Everything you do -- everything you touch, breathe, eat, and think affects your immunity. Everything! How you live your life is the most powerful resource known for preserving and restoring your immunity. Factors such as sleep, exercise, nutrition, stress reduction, and spiritual connection provide the foundation for a strong immune response. This information can be translated into practical steps you can take to enjoy a life of greater health and vitality.
A healthy lifestyle is also a natural way to build your immunity. This involves approaches that are simple, inexpensive, and safe -- and that really work. You can become highly skilled at fine tuning your lifestyle to produce maximum health. And these changes can be incorporated into your daily life gradually, at your own pace.
The beneficial effects of lifestyle on immunity have been documented in thousands of research studies. These studies come from a wide range of disciplines, from universities and medical centers around the world. This research has rediscovered the importance of the "style" in which we live our lives, and highlights its potential to enhance our overall health.
The Wellness Factor
The strength of the immune system is always a factor whenever there is illness -- whether it's the common cold or cancer. It's the missing part of the equation we tend to overlook. You have probably experienced cycles in your life when you seemed to catch everything that came along. At other times, you may have remained perfectly healthy while those around you became ill. Your ability to resist illness is a yardstick that measures the strength of your immune system. The strength of your immunity can have a profound impact on whether you get sick, how long you stay sick, and how ill you become. So the immune reserves you build through a healthy lifestyle provide a buffer that will help to prevent or minimize illness.
Building Good Resistance
New information suggests that infections can leave us vulnerable to more serious conditions if they deplete our immunity. This is important, because it can no longer be assumed that colds, flu, and other common illnesses are always harmless. Cryptosporidium is a case in point. In response to a recent outbreak in Canada, health officials said that most people who suffered from this flu-like illness would probably recover within two weeks. However, they warned that the same microbe could be more harmful to people who had weakened immune function. Generally, those most vulnerable are young children, older people, and those with chronic health conditions. Understanding immunity and susceptibility can aid us in maintaining good health and strong resistance.
The Centers for Disease Control has repeatedly advised of the rising incidence of infectious diseases. A recent news article on a meningitis outbreak in the San Francisco Bay Area reflects how vulnerable we may become when immune function is compromised. When a form of meningitis was contracted by a number of children in northern California this year, a local public health officer pointed out the risk involved: "This is not an outbreak. Fifty to 60 percent of the population carries [strep] bacteria in their throats. Normally, it's not a problem, but if someone had a prior cold, and their body can't combat it, then it [could become] serious."
These infections were not caused by exotic supergerms. They were the result of the overgrowth of potentially dangerous bacteria that normally coexist within us. Staph bacteria are another example of microbes that most of us carry. Like strep, these resident bacteria aren't usually a problem, because a healthy immune system will keep their growth in check. This is one of the reasons why severe illness from strep and staph is relatively rare. However, under certain circumstances, they can cause dangerous secondary infections, so they are to be taken seriously. Meningitis (which can result from strep infection) causes long-term damage in one out of four cases. The threat of these types of bacterial infections clearly demonstrates why it is so important to build robust immunity.
For the past fifteen years, extensive research has deepened our understanding of immunity, particularly through the enormous number of studies on cancer and AIDS. Science has made great strides in the exploration of how the immune system works and how to enhance its function. As a result, the American public has a greater appreciation for the importance of immunity.
There is also a large body of medical literature that documents the role of lifestyle factors in immunity. This research reflects the impact on our health of the things we do every day. It also provides information we can use to modify our lifestyle, in order to enhance health and immune function.
Lifestyle and Immunity
To explore the effects of lifestyle on immunity, consider the example of the common cold. Our vulnerability depends on the balance between the strength of our immunity and the strength of the threatening virus. Once exposed, we only get sick if our immune defenses are inadequate. When our reserve defenses are depleted, they can no longer prevent the virus from invading our cells. We all know that when our defenses are strong, we almost never get sick.
Yet many of us tend to overestimate our ability to resist illness, and in the process we neglect our health. Most of us don't get enough rest. We often eat on the run. We may be exposed to a variety of germs and toxins daily. And, for most of us, stress has become a way of life. We frequently take better care of our cars than of our bodies. It doesn't take a research scientist to figure out why we sometimes get sick.
Consider the effects of lifestyle on our susceptibility to illness. The factors that may increase our vulnerability to disease can also be modified to improve our resistance.
* Rest and rejuvenation. How often have you caught a cold after not getting enough sleep? We depend on adequate restful sleep to restore our bodies and refresh our minds. During deep sleep, our bodies release potent immune-enhancing substances that strengthen immune function. It is especially important to get additional rest when we are ill.
* Exercise. We need regular exercise. The body has a remarkable ability to increase its metabolic capacity through consistent regular physical conditioning. We all know how invigorated and strong we feel when we're in shape. Overall fitness creates reserve capacity that not only serves as a buffer against disease but also helps us recover more quickly.
* Good nutrition. A healthy diet is absolutely essential to maintain good immunity. Food provides our cells with the raw materials they require to meet the body's needs. We tend to take nutrition for granted, believing that we'll get along just fine, even if we don't consume all the nutrition we need. Yet we shouldn't assume that just because we live in a modern society we have adequate nutrition. Hundreds of in-depth studies have documented that malnutrition exists in industrialized nations today, among both the rich and poor.
Widespread nutritional factors that can compromise our immune capacity include eating too much sugar or starch, obesity, high cholesterol, and the regular use of alcohol. If the immune system is malnourished, it may not have the resources needed to protect us against illness. A healthy immune system depends on adequate amounts of vitamins, minerals, and other important metabolic nutrients. For example, the vast majority of our immune function is dependent on vitamin A and zinc, nutrients that are often lacking in the modern diet.
* Toxins and pollution. The metabolic machinery of our cells is exquisitely sensitive to many toxins that can interfere with the body's normal biochemical processes. Every day we are exposed to thousands (yes, thousands) of chemicals in our food, water, and air that were nonexistent until the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a result, our bodies must cope with manufactured chemicals, pesticides, heavy metals, petroleum products, and plastics that can accumulate in our tissues and that are toxic to the immune system. Clearing the body of these environmental toxins increases our requirement for antioxidants and various other nutrients. Because of these exposures, our nutritional requirements may be increased to higher levels than we can obtain in our diet, making it important to use nutritional supplements to remain healthy. And because of the prevalence of these exposures, it's also important to build detoxification into our lifestyle.
Some toxic chemicals have been documented to cause coldlike symptoms. A committee of the World Health Organization reported that up to 30 percent of new and remodeled buildings emit air pollutants such as formaldehyde, asbestos, volatile chemicals, and other toxins and allergens. The effects of these emissions can cause "sick building syndrome." Solutions to the chemical sensitivity that may result include avoiding the sources of exposure, detoxifying the body and, when necessary, getting treatment from a physician trained in environmental medicine.
* The stress factor. There is now strong data that documents the impact of stress on immunity and susceptibility to illness. For instance, remember how many of your friends caught colds during final exams? A report of 276 volunteers exposed to a common cold virus showed that those who had been under stress for more than a month were most likely to get sick. In another study, children with a history of stress and recurrent colds were found to have lower localized immunity. Stress has also been found to stimulate immune-suppressing chemicals such as adrenaline. Fortunately, research has found that stress reducers such as meditation, relaxation, guided imagery, and hypnosis can effectively enhance immunity.
This article is excerpted from the book:
by Len Saputo, M.D. and Nancy Faass, MSW, MPH.
About the Authors
Len Saputo, M.D., is founder and director of the Health Medicine Forum, a nonprofit educational foundation. He is also medical director of the Health Medicine Institute, an integrative medicine center in Walnut Creek, California, where he has an active private practice.
Nancy Faass, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a writer and editor in San Francisco. Her work includes Optimal Digestion and Integrating Complementary Medicine into Health Systems.