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Diet, exercise, rest, flu shots can help boost the immune system

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By Carolyn Butler
Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Faithful readers of this column will recall that last school year was a particularly brutal one, minor-illness-wise, for the Butler family, complete with runny noses, hacking coughs and the not-so-occasional stomach flu. So as we come to the tail end of a perfectly healthy, happy, snot-free summer and head back to school -- with all those germs! -- Mom has decided to go on the offensive. My mission? To build up our immunity and prevent colds, viruses and infections as much as possible.

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That can be a tall order, says Gerard Mullin, a Johns Hopkins Hospital internist and gastroenterologist. "The change of seasons weakens your immune system by draining your body's neuroendocrine system and stressing it with the changes in day and night and coldness and warmth, all of which makes you more susceptible to catching a cold or flu."

He notes that being forced back into crowded places such as classrooms doesn't help matters, nor do changes to bedtime and wake-up routines. "Going back to school and a stricter schedule, and not being able to hang out, sleep late and get up at 10: It's a new rhythm and a different world for kids," he explains. "Just like for the rest of us, not getting enough rest . . . plus dealing with the elements, the changing weather and stressors like school or work, can really hamper immune function."

But while it can be a challenge to boost immunity in this situation, it is possible, says Philip Tierno Jr., director of clinical microbiology and immunology at New York University's Langone Medical Center. "People tend to . . . take special supplements figuring, 'That will protect me,' " he says. "Well, no, your body is what you have to work on: You need to get your organ in perfect shape to be able to defend itself, because the normal body is well adapted to do that."

Experts agree that getting yourself into shape starts with good, balanced nutrition. That means avoiding processed foods, red meat and saturated fats; not overeating; and consuming produce and foods rich in omega 3 fatty acids, such as salmon, says Mullin, who is also a nutritionist.

"It's interesting that in the fall, root vegetables like yams and carrots, which are all very rich in Vitamin A and antioxidants, which play a huge role in immunity, come up in our diet," he explains. "If you focus on eating seasonal fruits and vegetables, you'll get all of the immune-boosting vitamins and minerals you need without having to think about supplements." He adds that a wide variety of mushrooms, including shitakes and even plain old white buttons, have also been proven to improve immune function. And since, according to Mullin, it has now been firmly established that the gut is the center of immunity, he suggests regularly eating yogurt with probiotics, which help maintain healthy gut flora.

In addition to urging people to eat their way to an optimal defense against colds, viruses and the like, NYU's Tierno, the author of "The Secret Life of Germs," offers these tips, which he says are all backed by research:

-- Get moving. Sedentary people are more likely than others to become ill. Exercise -- even just a half-hour to an hour of walking -- has been shown to keep you functioning and to boost immunity.

-- Stay rested. It's essential to get enough sleep -- ideally 7 1/2 to nine hours -- because proper rest helps the body repair injuries caused by stress, illness and invading organisms such as viruses.

-- Don't stress. Stress hormones can make you more susceptible to infection. So try not to get worked up over that resurgent rush-hour traffic and focus on maintaining a less confrontational and low-stress lifestyle.

-- Look on the bright side. Optimistic people tend to have a better immune response.

-- Drink up. If you feel a cold coming on, consume plenty of fluids. This helps keep your organ systems functioning optimally and is very important for proper immune response.

-- Avoid germs. Many people don't follow basic rules of hygiene. Tierno said it's important to wash or sanitize your hands frequently -- such as after using that germy shared pen at the supermarket -- and to steer clear of coughing, sneezing or otherwise obviously ill people.

-- Get a flu shot. This is one of the simplest means of staying well, particularly for the very young, for older people and for those whose immune systems are compromised.

And what about supplements? While drugstore shelves are filled with a plethora of powders and products touting their immune-boosting benefits, the evidence on effectiveness is decidedly lacking.

"There's all types of stuff out there, but even for patients who do have quite significant suppression of the immune system from cancer or HIV, really no pharmacologic means have ever been successful in stimulating the immune system," says physician David Parenti, an infectious-diseases expert at the George Washington University Medical Center, who doesn't "think that high doses of any vitamins or other immune stimulants are necessary."

Tierno does recommend taking around 2,000 to 3,000 IU (international units) of Vitamin D daily. But for the most part, claims about immune-boosting products "are bunk, because if you practice all of these diet and lifestyle rules you are going to be getting enough amino acids and vitamins already," explains Tierney, who says he hasn't been sick in more than five years.

Consider yourself armed and ready for all of the cold- and flu-fighting to come.


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