by Garth Ashbeck, M.D.
The latest science on staying healthy.
Visit your local pharmacy, page through a magazine, or browse online and you’re sure to see products promising to boost your body’s immune system. Everything from echinacea, ginseng, probiotics to mega-dose vitamins – claim to help prevent or cure disease. But is there enough science to prove we should hop on the immune-supplement bandwagon?
“There is no simple answer for now,” says Dr. Garth Ashbeck of MPCP’s Pasadena practice. “While there are studies that show benefits to antioxidants, probiotics and some supplements, there needs to be more research into whether we can truly alter- or boost- our immune system. Regulatory statements cannot then be made to currently support or refute these supplements, he adds.
The main problem is that our immune system is just that: a complicated, biological system. There are many different kinds of immune cells that respond to various threats on the body in different ways. So, if you want to boost your immune system, which part should you boost, and by how much?
On the whole, our immune system does a remarkable job of protecting against harmful microorganisms. But, sometimes it fails and you get sick. Researchers are trying to find out how we can alter this path, and in addition to studying the effects of supplements and other agents, they are looking closely at the link between lifestyle and better immune function.
“We can’t underestimate how a proper diet and enough sleep, for example, affect our health, so we feel the best way to currently keep our immune system strong is by controlling key lifestyle habits, “ says Dr. Ashbeck.
Here are some general guidelines for helping your immune system based on the latest science:
Eat a varied, healthy diet
There is lots of research about the diet-immunity link. While some dietary supplements have been found to alter components of immune function, there is no firm evidence that they actually bolster immunity to the point where you are better protected against infection or disease than by eating a varied, healthy diet.
For example, scientists have found that too much dietary sugar may curb immune system cells that help control bacteria, and cause inflammation in the body. Again, this is just one small part of a complicated system, but cutting down on sugary drinks and other sugary, or processed foods, is definitely recommended.
Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables, which are rich in nutrients like vitamins C and E, plus beta-carotene and zinc, is a good choice as well. Go for a wide array of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, including berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, apples, red grapes, kale, spinach, sweet potatoes, and carrots.
“Even though we don’t know exactly how diet affects immunity, there are clearly benefits to eating healthy. For example, eating cruciferous vegetables can boost the liver’s ability to flush toxins from the body,” says Dr. Ashbeck. “And some researchers are studying how the bacteria in our stomach’s and digestive system can affect immunity and health, so there is much on the horizon.”
If you have questions about taking certain vitamins or dietary supplements, talk to your doctor first.
Get Enough Sleep
You may have noticed you’re more likely to catch a cold or other infection when you’re not getting enough sleep. While some consider it an old wive’s tale that lack of sleep will make us sick, some data is showing that sleep does help immune function. People with sleep disorders or extreme lack of sleep have shown a decrease in adequate development of protective T-cells and higher levels of certain stress hormones in recent studies. Although researchers don’t yet understand the exact link, it’s clear that our brains and bodies perform better with adequate sleep – usually seven to nine hours for an adult.
Exercise and Control Weight
Try to get regular, moderate exercise on a daily- or at least 5 times a week- basis. Even a 20-minute daily walk can improve your fitness and may help your immune system fight infection. “It makes sense that a strong body and effective circulatory system will help you fight illness and disease,” says Dr. Ashbeck. “We also know that exercise can boost your body’s feel-good chemicals and help you sleep, both of which are good for immunity.”
Exercise can also help you control or lose weight. There is direct evidence linking obesity to disease, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other illness. If you are overweight, even losing a few pounds puts less stress on your body’s organs and function, which includes your immune system.
Everyone has some stress; it’s part of life. But if stress drags on for a long time, it seems to make you more vulnerable to illness, from colds to serious diseases. Chronic stress exposes your body to a steady stream of stress hormones that could suppress the immune system. You may not be able to get rid of your stress, but you can get better at managing it:
- Learn to meditate.
- Slow down.
- Plan for some “You” time in your day.
- Connect with other people.
- Work out to blow off steam.
Other lifestyle choices that may have a direct impact immunity include quitting smoking, controlling your blood pressure, drinking alcohol only in moderation, and taking steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands frequently and cooking meats thoroughly.
While there may not be a magic pill to prevent disease, you can start making practical lifestyle changes now. They will not only improve your overall health, but will also help keep your immune system strong and working hard to protect you. Also, talk with your doctor about screenings, vaccines, the right medications, and other ways to stay on the road to health.
Dr. Ashbeck is a Maryland Primary Care Physicians, LLC partner and is certified by the American Board of Family Medicine. He received his medical degree from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 1995 and completed his residency program in Family Practice at Memorial Medical Center in 1998. Dr. Ashbeck sees patients in MPCP’s Pasadena office.