By David Solondz, M.D., family medicine and integrative medicine physician at Providence Medical Group-Cascade and co-medical director of Providence Integrative Medicine Program
Faster than a speeding sneeze, more powerful than a contagious disease, ready to leap into action against viral villains – it’s your immune system! Made up of a vast army of cells – mostly white blood cells – this inner superhero is on duty 24/7, scouting out invaders, fending off infections and fighting internal grime. When performing at its peak, your immune system defends and protects you from colds, flu viruses – even some cancers.
Unfortunately, every superhero has its kryptonite. For the immune system, it’s a hormone called cortisol. Released during times of stress, cortisol acts to suppress immune function. When stress is a constant in your life, your cortisol levels stay elevated, weakening your immune system and leaving you vulnerable to catching whatever is going around. And this time of year, something is always going around.
To make sure you don’t get caught with your guard down, do everything you can to build up your defenses. Here are the three most important things your immune system needs from you to stay in top fighting condition:
- Restful, restorative sleep
It’s a classic Catch-22: Getting plenty of sleep is the best way to relieve stress – but stress makes it hard to sleep, which increases stress, which makes it harder to sleep. Many of us just put up with this self-perpetuating cycle because there seems to be no way out of it. The problem is, it’s trashing our immune systems.
Chronic sleep deprivation produces chronically high levels of immune-suppressing cortisol. So the less sleep you get, the harder you make it for your immune system to do its job, and the more likely you are to get sick and to stay sick longer.
Although some people can get by on less, most of us require about seven or eight continuous hours of sleep each night to keep our immune systems at the top of their game – and quality is just as important as quantity. Trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, tossing and turning all night, and waking up every morning feeling exhausted are sure signs of poor sleep quality. If your sleep is not leaving you refreshed, talk to your physician about it. Addressing chronic pain, sleep apnea or other issues may help you sleep more soundly and avoid potentially serious health consequences.
- High-quality fuel
A diet that is too high in sugar and alcohol impairs the ability of your white blood cells to fight infection. For a high-functioning immune system, minimize the sweets and alcoholic beverages and focus, instead, on high-quality fuel. Here’s what your immune system would ask for, if it could:
- At least five servings of vegetables and fruit every day: a large apple is two servings, so it’s not that hard to fit in five servings a day.
- At least 35 grams of fiber every day: a cup of oatmeal with raspberries for breakfast, a black bean burrito on a whole-grain tortilla with an apple for lunch, and a crunchy salad with your dinner would cover it.
- Foods that fight inflammation: fish, avocados, flaxseeds and garlic keep inflammation down and help every one of your cells do its best possible job.
- Antioxidant foods: brightly colored fruits and vegetables are packed with these high-powered nutrients, which protect your cells from oxidative stress.
- Energizing activity
Daily exercise helps keep cortisol in check. It also reduces stress, improves sleep (as long as you don’t exercise right before bedtime), releases immune-boosting endorphins, elevates mood, and gets your blood circulating to all of your cells and organs to help everything function better. Study after study proves that people who spend more time being active lose less time to being sick.
For your immune system to do its best, you need 30 minutes of fun activity per day, five days a week. If you’re trying to lose weight, more is better. Too busy for a 30-minute swim or bike ride? Take a 15-minute walk in the morning before work, and another one at lunchtime or at the end of your workday.
Regular exercise, together with healthy eating and restful sleep, forms the foundation for a flourishing immune system. Other things – such as spending quiet time alone, staying connected to people you love, avoiding smoking, controlling medical conditions and getting regular dental checkups – can help, too. But the big three are key. It doesn’t take a heroic effort to make these changes, but together, they can have powerful results.