Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Keep Your Immune System Strong So It Can Keep You Well


It seemed like it happened every time. For the longest while I didn’t think I could do anything about it. 

I’d be going along feeling fine and healthy. Then I’d have a critically ill patient under my care.  After a few days of stress and interrupted night’s sleep, WHAM – I’d come down with a heck of a cold.

When you think about it, it’s surprising that doctors and nurses aren’t sick all the time.  After all, most spend their days in offices and hospitals where the sickest people infected with the nastiest bugs congregate. 

Moreover, sick folks aren’t always as conscientious as we might like about containing their hacks and sneezes.

The reason health care workers aren’t sick all the time is because our immune system protects us.  Maintaining a strong immune system is crucial to staying healthy. Fortunately there's a lot you can do to support optimum immune function.

Here's some of what I've learned about building up a healthy immune system so it can do its job of fighting the nasty bugs we all come in contact with.

Our immune system is a complex, interacting web of chemical and cellular components that serves to protect us against potential invaders such as bacteria, viruses and cancer cells.  Although we often talk about immune “boosting’, what we really want is a perfectly balanced immune system. An overly active immune system can damage the body. This is what is going on with many autoimmune diseases, but that’s another story.

The foundation of any wellness program at a healthy lifestyle.

That's especially true with regard to the immune system. The usual advice about eating well and exercising regularly and maintaining emotional and psychological balance applies here.

There are several specific factors that affect immune system. These include nutritional deficiencies, infections, trauma, toxins (all too common in today’s world), radiation exposure, emotional state and, very importantly, stress.

Multiple studies have demonstrated the association between stress and suppression of immune function. An example is a study in which volunteers were exposed to a cold virus. Prior to the exposure they took a survey that measured the amount of stress they were experiencing at the time. The survey took into account both positive stress and negative stress.

Positive stress is getting a job promotion or getting married. Negative stress is losing a job or getting divorced.

In this study, as in real life, not everyone who is exposed to the virus came down with a cold. The researchers found that the more stress a person was under when they were exposed to the virus the more likely they were to become ill.

Stress influences the immune system at many levels. For example, it causes an increase in the hormone cortisol. Long term elevation of cortisol is a powerful suppressor of immune function.

Stress was one factor that weakened my immune system when I was taking care of those critically ill people.

Fortunately, several behavioral interventions counteract the effects of stress on the immune system. You are probably aware of meditation as a stress management tool.  Other proven interventions include:  clinical biofeedback, autogenic training, Jacobsen's progressive relaxation, hypnosis, general relaxation, behavior modification, and visualization and imagery techniques.

The techniques that I’ve personally found most useful are taught by the Institute of HeartMath.

The main thing is to learn a technique that appeals to you and then use it

Increasing stress is part of today’s world. That's just the way it is. If we don’t take steps to counteract it we’ll pay the price in many ways, including a less than optimal immune system..

Another factor affecting the immune system is sleep, or rather the lack of it. Even modest sleep deprivation has a profound effect. 

For example a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine reports that people who had less than 7 hours sleep a night were more than three times as likely to come down with a cold during the course of the study than those who had 8 or more hours of sleep. 

Not only that, difficulty falling asleep and interruptions in sleep during the night greatly increased the risk of developing a cold.

It’s easy to see why I got sick so easily when I was worrying about a patient and not getting enough sleep.

Managing stress and getting enough sleep is a solid start.  Here are some other things you can do to keep your immune system functioning at its best.

Exercise not only strengthens your muscles, it strengthens you immune system. I won't belabor the point here but a strengthened immune system is yet another reason to make exercise a regular part of your life.

One point of caution is to keep in mind that exercising steadily for over 90 minutes is counterproductive. At that level of study, the exercise itself becomes a type of chronic stress. For most of us this is not an issue but it certainly is for endurance athletes.

A healthy diet should be part of any wellness program. I won't go into details here - you already know the basics. A healthy diet emphasizes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. It includes healthy fats in adequate amounts of lean protein.

Emphasize the fruits and vegetables.

Any nutrient deficiency suppresses immune function, as does excess consumption of sugar and refined foods.

Although a healthy diet is the foundation, supplements can be of benefit as well. Taking a high potency multivitamin and mineral supplement is a reasonable first step.

Zinc and selenium are two minerals that are particularly important for immune system support. Be sure your supplement includes them.

Perhaps the most important vitamin to be aware of regarding your immune syustem is vitamin D. Is important both because it affects the immune system at multiple points and also because deficiency is so common.

We need exposure to sunlight to generate our own vitamin D. Most people, especially those in the Northern states, don't get nearly enough exposure.

15 to 20 minutes of exposure to bright sunlight is enough to maintain adequate vitamin D levels. Barring that you should consider taking a supplement. The amount in a typical multivitamin won't be nearly enough to correct the deficiency. You can have your blood level of vitamin D checked, but is generally safe to take 1000 2000 units a day. Some people require even more.

I recommend that everyone supplement with omega-3 fatty acids. Healthy levels of these crucial fats have many benefits, including supporting the immune system. The most people 2 to 6 g of fish oil a day taken and divided doses with meals is sufficient.

Other supplements to consider (I do take these myself) are: coenzyme Q10 and reservatol.

Many people don't realize that the gastrointestinal tract plays a very important role in overall immune function. Although research into this area is only just beginning, it is clear already that the type of bacteria residing in our G.I. tract makes a difference. For this reason, it's a good idea to periodically take a course of a probiotic (beneficial bacteria) capsules to help maintain a healthy G.I. floor. This is especially important if you need to take antibiotics for any reason.

You don't have to be a victim of the latest outbreak of a cold or flu. If you heed the advice I've just given you, you can count on your immune system to keep you healthy and well.


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