As the much-desired cooler weather makes its way into our lives, it seems the not-so-desired cold and flu bugs also begin to make an appearance. This is the time of year when our immune systems need positive reinforcement from our bodies to function at an optimal level.
The immune system offers one of the best defenses against illness. You might say it acts as a personal security guard by defending the body against attacks from bacteria and viruses. While healthy immune cells offer a strong defense against disease and infections, they will begin to lose their protective value if the body is consistently indulging in poor health habits.
An Austrian doctor in the 1840s discovered that bacterial infections decreased with hand washing. Washing hands frequently can help prevent viral and bacterial infections; however, we also need to review daily life patterns that could have a negative impact on boosting immune systems. Your mental state, sleeping habits, diet and extent of exercise all affect immune cells.
Here are behaviors that can weaken the immune system.
Chronic stress: There is increasing scientific information that chronic stress can lead to a significant decrease in the ability of the immune system to fight diseases. And there have been studies indicating that certain stress hormones will cause immune cells to age faster. There is no indication of long-term negative effects from the occasional "hormonal surges" that accompany short-term stress. It is when short-term stress develops into chronic stress that the immune system begins to suffer.
Try setting aside half an hour a day, several times a week, to meditate or practice yoga or tai chi. They all help to ease tension and boost the immune system. Treat yourself to a massage — it releases a natural relaxation response.
Too little or too much exercise: Exercise helps reduce stress hormones. Continuing studies are finding a positive link between moderate, consistent exercise and a strong immune system. According to Monika Fleshner, a professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, people who exercise regularly acquire a resiliency that makes them less susceptible to health problems. "This is especially important when we're stressed and as we age," says Fleshner.
"While too little exercise is bad for the immune system," she says, "too much is just as bad." Research indicates that too much intense exercise can reduce immunity; more than 90 minutes of high-intensity exercise is considered intense.
Smoking: Cigarette smoke contains more than 4,000 chemical compounds and 43 of them can cause cancer. Smoking decreases immune cells that would normally protect the body. While antioxidants come to the rescue to help repair damaged cells, smokers have reduced levels of antioxidants in their blood compared with nonsmokers. The good news is that the negative effects of smoking can be reversed once the smoker stops.
Poor nutrition: The immune system suffers when it is deprived of essential healthy nutrients. Crash diets with less than 1,200 calories daily can cause a depressed immune system, as can diets high in saturated and trans fats, increasing the risk for infections. Overindulgence in sugar (two cans of soda) can reduce the white blood cells' ability to kill germs by 40 percent.
On the positive side, eating more fruit and veggies will help fight off colds and flu because of their immune-boosting antioxidants. Colorful fruits and veggies provide the three major antioxidant vitamins: Vitamin C increases production of white blood cells and antibodies needed for fighting infection; vitamin E stimulates the "killer cells" that attack and eliminate infected cells; and vitamin A, found in red, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables and dark green vegetables, promotes good sight, improves skin condition and guards against bacterial, viral and parasitic infections.
Lack of sleep: Without 7 to 8 hours of nightly sleep, your body cannot benefit from many of the natural processes, such as stabilizing chemical imbalances or reviving energy levels, that occur while sleeping. Lack of sleep weakens the body's ability to fight off the viruses that cause colds and flu. Try to go to bed and get up about the same times; sticking to a schedule helps reinforce your body's sleep cycle. Bedtime routines also promote better sleep, such as having a cup of hot tea or reading and listening to relaxing music.
If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning any exercise program. Write to Sally Anderson, a trainer, in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.
Tree pose on ball, right, stretches inner thigh and sides of back and improves balance. Sitting on an exercise ball, place foot on top of thigh. Raise arms overhead and maintain this position while you take 3 to 4 deep breaths, breathing slowly from the diaphragm. Return foot to ground and repeat with other foot placed on thigh. Tip: Remain focused and keep abdominals contracted. Initially, you may want to sit on a chair. If using ball, place it against a wall for added support.
Cobra 1 increases flexibility and strength of arms, chest, shoulders and back. Lying on stomach with legs hip-width apart and tops of feet on the floor, relax shoulders and rest forehead on floor. Bend elbows, placing lower arms near sides of your head, palms facing down. Inhale as you raise chest and head slowly off floor, looking straight ahead. Exhale as you slowly lower upper torso and head to floor. Repeat 3 to 4 times. Tip: If you have lower back issues, separate legs wider than hip-width apart and allow heels to turn outward.
Karate Kid, below, improves balance and strengthens legs, arms and shoulders. Inhale, raising arms to the sides, parallel to the floor. Focusing on a spot on the floor about 10 feet in front of you, exhale as you bend your knee, raising it toward your chest. Take 4 to 5 breaths, then release leg and repeat with opposite knee lift. Tip: Contract abdominal muscles and keep arms in line with shoulders.