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How to Use Your Immune System to Stay Healthy

Building Healthy Immunity continued...

It’s hard to measure exactly sleep’s protective effect on the immune system, and researchers don’t know precisely how sleep improves immunity. Like antioxidants, sleep may help reduce oxidative stress, which then stops cells from being weakened and harmed. But “clearly, sleep – at least seven hours a night – is associated with increased resistance to infectious diseases,” says Polsky.

Practice stress management: When your body is under constant stress, you’re more vulnerable to everything from the common cold to major diseases.

“Stress from time to time is not necessarily a bad thing. But to not have relief from the stress -- to be under constant stress -- is deleterious to health,” says Polsky. That’s because a steady cascade of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, weaken the immune system.

Chronic stress is linked to heart disease and hypertension, and it can also have an effect on white blood cell function, Polsky says.

“When I speak to people about lifestyle changes, I look at what they can do to manage their stress, whether it be meditating – maybe exercise is their form of meditation – whether it be spirituality of a religious nature. It really doesn’t matter,” says Berliner.

Don’t abuse alcohol or use recreational drugs: Drinking a moderate amount of alcohol appears to have some health benefits, such as lowering your risk of heart disease. What’s “moderate?” No more than two drinks a day for a man, or one drink for a woman. But drinking too much alcohol can inhibit the function of white blood cells and lower your resistance to infection, says Polsky. Using recreational drugs, including marijuana, has the same effect on white blood cells, weakening your immune system. 

Strengthen relationships: Research shows that people with close friendships and strong support systems tend to be healthier than those who lack such supports.

A good sexual relationship may provide even more immune system benefits. A study of college students found those who had sex once or twice a week had higher levels of an immune system protein called immunoglobulin A (IgA) than those who had less sex Sex may also help immunity by reducing stress and improving sleep. 

“I tell people to get good love in their lives -- good support, good friendships, however they need to get that love,” says Berliner.  Good relationships, along with a healthy diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep, are part of a holistic approach to boosting the immune system and protecting yourself from disease. “And to treat any problem holistically, there is no one-pill approach,” Berliner says.

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Reviewed on November 16, 2009

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