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Using Your Immune System to Stay Well

Experts explain how you can tap the power of your immune system to avoid getting sick.

Sleep, Sex, and Working Out continued...

The key, says Charnetski, lies in the production of natural opioid peptides -- happy little brain chemicals that are released during sex and in turn boost production of IGA.

But it's not just sex that can boost IGA. A loving touch can make a difference, too. Research published as early as the 1960s at the University of California at Berkeley showed that having a social support system -- particularly if it involved frequent physical touching, such as hugs and handshakes -- was more predictive of long life than age, medical status, or even smoking.

Nobody around to pat you on the back? Charnetski says moderate alcohol intake also releases the opioids and raises IGA levels.

At the same time, if you drink too much you may find your immunity goes down.

Ironically, Merrell tells WebMD that the same rule of "less is more" also applies to exercise.

"Moderate exercise -- like a brisk 30-minute walk three or four times a week -- has been shown to increase your immunity to disease, while overtraining and working out too much will actually run down your immune system and make you more susceptible to illness," he says.

Chicken Soup, Herbs, and a Mushroom Cocktail

It's hard to deny the comforting feeling we'd get from a bowl of Mom's nurturing chicken soup -- particularly when we were sick. But doctors say there were more than just warm and cozy feelings at work.

Indeed, studies published in the journal Chest in 2000 showed chicken soup can pump up immune power, and may help you get well faster. Moreover, it's not the only food with healing powers.

Merrell says both modern Western studies and thousands of years of Chinese wisdom validate the impact of mushrooms on immunity, particularly the varieties known as Reichi, Maitake, and Shitake.

"They work on cell lines of factors directly involved in fighting some major disease processes, including enhancing production of tumor necrosis factor, interleukins, and interferon," says Merrell.

What can also help, he says, is a diet low in red meat and high in fish, fruits, and vegetables, particularly blueberries and broccoli.

"Along with green tea these foods help take some stress off the immune system so it doesn't have to work as hard to protect you. So the bottom line is you're better protected," says Merrell.

When it comes to giving your immune system an herbal boost, among the most popular choices has always been echinacea, a plant credited with helping users avoid colds and the flu. Newer studies, however, have challenged that traditional wisdom, leaving some in a quandary over its effectiveness.

But Merrell says any confusion stems from the fact that the herb was not studied in the way it's used in traditional Chinese medicine -- as part of a mixed blend of natural ingredients.

"The strength of echinacea, as well as, most herbal treatments, lies in their ability to interact with other herbs. So unless you are testing blends, you are not likely to find the kind of success that thousands of years of Chinese medicine has shown," says Merrell.

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