Building a Better Immune System
WebMD News Archive
April 17, 2000 (New York) -- It seems that each cold and flu season, a pill,
spray, or supplement surfaces with promises to stave off colds, flu, or both,
usually with disappointing results. Until some such wonder drug really does
come along, the best way to prevent illness is to do the things your mother
always told you: Get plenty of rest, eat a balanced diet, exercise, and wash
"If a healthy person without any underlying disease that affects their
immune system eats a balanced diet and gets proper rest, their immune system
will be working as well as it can" when it comes into contact with viral
invaders such as colds or flu, Norman Edelman, MD, tells WebMD. He is a
consultant for scientific affairs at the American Lung Association and the vice
president of health sciences at the State University of New York at Stony
Here are six ways to turn your immune system into a virtual Fort Knox,
according to the experts:
- Wash your hands regularly. Hands down, the best way to prevent colds
or flu is to wash your hands whenever you come into contact with someone who is
sick, the experts say. "Use soap and water," Edelman says. Here's why
this works: colds and flu are mainly spread when viruses come into contact with
the lining of the nose. Viruses -- and there are more than a hundred that cause
colds alone -- can infiltrate the nose via the eyes or mouth. Usually, viruses
meet these mucous membranes by our hands.
- Get your flu shot. "We recommend that anybody who wants to be
protected against the flu get vaccinated against it," Edelman says. In the
past, flu shots were recommended only for people considered at high risk --
senior citizens, people with chronic diseases, and health care workers -- but
now doctors suggest that anyone who is not allergic to the vaccine should get
it, he says. The vaccine will protect about 80% of people who get it from a
serious case of flu. At least 20,000 Americans die from the flu and its
complications each year; most victims are over 65, according to the U.S.
Department of Health and Human Services.
- Get physical -- but don't overdo it. "If a person is sedentary,
they have a quiet or underactive immune response to viral invaders and are more
susceptible to illnesses and colds, as are people who exercise too much,"
says Thomas Weidner, PhD, professor of athletic training education at Ball
State University in Muncie, Ind. "The key is moderate exercise." That
means about 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three or more days a week.
- Get your C. While there is no evidence that taking vitamin C can
prevent colds and flu, the Institute of Medicine recently recommended
increasing daily intake to 75 milligrams per day for women and 90 milligrams
per day for men. Additionally, the report says that smokers need an additional
35 milligrams per day. "Getting all your vitamins and minerals will help
strengthen your immune system," Edelman says.
- Have sex. A recent study by researchers at Wilkes University in
Wilkes-Barre, Pa., suggested that sex strengthens the immune system. Couples
who made love once or twice a week had 29% higher levels of immunoglobulin A,
an immune system protein that protects the mouth and upper respiratory tract
against cold and flu viruses.
- De-stress. Colds and flu are most likely to strike when people are
under psychological stress, according to a landmark study published in
TheNew England Journal of Medicine. The study found that working
too hard and not getting enough sleep exhaust the body, leaving it more
vulnerable to infection. "Get eight hours of sleep or more a night and
relax," Weidner says. Stress-reduction techniques, such as taking warm
baths, doing yoga, or keeping a journal may help soothe the soul and strengthen
the immune system.