Spend 15 minutes a day on Facebook and you might prevent a cold.
Watch South Park regularly and you might have fewer sick days. Curious how that works? The answer lies within you, deep within your physiology, with a series of cells, tissues and organs that work together and shoot down millions of pathogens that would do you harm.
You guessed it. We must be talking about the immune system – a wonder of nature that works behind the scenes to keep you safe. It’s not unlike your body’s own version of the Pentagon in that it’s always open and upgrading its ability to stay on top of things. But sometimes it falters, and the bad guys get through.
You can help your immune system by living well. Stress is bad, humour is good – hence the South Park reference, along with immune-boosting foods and other healthy habits that should keep your body’s natural defense system sharp and firing on all cylinders. We’ll get to that.
A remarkable system of checks and balances, the immune system is a series of biological structures and processes that protect the body from harmful agents, called pathogens.
Think of what happens to an organism when it dies. The immune system shuts down, along with every other function in the body, and decomposition begins within several hours, with bacteria, microbes and parasites that enter and break the body down. That doesn’t happen while you’re alive because the immune system is exceptionally good at keeping you safe, and shutting them out.
To be effective, the immune system must distinguish between the body’s healthy tissue and millions of pathogens, which can be anything from fungi to viruses and even parisitic worms. Pathogens are everywhere – from doorknobs to your keyboard and the air around you.
Watermelon is high in a powerful antioxidant called glutathione, which is known to bolster the immune system and fight off sickness. You’ll find the highest levels of this awesome immune-booster near the rind.
The immune system creates a barrier to these bad guys, and produces white blood cells, chemicals and proteins to destroy the ones that slip through. If that fails, it gets aggressive, with further tools that help it prevent ailments ranging from cancer to the common cold. And your body gives the immune system a blank cheque – to do whatever it feels necessary – to keep you healthy and functioning.
Of course, people get sick. The immune system can misfire, like when it mistakes harmless agents like pollen and pet dander and steps up to destroy them with allergic reactions. As well, the immune system weakens with age. Older folks are more likely to get sick than young people, for example, and they’re at higher risk of fatal infections.
While controversial, a new study conducted at the University of Southern California has raised eyebrows in the health community. The findings suggest that fasting for three days helps to flush out and regenerate the immune system, with new white blood cells to help it start over.
We generally don’t recommend fasting here at Natural Health Source because it starves the body of basic nutrition. Still, it’s an interesting turn. The researchers claim that short-term fasting ‘flips a regenerative switch’ that tells stem cells to produce white blood cells – leading some to say that short-term fasting can literally restart the immune system,
In the study, researchers had volunteers fast regularly between two and four days over six months. Scientists found this broke down a substantial amount of white blood cells, along with an enzyme called PKA, which is linked to aging, and a hormone that increases tumor growth and risk of cancer.
The researchers claim that contrary to long-held belief, there is no evidence that short-term fasting is bad for health, and much, strong evidence showing it has beneficial effects. A stronger, more resilient immune system might be among them, though you’ll want to speak with your doctor before going this route.
From famine to feast, the immune system needs the vitamins and minerals from a healthy diet to properly function. You’ve got a head start if you already eat a balanced diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables. If you don’t, add these immune-boosting foods to your plate and your immune system will thank you:
Elderberry – Blueberries get the spotlight. But elderberries are no slouches in the nutrition department either, as noted with studies that show their active ingredient appears to block the flu virus. Rich in antioxidants, elderberries may reduce inflammation.
Button Mushrooms – Long believed to prevent cancer, mushrooms – specifically button mushrooms – are high in selenium, antioxidants, niacin and riboflavin. Low levels of selenium are linked to severe flu, and the latter two nutrients encourage health of the immune system.
Grapefruit – It’s hard to go wrong with grapefruit, thanks in large part to an abundance of flavonoids – chemical compounds shown to activate the immune system. There’s plenty of cold-busting vitamin C here too.
Acai Berry – Another berry makes the list of immune-boosting foods. Acai berry’s dark hue give off its high levels of antioxidants called anthocyanins, believed to fight disease and the effects of aging.
Oysters – They’re good for your sex drive, but they’re grand for your immune system. Oysters are rich in zinc, which helps male fertility. Turns out that zinc has antiviral properties too, and appears to assist with wound-healing.
Watermelon – One of the best ways to beat the summer heat, watermelon is high in a powerful antioxidant called glutathione, which is known to bolster the immune system and fight off sickness. You’ll find the highest levels of this awesome immune-booster near the rind.
Cabbage – With a hefty dose of immune-friendly glutamine, cabbage is as nutritious as is it varied – Chinese cabbage was recently named the second-healthiest vegetable out there. It’s inexpensive too, and an excellent source of antioxidants in the doldrums of winter.
Almonds – Almonds are a natural stress-buster. Just ¼ cup of them provides 50% of your recommended vitamin E for the day, along with a good dose of niacin and B vitamins to shatter the effects of stress on your body.
Wheat Germ – The part of a wheat plant that feeds the seed, wheat germ is high in zinc, B vitamins, antioxidants and other nutrients that keep the immune system on its tippy-toes.
Low Fat Yogurt – Low-fat yogurt might help you fight off a cold. Thank probiotics, identified as “live active cultures” on the label, for that and their immune-boosting properties. You’ll also find vitamin D in low-fat yogurt, which might help ward off the flu.
Garlic – Vampires run when they see garlic. So do many pathogens, including H Pylori – a nasty bacteria linked to ulcers and stomach cancer.
Spinach – A perrenial contender on any list of superfoods, spinach was recently named one of the ten healthiest vegetables for its high nutrient density. That’s good news for your immune system because it’s rich in cell-reproducing folate along with fiber, antioxidants and vitamin C.
Tea – Maybe it’s the combination of antioxidants, flavonoids and illness-busting polyphenols, but tea continues to pop up among best foods for the body. It’s magic for the immune system too, thanks to those antioxidants, which protect against cell damage from free radicals.
Sweet Potato – One of the best foods that make hair grow, sweet potatoes are high in beta-carotene, which paints a bulls-eye on those same free radicals and provides a good dose of vitamin A. The latter slows the aging process and may protect against some cancers.
Broccoli – Another healthy green vegetable, studies on mice show broccoli has a chemical that helps the immune system. Now add vitamins A, B, C and D to the mix and you’ve got one of the best foods for the immune system.
What goes on your plate helps your immune system do its job. How you live is another matter and can either hurt or help your body and your chance to have fewer sick days. Live by the following habits and you’ll definitely feel better.
Sleep Well – Ever noticed how you tend to get a cold or infection when you’re not getting enough shut-eye? A study conducted at the University of Chicago found that students who got four hours of sleep nightly for six nights produced only half the normal amount of antibodies when given a flu vaccine.
Lack of sleep can also lead to higher levels of a stress hormone and cause inflammation.
While some adults might get away with less (the lady who owns the cafe I frequent at lunch claims she just needs four hours a night – I have no idea how she does it), most folks need to sleep from seven to nine hours each night. You’ll know if you’re among them if you feel tired during the day with less than that.
Avoid Sugar – We’re already discussed the best foods for your immune system, but you’ll want to avoid certain foods too. Excess sugar reduces the immune system cells that fight bacteria. These effects last several hours after putting back sugary beverages like soft drinks. Your best best? Avoid sugar and eat immune-boosting fruits and vegetables for every color of the rainbow.
Reduce Stress – You can’t eliminate it completely, but ongoing stress can lead to higher levels of hormones that attack the immune system and make you vulnerable to illness. Exercise and socializing are good ways to manage stress. Note too that meditation may be of particular interest for stress management and immune protection. In one study, people who meditated for eight weeks produced more antibodies to a flu vaccine than people who didn’t do the practice.
Connect With Your Friends – People with strong social networks tend to have more efficient immune systems than lone wolfs. So connect – use social media to your advantage, and refrain from talking behind peoples’ backs. Remember, you reap what you sow.
Laugh it Off – Remember how we started this article with a reference to South Park? Your immune system has a sense of humor and it likes to be fed. In one study, men were told three days in advance they’d watch a funny video and their stress hormones dropped. Humor boosts a type of white blood cell that fights infection and helps the immune system stay in top form.
Personally, I’ve always been a South Park fan, and while there have been many great moments over the years, I dare you to Google ‘South Park Russell Crowe‘ and try to watch the YouTube clip with a straight face. Or watch the complete episode, called “The New Terrance and Phillip Movie Trailer”.
You’ll soil yourself laughing – and your immune system will love it.