Getting sick can feel like bad luck. Symptoms, such as a sore throat, runny nose, headaches, and cough seem to descend out of nowhere just to make us miserable. This misery can drag on for a week or more, forcing us to take time off or work through an illness.
However, infections are not due to luck, but microbial pathogens. We all confront numerous illness-causing pathogens everyday—an ever changing mix of flu and respiratory viruses found in the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch. But why do some people seem to stay symptom-free, while others are constantly reaching for the Kleenex?
For the past several years, the medical establishment’s most heavily promoted stay-well strategy has been the flu vaccine. However, by design, this defense only targets a few virus strains chosen each year. It promises no protection against the many other evolving flu strains that remain in our environment. And according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC): “There is no vaccine to protect you against the common cold.”
Thankfully, there are simple, yet effective things we can do to amp up our protection against any pathogen we might face.
The most effective anti-illness strategy is the most basic: Reduce your exposure. Functional medicine physician Dr. Lisa Ona Ballehr recommends that we stay mindful of contaminated environments, and try to minimize the contamination we spread to others.
“Try your best to avoid public places, cover your coughs and sneezes, wash hands routinely and avoid touching common objects in public places such as telephones, counters, and keyboards,” Ballehr said. “Avoid touching your face without first washing your hands.”
The CDC says a good handwashing session lasts at least 20 seconds. Make sure you go through all five steps (wet, lather, scrub, rinse, and dry). Teach children the routine, and help them understand why it’s important.
Eating for Wellness
Even if we do our best to avoid contamination, viruses still manage to creep into our lives. Luckily, we each have an innate defense force designed to protect us. But our immune system is only as strong as the materials we use to construct it. And our primary building blocks come from food.
“The most common cause of immune deficiency is indeed malnutrition,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins mentions a long list of nutrients that contribute to immunoregulatory strength—vitamins A, C, D, E, B-6 and folic acid, as well as minerals, such as copper, iron, selenium, and zinc. They are called micronutrients because we only need small amounts to keep our system functioning properly. They are found in optimal amounts in a variety of fruits and vegetables.
But we need a lot more of another nutrient that we don’t typically associate with immunity: protein. Jenkins says a lack of protein often leads to deterioration of our defense system.
According to registered dietitian Alicia Galvin, protein is important because the immune system is made mostly of proteins produced by our white blood cells called antibodies. Eating protein-rich foods helps build the antibodies our body needs to fight off infections.
“When the body sees an invader that it does not like, these antibodies will bind to it. That binding signals the immune cells to come in and engulf it, eradicating it from our system,” Galvin said.
If eating the right foods can boost our immune system, eating the wrong ones can weaken it. Galvin says that when we eat a diet high in refined carbohydrates, sugars, and processed foods, it significantly compromises our defenses.
Nutritionist and author Lisa Richards says for strong immunity, aim for a low-sugar, anti-inflammatory diet. She recommends fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein.
“The nutrients we eat have a greater impact on our immune system than we give them credit for, and this goes beyond just vitamin C,” Richards said. “Colorful foods rich in antioxidants like broccoli, turmeric, red bell peppers, garlic, and spinach will help boost your immunity.”
One of Richards’s favorite immune-boosting meals is a classic cold and flu remedy.
“Chicken soup and broth have been used for centuries to ward off the common cold and its symptoms,” she said. “This is due in large part to the presence of cysteine in chicken. Cysteine is an amino acid known to break up mucus while also having an antiviral and anti-inflammatory effect in the body.”
Another easy addition to an immune-strengthening diet is hot herbal tea. An herbal infusion will contribute to good hydration, but Richards adds that herbs also contain natural plant compounds known as polyphenols which act as antioxidants in the body.
“Antioxidants will work in the body to reduce inflammation and also have antiviral properties,” Richards said.
One historically good choice among immune-boosting herbs is ginger. Ancient Sanskrit, Chinese, Greek, Roman, and Arabic texts all hold this rhizome in high esteem. In traditional medicine, ginger is often used to treat cold and flu symptoms by soothing sore throats and thinning mucus so it’s easier to expel.
Most modern research on ginger looks at the herb’s ability to relieve nausea, but a few studies suggest it may also help support the immune system. Research from Japan and India shows that ginger can stimulate immune markers and inhibit viral replication. Research from the United Kingdom shows that ginger extracts inhibit the common cold virus.
We tend to think of exercise as a way to keep fit, but regular workouts can also help strengthen our body’s disease-fighting powers. According to Dr. Sashini Seeni, a general practitioner at DoctorOnCall, exercise is a reliable way to enhance our immune system.
“It is hypothesized that exercise can increase the circulating rate of antibodies and white blood cells—the guardians of our body—so the invading organisms can be eliminated more rapidly,” Seeni said. “Besides that, our brain will release endorphin hormones when we exercise. Its role is to keep us cheerful and happy. It relaxes our body from stress, as stress is one of the major risk factors for a person to get sick frequently.”
To get the most disease-fighting power from exercise, balance is key. Research has shown that athletes who train too hard can get sick more often, due to an immunodepression effect. For example, an antibody in human saliva—immunoglobulin A (sIgA)—is the first line of defense against microbial invasions. However, heavy exercise can depress sIgA secretion, which results in an increased risk of infection.
Rest and Sleep
When we’re busy, it’s hard to take time for rest. But if we fail to make sleep a priority, it can cause us to lose productivity in the long run.
According to registered oncology nurse and patient advocate Gail Trauco, a lack of sleep can lead to higher levels of stress hormones and inflammation, which often results in a breach of our defenses.
“You’re more likely to catch a cold or other infection when you’re not getting enough sleep,” Trauco said. “You can boost the immune system by getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night for an adult. It’s key for good health.”
The need for sleep may seem obvious, but some people often push themselves repeatedly before they realize how run down they are. When we get sick, our body seems to crave sleep even more, but nutritionist and wellness coach Lynell Ross says many people still can’t take the hint and refuse to slow down. As a result, they take longer to recover, and end up exposing more people to their infection.
“We live in a culture that tells us to keep going, but it isn’t fair to your co-workers or other students if you show up coughing, sneezing and spreading germs,” Ross said. “Let’s change the concept of being busy and working while sick, to resting until we recover. There is nothing honorable about working while sick or infecting your co-workers.”
Think Good Thoughts
Infections aren’t a result of bad luck, but bad habits. And the more bad habits we practice, the less effective our immune systems become. According to acupuncturist Jamie Bacharach, the more destructive and unhealthy our lifestyle, the more our bodies need to draw from our limited resources in order to compensate.
“For example, recovering from consumption of alcohol requires energy from our body that could otherwise be directed towards our immune system,” Bacharach said. “Similarly, the less quality sleep we get, the harder our bodies will need to work in order to make it through the day. This taxing process saps our energy and limits the amount of power our immune system has in fighting illnesses.”
A bad mental state may also take a physical toll. Bacharach refers to a 2018 journal article that reviews research on how our mind correlates to our bodies’ immune response.
One study showed that people in a good state of mind had better immune indicators in their saliva, blood, and plasma, while those who were psychologically unwell saw a decrease in immune responses. The research suggests that your thoughts may have some influence on your body’s ability to fend off illness.
“Improving our psyche is proven to have the ability to enhance immune system strength and response, which is something that not enough people are conscious of in attempting to improve their health,” Bacharach said. “A healthy mind will help contribute to a stronger, healthier body.”