Sick again? If you’re someone who catches every cold that comes down the door handle, it might be your immune system that’s letting you down. Lowered immunity means a higher risk of getting sick — even chronically so. But you can still stop tragedy in its tracks by taking a few simple steps to strengthen your immunity before the ambulance ever arrives.
1. Tweak Your Diet
Probably the easiest and most touted way to give the old immune system a boost is to change the way you eat. Filling your plate with foods high in antioxidants — berries, nuts, and green, leafy vegetables — is the best way to fight the free radicals found all around you. You may have little control over your exposure to such things as air pollution, UV rays and the bits of radiation put off by your cell phone, but you can help your white blood cells fight off the negative effects these free radicals have on your body. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that simply adding lots of tomatoes — a food rich in the carotenoid lycopene — to your diet over a 3-week period can reduce the harmful effects of cancer-causing free radicals on the human body by significant percentages.
Seniors, especially, should pay attention to the foods they eat. As people age, they often experience issues with chewing or with the way foods taste, which can lead to unhealthy choices. The National Institute on Aging publishes a helpful food plan to help people over the age of 50 more easily maintain a balanced diet.
2. Stop Smoking
If you’re still engaging in this most harmful of habits, the time to stop is right now. Smoking not only contributes to a number of chronic illnesses such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease, but it weakens your body’s immune system, too, due to the high levels of tar and other chemicals you’re inhaling with each drag. And, according to the National Cancer Institute at Smokefree.gov, the nicotine found in cigarettes is another culprit, causing your blood vessels to constrict and making it more difficult for nutrients to get where they need to go. Smoking is just bad news all the way around. If you haven’t quit already, do it now, especially if you’re between the ages of 25 and 44 years old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this demographic contains the largest percentage of active smokers — a whopping 20 percent — most of whom are men.
3. Get Up and Get Moving
Besides making you look and feel good, exercise is great for nudging the old immune system into gear. The National Library of Medicine offers up several solid theories as to how this works: exercise helps to flush away harmful bacteria that may be present in your airways and lungs. Exercise also jump starts your white blood cells — making them circulate faster, which in turn helps them detect and begin fighting illness in a timelier manner. Exercise also lowers stress, and scientists have known for years that stress and the immune system are mortal enemies.
If you’re over the age of 55, the Cleveland Clinic offers helpful advice on staying active while staying safe: start simple — even something as low-impact as walking has great immune-boosting benefits. And if you wear weight-resistant bands, even better. Never push yourself to go beyond what’s comfortable. Once you reach the point where exercise becomes painful, you should back off.
4. Make a Date
It doesn’t have to be a romantic interlude. Simply getting yourself out there where you can socialize with friends and have fun is enough to perk up not only your attitude, but your immunity as well. This is especially true for older Americans who may not be as social as they once were due to immobility or the inability to drive. Time Magazine recently published the results of a study conducted by Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that suggests social networks are more important than we realized. People with large circles of friends were 50 percent more likely to live longer than those who kept their circles tight. If you’re not able to get out and visit with friends physically, pick up the phone and call, send a text, or shoot them an email.
5. Laugh Big
There’s quite a bit of truth to the old adage, “laughter is the best medicine.” It chases stress away and helps increase diaphragmatic breathing that cleanses the lymph nodes. When your body’s lymphatic system is in good working order, the waste it produces is easily cleaned from the blood and removed from the body much more quickly. A good, hearty belly laugh is a perfect example of diaphragmatic breathing.
6. Go to Bed
Getting too little sleep over a period of time will make you sluggish and grumpy for sure, but it can also overtax your immune system. In a study published at SleepFoundation.org, test subjects who were deprived of sleep over 29 consecutive hours exhibited an increase in white blood cell production — meaning their bodies were gearing up for a fight. The results of sleep deprivation, even this minor, mirrored the effects of stress. So if you’re skipping those 8 hours of snooze time every night, your body will eventually assume you’re stressed, leaving your immune system to pick up the tab.
7. Steer Clear of Antibiotics
Sure, they seem like a wonder drug when you’re down with strep, but abusing the antibiotics that doctors sometimes prescribe for bacterial infections can land you in serious jeopardy. Take them too often and your body develops a tolerance by producing fewer cytokines — the proteins produced by cells that help to regulate the way your body responds to infection and illness. Fewer cytokines mean a suppressed immune system, and with suppressed immunity, you’re opening yourself up to every bug that rolls down the line.
8. Pamper Your Liver
Your liver plays a huge role in how well your immune system does or doesn’t function. Take care of this vital organ, and it will love you back by detoxifying chemicals inside your body. Your liver also produces protein, bile that carries away waste, and glucose that helps you maintain proper blood sugar levels. You can pamper this organ that’s vital to your existence by eating plenty of cruciferous vegetables, grapefruit, lemons and avocados and by avoiding certain painkillers like acetaminophen.
And as you age, be on the lookout for signs that your liver might need a little TLC. If you bruise easily, have itchy skin, or if your urine is dark in color, it could be a sign of liver malfunction. For those over 55, even simple steps can help ensure your liver stays strong and healthy — make sure to take prescriptions only as prescribed, wash your hands often, and avoid alcohol as much as possible.
9. Cut Back on Sugar
Even a little sugar can be a bad thing, depending upon your definition of “little.” If you’re someone who thinks nothing of consuming two cans of regular soda in a day, you could be endangering your immune system. Even this much sugar — roughly 8 tablespoons — daily can decrease the efficiency of your white blood cells by a whopping 40 percent, according to renowned pediatrician, Dr. William Sears.
And if you’re addicted to sugary sodas, now is the time to educate yourself on the facts. Soda companies spend billions of dollars each year in marketing these products to young people in the hopes of encouraging them to buy more and more. And while the marketing budget increases, so does the size of the soda. Before 1950, soda bottles were a standard 6.5 ounces. When you compare that to today’s 42-ounce offerings, it’s easy to see where problems arise.
10. Avoid Obesity
Obesity, having a Body Mass Index of 30 or greater, has a negative effect on white blood cells. Just as it slows you down, it slows down your body’s response to illness and infection too. White blood cells must work overtime in a body that’s overweight. If you’re currently struggling with your weight because of obesity, take a closer look at your diet, and try ramping up your daily exercise regimen to kick-start your immune system.
These changes may be small, but they’re ones that will have a huge impact in the long run. If you’re tired of being tired or if your get-up-and-go got up and went, it’s time to change the way you treat your immune system. They’re your white blood cells; whip them into shape using these 10 timely tips.