Building a Better Immune System

From the WebMD Archives

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 your hands.

"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 Brook.

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.
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