You’re freaked out about catching something during flu season… or maybe you’re just sick and tired of feeling run down and exhausted. Either way, one thing’s for sure: It’s always a good time to boost your body’s immune system. While it does a pretty darn good job on its own, there are ways you can enhance its abilities. Here’s how to start:
Good: Go Pro(biotics)
The combination of healthy eating and smooth digestion often makes us feel better — and there’s a reason for that: The GI system is “actually a complex ecosystem of bacteria that represents more than 75 percent of the immune system,” says Amanda Bontempo, a registered dietitian at NYC’s Montefiore-Einstein Center for Cancer Care. The immune system detoxifies pathogens to prevent infections and disease, so “the health of the GI system determines the health of the immune system… and diet and nutrition can help mediate immune response,” says Bontempo.
She recommends eating foods that contain prebiotics and probiotics. Probiotic bacteria, found in yogurt and fermented foods, maintain the health of cells that line the GI tract and “police pathogenic bacteria to protect against infection,” says Bontempo. Prebiotics (soluble fibers found in fruits and veggies — particularly onion, garlic, leeks and legumes) help feed probiotics.
Better: Stress Less
We know: This is easier said than done. The surge of adrenaline and other hormones triggered by stress served our prehistoric ancestors well in responding to danger (such as wild animal attacks). But now that we humans are more likely to be stressed out by 24/7 problems (like our mortgages), that stress response has started to backfire because it never really turns off. Instead, our hormones and nerve signals that respond to stress stay active. According to studies cited by the American Psychological Association, stress makes immunity take a nosedive. So find a stress-relief outlet, be it exercise, meditation or a hobby, and spend time with friends who share your same values. New findings say social ties may help strengthen immunity by encouraging better eating, sleeping and exercise patterns.
Best: Get Your Z’s
Shuteye allows your body to repair daily damage, says Bontempo, and running on empty reduces pathogen-fighting T-cells, which can cause an inflammatory response. Lack of sleep is on par with stress when it comes to less-than-ideal immune function, according to Sleep Doctor (and upwave review board member) Michael Breus, Ph.D. “There’s a significant body of research showing immune function is tied closely to the body’s 24-hour circadian clock,” says Breus. “When sleep is deprived, this cycle is weakened and disrupted, and the immune system suffers.” Research shows that even mild sleep deprivation is associated with deterioration in immune function. “The impact of even a few nights of disrupted sleep on immune function can linger even after sleep levels have improved,” he says.
Of course, difficulty falling or staying asleep can be a symptom of stress, anxiety or depression. In addition to finding some stress-busting techniques that work for you, Bontempo recommends sticking to a sleep schedule, avoiding caffeine eight hours before bed, and thinking twice before using alcohol as a sleep-inducer. “It may make you feel sleepy,” she says, “but it actually disrupts deepREM sleep, dehydrates the body and can leave you feeling run-down the next day.”