Nourishing your Immune System

Health, Home & Family
on October 8, 2000

Infectious organisms are everywhere, whether it be E. coli in an undercooked hamburger or the common cold virus spread by a co-workers sneeze. Your immune system produces a wide variety of cells and proteins to battle these unseen invaders, so keep that system in top form. Heres how.

Immune cells in people of average weight tend to function better than those in overweight individuals, but many low-calorie fad diets dont contain enough nutrients for a healthy immune system. So if you need to lose weight, eat a nutritionally balanced diet, exercise, and lose the weight gradually. Ask your family doctor about a good program.

A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, particularly of the red, yellow and orange variety, acts as an immune booster. Also try drinking a cup of tomato juice every day.

Vitamins play an important role in maintaining strong immunity. Several nutrients are needed for maintaining the immune response, including vitamins C and E and zinc, says Dr. Simin Meydani, professor of nutrition and immunology at Tufts University in Medford, Mass. A multivitamin/mineral supplement improves immune systems, particularly in elderly people who often dont get enough nutrients. Take a multivitamin mineral supplement with 100 percent of the daily requirement, plus 200 mg of vitamin E daily.

Sedentary individuals dont have as vigorous an immune system as moderate exercisers. People who do 30 to 45 minutes of moderate exercise a day cut their number of sick days by 30 percent to 50 percent, says Dr. David Nieman, professor of health and exercise science at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

Prolonged sleep deprivation is another immune suppressor. In fact, even one sleepless night can significantly reduce the activity of cells needed to attack viruses. People who lose 20 percent sleep are at greater risk for developing colds, says Dr. Sheldon Cohen, professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. How this works isnt clear, but a recent study found that men who slept only four hours a night suffered a significant boost in immune-suppressive hormones. A good nights sleep may mean more than eight hours.

People under stress are two to five times more likely to get sick when exposed to a virus, Cohen says. But good social support is linked to a better overall immune system. People who have a small number of social ties are four times more likely to develop a cold compared to those with a large, diverse social group.

Not surprisingly, smokers are at higher risk for lung cancer and respiratory infections partly because of a suppressed immune system. Over the long term, smoking impairs the activity of certain immune cells. When light and moderate smokers quit for a mere 30 days, the activity of natural killer cells, key in the defense against cancer cells and viruses, improves.