Following is a list of simple things I usually tell patients who are worried about their immune system. These tips are also good for optimizing overall health and wellbeing. They are not in order of importance. Here goes…
1 – Get Sleep I am very guilty of not following this rule but a well rested body is able to repair itself and fight invaders including germs. 8 hours is excellent, but aim for no less than 6 hours sleep per night.
2 – Eat real food Nowadays food is so adulterated with all sorts of chemical additives. Many of these chemicals we probably don’t know the long term effects on the body including the immune system. To avoid any doubt, eat whole foods as much as possible, that is fruits, veggies, peas, beans, nuts, grains, etc, in the natural fresh form, rather than processed and packed. Of course, we all eat some packaged foods, but please pay attention to the list of ingredients and try to make sure that list is as short as possible. Also it is a good thing if you can pronounce the names of the ingredients. If there are many ingredients, the names of which you cannot even pronounce, consider avoiding the product altogether.
3 – Minimize stress Obviously, we are not alive if we are not experiencing some amount of stress. However stress should not get to you to the point that you are anxious, having palpitations, insomnia, etc. Everyone has to find their own way of dealing with stress, whether it is deep breathing exercises, going for a walk, listening to music, medication, or whatever your preference. The bad thing about uncontrolled stress is that it causes high levels of the ‘stress hormone’ cortisol which is a steroid. Steroids over time weaken the immune system making one more prone to infections.
4 – Control diabetes If you have diabetes, aim to get it under strict control. Diabetes is an extremely common disease which has the ability to damage every organ system of the body. Prolonged uncontrolled diabetes causes a lazy immune system and increased risk for infections.
5- Don’t be afraid to visit the doctor It used to be said that everyone should visit the doctor once a year. For young, healthy persons with no significant family history of any chronic medical illness, once a year may be too frequent and they can visit every 2-3 years. However, if there is a strong family history of any disease, or, if you are overweight or obese, yearly doctors visits are a must. Oftentimes, with many disease, they are asymptomatic until they have progressed quite a bit. By then, damage has been done to the body, including weakening of the immune system. Visiting the doctor can catch many disease in the early or ‘pre-stages’ (example diabetes) where various lifestyle changes or medications can be given to halt of reverse the disease.
6 – Optimize your weight Unfortunately, excess weight puts a lot of strain on the body, it just does not function efficiently at abnormally abnormally high weights. Insulin resistance is often present, which may contribute to a lazy immune system. Furthermore, when an obese persons gets an infection, there is increased chance of complications. Additionally, treatment can sometimes be a bit of a challenge due to larger doses of medication needed with resultant increased side effects. There are body mass index (BMI) calculators all over the internet (ratio of weight to height). If your BMI is over 25 start making changes to get it back down to less than 25 before things get out of hand. For BMIs over 35 there are many weight loss clinics around that can personalize a weight loss plan for you.
7 – Exercise This helps to condition the body, contributing to a strong immune system. In the event that an infection dose occur, a well conditioned body is able to fight it off more efficiently. Of note, there is still tremendous benefit to exercise, even if you are not able to loose weight to get to your ideal BMI.
8 – Don’t smoke This is one of my pet peeves. Cigarette smoking wreaks havoc on all the cells of the body, from the skin, to the kidneys, to the blood vessels. If all the tissues of the body are affected, it is only natural that he immune system will be affected as well. Yes, some people smoke for decades and live to 90, however it has been proven time and time again, that people who smoke cigarettes have higher morbidity (sickness) and mortality (death). As for those e-cigarettes, the jury is out on those, but my advise is that you are better off not being dependent on anything.
9 – Limit sugar Even if you are not diabetic, sugar should be limited. It stresses the hormonal (insulin) system of the body, and any stress is not good for the immune system. Also, as I like to tell patients, sugar is food for germs. Some people who consume a lot of sugar tend to have recurring skin infections – pimples and boils all over the body. I have had patients cut out heavy soda consumption (I am talking about 12 cans of soda per day – yes, some people have that and more!) and notice decreased frequency of recurring skin infections.
Also, I advise avoidance of artificial sweeteners. These are also chemicals and there are a lot of reports about their negative effects on the body. For one, they confuse the brain into thinking that glucose is being absorbed and in preparation, insulin is produced. However glucose never comes and so there is this heavy craving for carbs (carbohydrates). A lot of people who consume artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and acesulfame tend to be overweight never the less, because of heavy carbohydrate consumption. Because sugar is an acquired taste, I usually advise gradual weaning (decrease) of sugar intake, unless you are disciplined enough to cut out sugar ‘cold turkey.’ Once you cut down sugar, you will find that things you used to eat without hesitation, now taste too sweet. Trust me, I experienced this myself.
10 – Get immunized There is a variety of vaccines available for various infections. One that just about everyone should get is the influenza vaccine every year. As children, we get a host of vaccines including for measles, chicken pox, and hepatitis, and many others. There are specific vaccines available when traveling to certain parts of the world. In my opinion, if there is a way to prevent a disease that has the potential for serious complications, including death, then it should be done. It is easier, quicker, cheaper, to get a vaccine, than to get the actual infectious disease and go through all the treatments, hoping to survive. Some vaccines are not appropriate for some groups of people, but speak with your doctor to find out which vaccines are recommended for you.
This is a general overview which I think is a good starting point to optimize immunity and health. Not only adults, but children and adolescents should adopt these habits. I tell my patients all the time that their children should be on the same healthy diet as them, so that when they become adults, it won’t be a struggle to change bad lifestyle habits.
Prevention is always better than cure, and with the way the healthcare system is going, including the massive expense, I encourage everyone to take back control of their health.
I invite you to share the above tips with friends and family if you found them useful. Also, if there is some routine that helps your immunity/health, please share with us! Thank you for reading!