Despite what we’d all like to think, many of us are still some way off consistent sunny days and balmy summer temperatures.
At this time of year colds and other infections seem all too common. However, you don’t have to take the risk of sickness lying down; as it turns out there are all sorts of ways to keep your immune system working hard. Here are some top ways to stay fit and healthy until the weather changes (at last)…
Do Something You Love
In a fantastic experiment, scientists asked college students to pet a live dog, a toy dog or simply to sit quietly on a sofa. Both before and after the experiment the scientists measured the number of antibodies floating around their bodies. The theory is that the more antibodies there are, the better your immune system is functioning to protect you from infection.
What they found, somewhat surprisingly, was that the immune function of those individuals playing with the dog actually increased within just 18 minutes of exposure. No changes were found in the other two groups. What this helps to underline is that having a pleasurable experience really can help to boost our immune system and protect us from infection.
These days so much health advice is focused on trying to make us do things we don’t want to. But spending time doing something you love each day? Now that’s something we can all get behind. So whether “your thing” is taking a nice hot bath, spending time with your loved one or – yes – playing with your dog it turns out this might just be good for your health.
This also leads us onto another not-so-painful way to keep your immune system firing on all cylinders…
Enjoy a Drink
We’re surrounded by news reports as to the evils of consuming alcohol. We know, for example, that excessive alcohol can lead to weight gain, cardiovascular problems and liver conditions. But how does more moderate drinking affect us? Well this, it seems, might actually be of benefit.
As it turns out, many alcohol drinks are rich in compounds called “polyphenols” which are thought to act as antioxidants. This, in turn, helps to keep us healthy and to fight infection, and may even help to keep your heart healthy in later life.
As a note, these benefits have only been reported in cases of moderate alcohol consumption – defined by scientists as a daily consumption of 10-12 grams of alcohol for women and 20-24 grams for men. As one scientific investigation put it: “moderate alcohol consumption seems to have a beneficial impact on the immune system compared to alcohol abuse or abstinence”.
Avoid the Stress
For many of us stress is a part of everyday life, but you might not realize that excessive stress could also be affecting your immune system.
In one study 276 people were asked to fill in a questionnaire about sources of stress in their lives. They were then exposed to the cold virus to see how many people actually became infected, and who managed to fight off the attack. The scientists found a direct correlation between signs of stress and the development of a cold. This pattern was particularly noticeable in cases of long term stress, such as in people who hate their job or had ongoing relationship issues.
The evidence seems to suggest that temporary, occasional sources of stress like taking an exam probably won’t have much of an impact on your immune system. If, however, there is a longer terms source of stress in your life then this may be the perfect opportunity to resolve them.
Boost Your Vitamin D
Many of us know that vitamin D plays an important role in helping to keep our teeth and bones strong. What you might not know, however, is that it can also help to support your immune system.
In the summer months this means getting outside for short periods of time. When your skin is exposed to natural sunlight it is able to produce vitamin D naturally.
Sadly, in the winter months the sunlight isn’t bright enough to power this process. In these situations you may want to consider taking a vitamin D supplement, aiming for an intake of at least 10 micrograms per day.
Get a Balanced Diet
When you start digging into it, there are a mind-blowing number of vitamins and minerals that play a role in keeping our immune system healthy. Just a few of these with proven benefits include vitamins A, B6, B9, B12, C and E, selenium, copper, iron and zinc. Wow, now that’s a lot of opportunity for a deficiency somewhere along the lines. When you consider that a lack of any one of these can suppress the immune system, it’s clear that getting a balanced diet is crucial.
Fortunately, the solutions are quite simple. Firstly, try to eat a varied and balanced diet, getting as many different fruits and vegetables as you possibly can. Take pleasure in learning new vegetarian recipes and in meeting your “5-a-day”.
Alternatively, if you’re someone that likes to take the easy route then a multivitamin supplement with added minerals can also help you to meet the needs of your body.
Go Easy With the Exercise
It’s no secret that exercise is generally pretty good for us, and that many of us should get more of it. What is surprising when you consider the immune system is that too much exercise can actually do more harm than good.
Prolonged high intensity exercise can deplete the levels of key nutrients in the body, at which point your muscles and immune cells can come into competition for the limited resources available. Additionally, intense exercise leads to the release of free radicals which can cause further damage to the cells of your body.
This creates a window after intense exercise of between three and twenty four hours in which the immune system is compromised, and during which time infection is far more likely.
So what exercise should you be doing in an ideal world? Studies suggest that a brisk walk every day or two can halve the number of days that you’re ill. Surely that shouldn’t be too much for us to factor into our daily lives, especially when you consider how sizable the impact is.
Echinacea, sometimes known as the “cone flower”, has long been used a herbal remedy for helping to fight coughs and colds. But is there any science behind its use?
Imagine your body is like a giant game of Pacman. Pacman himself is actually represented by cells called “macrophages”. Just like the hero of that oh-so-famous video game these macrophages actually travel around the body consuming anything harmful in their way. They will literally eat bacteria and viruses, digesting them and rendering them harmless to your body.
Studies on people taking echinacea have demonstrated that this natural herbal remedy actually helps to activate these macrophages, ensuring they’re on the lookout for any infection that cause you harm.
This is fine in theory, but what does this mean in the real world? A group of scientists aimed to find the answer to this very question. They assessed how often people who take echinacea actually become infected with colds in comparison to the general population. Their results showed that the average person on the street is 55% more likely to get a cold than people taking an echinacea supplement – quite a result!
There’s more – another study found that even if you’re unlucky enough to become infected with a cold, people taking echinacea get over their symptoms almost a day and a half quicker than other people.
Fortunately you don’t need to prepare your own echinacea these days. Instead it is quite commonly available in supplement form from grocery stores or it can be bought online.
As you can see, there are all sorts of reasonably easy ways to keep your immune system firing on all cylinders this winter. With just a few minor changes to your diet and lifestyle you can feel confident that you’re doing everything possible to prevent sickness and infection. And as we’ve seen, some of these changes can even be quite enjoyable!