Myths and Facts About Your Immune System
Given your immune system's role as protector against illness, you want to do all you can to give it a boost. What works best to boost immunity -- and what doesn't? How can you keep your immune system in top shape? Separate myth from fact about your immune system.
Fact: Stress makes you more vulnerable to illness.
Ongoing stress, such as being in a difficult relationship, living with a chronic disease, or taking care of someone with Alzheimer's disease, can make you more susceptible to illnesses, from colds and flu to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. Studies show that chronic stress seems to age the immune system, increasing your risks of conditions such as type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and even cancer.
Reducing the amount of stress in your life -- and improving your ability to cope with the stress you can't escape -- will help. Even something as simple as deep breathing can lessen the effects of stress. Guided imagery, progression relaxation, meditation, and yoga can also be effective stress-busters.
Myth: Getting a flu shot weakens your immune system and makes you more likely to get the flu.
Actually, the opposite is true: Getting a flu vaccine provides your immune system with help. A flu vaccine contains a dead or weakened virus that cannot infect you with the flu, but does teach your immune system to recognize that virus as a threat. If you're then exposed to the live virus, (from a co-worker who has the flu, for example) your immune system has a jump start on fighting it off. While some people may still get the flu after having a flu shot, they'll probably have a milder form of the illness.
So why do people swear a flu vaccine gave them the flu? Some may mistake the occasional side effects of the vaccine (fever, aches) for flu symptoms. And the time of year people are most likely to get the vaccine is when colds and other respiratory illnesses are common. If you get the vaccine and then get sick with an unrelated bug, you may assume, incorrectly, that the vaccine caused the illness.
Fact: What you eat has an effect on your immune system.
Although there isn't one food that will provide an instant boost to your immune system, developing the habit of eating a balanced, healthy diet with a variety of foods keeps your immune system in good shape.
Eat more antioxidants; these are substances that prevent or reduce damaging free radicals in your body. Free radicals are reactive compounds that have the potential to damage DNA and suppress the immune system. They are associated with a number of diseases, including cancer. And some studies show that people who eat more antioxidants in their diet may be better protected against some kinds of cancer. Vitamins C, E, and A are antioxidants, as are other compounds called flavonoids that are found in fruits and vegetables. Increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet is the optimal way to get antioxidants. Unless you are a strict vegetarian or have a special-needs diet (prior gastric bypass surgery or malabsorption problems, on kidney dialysis, or have problems with alcohol abuse) or are pregnant, there is no convincing proof that taking vitamin supplements will help, and in fact they may cause harm. You should talk with your care provider to decide if you need to take vitamin supplements.