defend the body against viral infections, before and after 30 minutes of exposure to various sounds. When the students listened to music, their IgA levels rose 7 to 19 percent. On the other hand, silence actually lowered the students’ IgA levels by 1 percent.
For stronger immunity, mingle. In the late 1970s, David Spiegel, M.D., professor of psychiatry and behavorial sciences and director of the Psychosocial Treatment Laboratory at Stanford University School of Medicine, organized weekly support meetings for a group of women with advanced breast cancer. Another group of women continued receiving standard care. Over the next 10 years, the women who participated in the support group survived twice as long as those who didn’t. “We’re still not certain exactly why social support helps,” Dr. Spiegel says. “But we know that support reduces stress hormones in the blood, and stress hormones suppress immune function. It looks like support helps free the immune system from the harm inflicted by stress.”
In another study of the effect of social support on immune function, Sheldon Cohen, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, asked 276 healthy volunteers to complete surveys about their social ties. Then the volunteers had live cold virus squirted up their noses. Those who were most socially isolated were most likely to develop colds. This finding may come as a surprise, since colds spread from person to person. But as Dr. Cohen notes, the immune boost provided by strong social ties more than compensates for the increased risk of infection created when you’re in the company of others who might have colds.
Depend on echinacea. “Several Western herbs improve immune function;” says James A. Duke, Ph.D. “My favorite is echinacea. There’s a great deal of research showing that echinacea’s immune-stimulating effects help the body fight fungal, bacterial, and viral infections.”
You can buy echinacea tincture in health food stores. Use it according to the directions on the label. “Take echinacea when you are ill and need a quick immune boost. But don’t take it long term,” advises Alan Gaby, M.D. “It’s not a tonic that has a strengthening effect over time. It’s best for treatment, not prevention.”
Take garlic. In addition to being a natural antibiotic, garlic helps strengthen your immune system, Dr. Brauer says. He recommends taking 4 to 12 capsules of deodorized garlic a day. You can buy the capsules in health food stores and many drugstores.
Get adjusted for stronger immunity. At the National College of Chiropractic in Lombard, Illinois, a group of volunteers received either chiropractic spinal manipulation or massagelike soft-tissue manipulation. Blood tests administered before and after treatment showed that both therapies raised the participants’ white blood cell counts, an indicator of immune response. But chiropractic spinal manipulation had a significantly greater effect.
Try an herb from the East. “The Chinese herb astragalus deserves special mention as an immune stimulant,” says Daniel Mowrey, Ph.D., an herb researcher in Salt
Lake City and author of The Scientific Validation of Herbal Medicine. “It has been shown to stimulate T-cell activity.” T-cells are special types of white blood cells that engulf and destroy invading germs. If you want to try astragalus, consult an oriental medicine doctor.