Some people seem to catch everything that’s going round, coughs, colds, tummy bugs, while others never seem to get ill. What’s their secret?
A lot of it is down to luck, your age, genes and constitution, and whether you’ve had a brush with an invading bug before. But some things you can control, so here are some ways to encourage your immune system to get fighting fit!
YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT
There are lots of supplements on the market designed to strengthen immunity, but many have only been tested on cells in the lab. That’s just the first stage of gathering evidence though; the only way to know if something works for sure, is by a randomised, controlled trial done on people. Preferably several trials. Vitamin C is an old favourite, but numerous trials have failed to find any benefit unless you’re really malnourished and need help with scurvy. Most people in the West get enough vitamin C to avoid this, even if they don’t make their 6 a day.
Zinc supplements come out best, with evidence they can both prevent colds and shorten their duration, if taken within 24 hours of the symptoms starting, according to a Cochrane Review.
The best approach to really tune up your immune system is to eat lots of fruit and vegetables. They contain not just vitamins, but thousands of other compounds called phytochemicals., which have numerous beneficial effects we are only just beginning to understand.
TAKE A DEEP BREATH
Whatever you do, stay calm. Stress can weaken the immune system significantly. The links beween mind and body are now a respectable field of research often called ‘psychoneuroimmunology’. There are many pathways of communication between the brain and the immune system including the stress hormones, cortisol and noradrenalin. These bind to receptors on immune calls and interfere with their responses, leaving us more susceptible to infections. Ronald Glaser at Ohio State University, showed that people stressed out by looking after a relative with Alzheimer’s disease had worse antibody and T cell responses to a flu vaccine, than non-stressed people. Their wounds were slower to heal, they caught more throat infections, and were even likely to die four to eight years earlier than otherwise.
Short term stress, on the other hand, can be useful. A recent analysis of 300 studies, found that a stressful experience such as public speaking can boost levels of immune cells in the blood (Psychological Bulletin, vol 130, p.601). Bruce Rabin at the University Of Pittsburgh says ‘a slight elevation of stress hormones is good for you, learn how to manage stress as it comes along, be optimistic, fit and have a sense of humour. Most important of all: keep your friends. Loneliness is the killer.’
Many people find that yoga, meditation or mindfulness, breathing techniques, exercise, talking to friends, family or a professional can help them deal better with stress. Acupuncture and massage are relaxing and de-stressing too. We can’t avoid stress, but we can manage it. Keep calm and carry on!
SLEEP, LOVELY SLEEP
Even a moderate lack of sleep can put you at greater risk of catching a bug. In a seminal study, the sleeping habits of 153 healthy adults were recorded brfore they were given a sniff of a cold virus. It turned out that people who slept for less than 7 hours a night were almost three times as likely to catch a cold as the rest of the group (Archives of Internal Medicine, vol 169, p62) Mark Opp, a neurobiologist at the University of Washington, reccomends 8 hours and 20 mins a night. Sleep quality is also important and that means you are sleeping in a cool dark and quiet place. Even mild sleep deprivation is associated with a decrease in imune function, and new research shows it can be as damaging as stress.
Improve your sleep by
- Give your bedroom a makeover.
Make your sleeping area conducive to rest by keeping it dark and quiet. Keep in mind that your body temperature drops at night, so you want to keep your room environment at a cool, comfortable level.
- Establish a regular routine.
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. People who frequently switch their sleep times experience something akin to jet lag. Just 2 days of irregular sleeping can shift your circadian rhythm and cause poor sleep.
- Put away your gadgets.
It’s tempting to watch TV or surf the web from bed, but those activities usually make it harder to wind down. The latest research suggests that artificial light coming from laptop screens, TVs, etc. suppresses the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. So give yourself a technology curfew and turn off those screens at least an hour before bedtime.
- Get up instead of tossing and turning.
If you have trouble falling asleep or wake up in the middle of the night, don’t lie in bed just staring into space. Get out of bed, do something that is relaxing, and come back to bed when you feel drowsy. Keep the bedroom associated with sleeping rather than being awake. If you’re worrying about things, try to make a list of things you need to do the next day an hour before bed. That way you can get your worrying done before you get into bed.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine before bed.
Drinking alcohol or caffeine before bedtime is not a good idea since it disrupts sleep and causes nighttime awakenings. Chronic use of alcohol also takes away slow-wave sleep, it wears off quickly, and then you’re left with fragmented sleep
There are more tips on good sleeping at The Sleep Foundation.
Eat well, stay calm and get a good night’s sleep, your immune system will thank you for it.