Boosting Your Immune System

By Anita Marlay, RD, LD

It is cold and flu season again. Even the healthiest people get sick once in a while. But did you know that some common lifestyle habits can be detrimental to your ability to fight off infections like cold and flu? On the other hand, certain foods provide important nutrients that can help protect you from illness. Here is a list of foods that can strengthen your natural defenses:

Probiotics in yogurt have been shown to help shorten the length of a cold by a couple days.

Their beta glucan content helps enhance macrophage activity, which helps ward off infections.

It is rich in omega-3s that help increase the activity of the white cells that take care of bacteria and also good source of selenium, a potent antioxidant.

Green tea
Green tea has high levels of catechins, another powerful antioxidant that helps fight inflammation.

They’re a good source of vitamin E, which can help prevent colds.

The sulfur containing compounds in garlic appears to stimulate multiplication of white cells, which fight infection. These compounds also help guard cells from everyday wear and tear.

Citrus fruits
Some studies indicate that high intake of vitamin C may make colds milder and shorter.

Make sure you meet your vitamin D requirements. People with higher levels of vitamin D in their diet are less likely to report flu symptoms. Low levels of vitamin D in the body have been linked to an increase in seasonal colds and flu.

Lots of fruits and vegetables
Five to nine servings every day are recommended. Fruits and vegetables are a prime source of antioxidants, carotenoids and bioflavonoids, which help prevent inflammation and provide protection to the cells. Chronic inflammation can lead to weakened and damaged cells, making you more susceptible to infections.

Not too much sugar or fat
These tend to suppress immune system cells that are responsible for fighting bacteria. Plus, too much sugar and fat might lead to obesity. Excess fat cells trigger the release of chemicals that cause inflammation in healthy tissue.

Working out regularly can mobilize your T-cells, a type of white blood cell known to guard against infection. Getting your heart rate up for just 20 minutes three times a week is associated with improved immune function.

Stress reduction
Chronic stress is a major factor for suppressed immunity. Prolonged stress can wear down the immune system and increase your vulnerability to illnesses.

Try relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation or deep breathing
Listen to music, play with your kids, walk your dog, take a long bath or do whatever calms and relaxes you.

Be social
People who enjoy good relationships and social networks have stronger immune systems.

Laugh often
Laughing decreases the levels of stress hormones in the body while increasing a type of white blood cell that fights infection.

Fatigue increases your susceptibility to illness. Like stress, lack of sleep can cause a rise in inflammation in the body. Getting adequate amounts of sleep is essential for good health. Seven to nine hours a night is recommended for adults.

Washing your hands is one of the best ways to prevent illness. Make sure to wash your hands for 15 to 20 seconds with warm water and soap before preparing or eating food, after coughing and sneezing, using the bathroom or touching surfaces in public places.

Herbs and supplements
There is not a lot of good evidence to support the use of various herbs, supplements or vitamin pills for prevention of illness. Vitamin C or Echinacea may reduce a cold’s intensity or duration if taken as soon as you experience symptoms. If you do not consume adequate fruits and vegetables, a multivitamin might prove beneficial, although studies show that the nutrients from food are much more beneficial than vitamins from a pill. Adequate vitamin D levels are necessary to maintain overall health, and many of us are deficient in vitamin D. Ask your doctor if you need a supplement to boost your levels. Herbs and spices like oregano, turmeric and ginger, contain potent antioxidants that can help fight infections.

Anita Marlay, RD, LD is a Registered Dietitian and cardiac rehab dietitian at Lake Regional Health System in Osage Beach, Missouri, where she helps patients make lifestyle changes for heart health. She writes a weekly nutrition column for the Lake Sun Leader and is a frequent contributor to other magazines in her area. As a Kids Eat Right member, Anita also provides nutrition education to parents and children through the local Trim Kids program. She can be reached at

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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