Speaking as someone who just spent three weeks in bed with the flu - coughing, sneezing, throat on fire, aching muscles and just plain miserable - I can tell you that missing my workouts only added insult to injury. And I thought I was doing all the right things to stay healthy and fit.
HOW YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM WORKS
When you are healthy, your body can serve as a fortress, protecting you from all manner of bacteria and viruses. Your thick skin produces a variety of substances that are harmful to invaders; almost every orifice (i.e., eyes, nose, mouth, etc.) produces fluids and/or sticky mucous that captures harmful attackers; the respiratory tract has cilia (tiny hairs) that remove particles; and, your stomach acid can definitely destroy almost anything that gets that far. (1)
Although far more complex than described here, the
is also made up the thymus, spleen, lymph nodes and various types of cells and proteins, each with a different job in protecting the body. These cells include phagocytes, granulocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells, lymphocytes (white blood cells categorized as either T or B cells), plasma cells which produce antibodies, and memory cells which remember an intruder and, if he shows up again, will wipe him out before you ever feel any symptoms. (2)
HABITS THAT WEAKEN THE IMMUNE SYSTEM
Like me, you may think you are as fit as fiddle. But, you catch a cold more than twice a year and/or you can't seem to shake your flu symptoms for weeks. So what are you doing wrong?
Poor nutrition: too much sugar (8 tbsp. of sugar reduces the ability of white blood cells to kill germs by 40%); processed foods; obesity; and too-low calorie diets.
Excess alcohol or drugs: consuming amounts enough to cause intoxication suppress immunity, and beyond 3 drinks, damages it to the degree of consumption.
Smoking both legal and illegal substances
Chronic stress: along with all the standard things we continue to stress over, a study published in Psychological Science determined that when a person nursed a grudge, they experienced a spike in blood pressure and increased heart rate. (3)
Not getting enough rest
In his book "Staying Healthy with the Seasons" (Celestial Arts, 1981), Elson M. Haas, M.D., the Medical Director of the Preventative Medical Center of Marin in San Rafael, California, states that "[m]ost illnesses are a result of excess toxins (physical, mental and emotional unusable materials) in the body. Healing is the elimination or cleansing of these toxins, and then achieving a balance of intake and output."
There are many approaches to
, including fasting (drinking nothing but water and eating no food) or drinking fruit and/or vegetable juices (still no food), usually for 5 - 10 days, although some folks may go longer. There are also various
which include food, like the following plan offered by Dr. Haas:
Morning: (upon arising):
Two glasses of water (filtered, spring, or reverse osmosis), one glass with half a lemon squeezed into it.
One piece of fresh fruit (at room temp), such as apple, pear, banana, grapes, or citrus. Chew well, mixing each bite with saliva.
15-30 minutes later:
One bowl of cooked whole grains -- specifically millet, brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, raw buckwheat, or buckwheat. Flavoring can be two tablespoons of fruit juice for a sweeter breakfast taste, or use the "better butter" mixture mentioned below with a little salt or tamari for a deeper flavor.
Lunch: (Noon-1 P.M.)
One-two medium bowls of steamed vegetables; use a variety, including roots, stems, and greens -- e.g. potatoes or yams, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, beets, asparagus, kale, chard, and cabbage.
Dinner: (5-6 P.M.)
Same as Lunch
Butter/canola oil mixture. Make this "better butter" by mixing a half cup of cold-pressed canola oil (or olive or flaxseed oils) into a soft (room temperature) half-pound of butter; then place in dish and refrigerate. Use about one teaspoon per meal or a maximum of 3 teaspoons daily.
11 A.M. & 3 P.M.
One-two cups veggie water, saved from steamed vegetables. Add a little sea salt or kelp and drink slowly, mixing each mouthful with saliva.
Herbal teas only -- e.g. peppermint, camomile, pau d'arco, or blends. (4)
Dr. Haas suggests the best times to do a detox is early spring and then again in early fall. So right now, think of it as spring cleaning for your body. Of course, check with your doctor first, as certain physical conditions may prevent you from attempting a body cleansing. Note that some physicians don't agree that such a program is beneficial.
FEED YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
You may have already figured that you need to dump the processed and fried foods and do your grocery shopping at Whole Foods Market. However, like putting a particular high octane gas in your car, there are some specific foods that contain nutrients that can rev up your immune system.
1. Vitamin C - This mighty vitamin's immune boosting properties are supported by extensive research which indicates that
Vitamin C increases the production of white blood cells and antibodies; increases levels of interferon (the antibody that coats cell surfaces preventing the entry of viruses); raises levels of HDL (good cholesterol) while lowering blood pressure; and has been shown to lower rates of colon, prostate and breast cancer. It's interesting to note that according to askdrsears.com, around 200 milligrams per day is sufficient, and that most of a massive dose taken all at once may end up being excreted in the urine. It is advisable to space smaller doses throughout the day.
SUPPLEMENT SUPPORT FOR YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
Foods High in Vitamin C: parsley, broccoli, bell pepper, strawberries, oranges, lemon juice, papaya, cauliflower, kale, mustard greens, and Brussels sprouts.(5)
2. Vitamin E - This powerful anti-oxidant is actually a family of fat-soluble vitamins that are active throughout the body: tocopherols, which include alpha tocopherol, beta tocopherol, gamma tocopherol, and delta tocopherol; and, tocotrienols, which include alpha, beta, gamma, and delta tocotrienol.
Vitamin E helps prevent oxidative stress by working together with a group of nutrients (i.e., vitamin C, glutathione, selenium, and vitamin B3) that prevent oxygen molecules from becoming too reactive. It also supports healthy skin by offering protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
Foods High in Vitamin E: mustard greens, chard, sunflower seeds, and turnip greens. Very good sources include almonds and spinach. (6)
3. Carotenoids - These naturally occurring food pigments are largely responsible for the red, yellow, and orange color of fruits and vegetables, and are also found in many dark green vegetables. The most abundant carotenoids in the North American diet are beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, gamma-carotene, lycopene, lutein, beta-crpytoxanthin, zeaxanthin, and astaxanthin. Not only can the body convert many of them into retinol, an active form of vitamin A, but recent research indicates
they are anti-cancer and anti-aging compounds. Carotenoids have shown the ability to stimulate cell to cell communication, which may play a role in cancer prevention, and are believed to participate in female reproduction.
Foods High in Carotenoids: carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, collard greens, and tomatoes. To maximize the availability of the carotenoids in the foods listed above, the foods should be eaten raw or steamed lightly. (7)
4. Bioflavonoids - These chemical compounds related to vitamin C have been shown in studies to
help prevent heart disease as well as reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels; are
helpful in the treatment of allergies, cataracts, and heart disease; taking both vitamin C (1000 mg) and bioflavonoids (800 mg) may help to relieve menstrual problems, specifically heavy bleeding and the loss of iron from the body; strengthen capillary walls by helping the body to manufacture collagen and elastin; and, assist in the prevention of hemorrhoids.
Foods High in Bioflavonoids: citrus fruits, green peppers, broccoli, tomatoes, fruit, herb tea (especially stinging nettle tea), purple grapes, berries. (8)
5. Zinc - Zinc is a micromineral needed in the diet, in daily doses of 50 milligrams or less. It is an important
regulator of many genetic activities, supports blood sugar balance and metabolic rate, supports smell and taste sensitivity, supports immune function, especially the production of T lymphocytes, macrophages, and B cells (all types of white blood cells). Many of the foods traditionally believed to
improve sexual function, like oysters and clams, have high levels of zinc, which may have been the basis for their reputation as sexual enhancers.
Prostate health and testosterone hormone production may also be influenced by zinc.
Foods High in Zinc: calf liver, raw crimini mushrooms, spinach (boiled, with salt), lean broiled beef tenderloin, lamb loin, summer squash, asparagus, venison, chard, collard greens, miso (soybean), shrimp, maple syrup, broccoli (pieces, steamed), green peas (boiled), yogurt, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, mustard (9)
6. Garlic - Known scientifically as
Allium sativum, the "stinking rose" was considered by Egyptians, ancient Greeks and the Chinese as a cure for many diseases as well as a treatment for tumors. With more than 2,500 studies on garlic on the books, it is without a doubt the most researched natural remedy in modern history. In 1983, Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Immunology and researcher at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Dr. Benjamin Lau, showed that garlic extract has anti-biotic properties. (10) In a more recent study, he identified three ways
garlic protects against cancer: by directly inhibiting tumor cell metabolism, by preventing the initiation and reproduction of cancer cells, and by boosting a person's immune system to more efficiently fight cancer cells. (11) Although the consensus among scientists is that there still is no conclusive evidence regarding garlic's immune boosting properties, and that its effectiveness depends on the form it's in (i.e., raw, roasted, sauteed or in supplement form), garlic can be a definite boost to your immune system.
7. Selenium - Selenium is a trace mineral that is essential to good health but required only in small amounts. Selenium is incorporated into proteins to make selenoproteins, which are important antioxidant enzymes. The antioxidant properties of selenoproteins help prevent cellular damage from free radicals which are natural by-products of oxygen metabolism that may contribute to the development of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. The effect of
selenium supplementation on the recurrence of different types of skin cancers was studied in seven dermatology clinics in the U.S. from 1983 through the early 1990s. Taking a daily supplement containing 200 mcg of selenium did not affect recurrence of skin cancer, but significantly reduced the occurrence and death from total cancers. The incidence of prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, and lung cancer was notably lower in the group given
selenium supplements. (12)
Foods High in Selenium: brazil nuts, tuna, beef, spaghetti w/ meat sauce, cod, light meat turkey, chicken breast, enriched , corn, wheat, and soybeans.
8. Omega-3 fatty acids - Considered essential to human health but cannot be manufactured by the body, omega-3's can reduce inflammation, prevent excessive blood clotting, maintain fluidity of cell membranes, lower the amount of lipids (fats such as cholesterol and triglycerides) circulating in the bloodstream, inhibit thickening of the arteries, reduce the production of messenger chemicals called cytokines, which are involved in the inflammatory response associated with atherosclerosis, reduce the risk of becoming obese, and help prevent cancer cell growth. In addition,
omega-3 combined with omega-6 have been shown to improve brain function. (13)
Foods High in Omega-3 fatty acids: salmon, halibut, sardines, albacore, trout and herring. Flax seeds and flax seed oil, walnuts, tofu, green leafy vegetables, and canola oil contain alpha-linolenic acid (LNA), which can become omega-3 fatty acids in the body. (14)
You can obtain almost any of the above in supplement form, which can come in handy if you don't always have time to prepare the foods that contain them. In addition, very important immune building supplements are:
1. Echinacea - this Native American medicinal plant which was used for centuries to treat infections, wounds and diseases such as scarlet fever, syphilis, malaria, blood poisoning and diphtheria. Although it's use declined in the 20th century with the introduction of antibiotics,
echinacea is used today primarily to
reduce the symptoms and duration of colds and flu. (15)
HOW TO KEEP YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM STRONG YEAR-ROUND
2. Golden Seal - derived from a root used by Native Americans for centuries, Golden Seal cleanses and
promotes healthy glandular functions by increasing bile flow and digestive enzymes, therefore,
regulating healthy liver and spleen functions. It also eases inflamed peptic ulcers, aids digestion and relieves constipation. Golden Seal may be used to treat infections of the bladder and intestines as well. (16)
3. Whey Protein - a by-product of the cheese-making process, whey promotes the
glutathione, an anti-oxidant, which plays a key role in supporting the immune system;
supports optimal brain function;
helps prevent cancer, AIDS and other degenerative diseases (research is ongoing) as well extending the life of survivors; and, helps increase T-cell activity and the speed of overall recovery of disease.
Other supplements that are considered to have immune boosting properties include bee propolis, elderberry extract, grapefruit seed extract, peppermint powder and the spice turmeric (17), sea-buckthorn berries, mistletoe extract, Astragalus, Ganoderma, Shiitake, Eleuthero, Minor Bupleurum, chaparral, Pau d'Arco, tang-kuei, hoelen and Royal jelly bee pollen. (18)
The key to staying strong and healthy year round is, first and foremost, to take responsibility for your personal health. Minimize bad habits like smoking, drinking and recreational drugs. Eat balanced meals rich in nutrients combined with the supplements as described above. Exercise at least five to six days a week, approximately 45 minutes per day, and balance your workouts with both resistance and cardiovascular training. Get enough sleep, drink plenty of water and use various stress reducing techniques like yoga, meditation and massage.
Take care of yourself and your immune system will take care of you. And you won't miss a work out!
3. Shape magazine, September 2004
4. Dr. Elson Haas, "Detoxification and the Detox Diet: An Important Healing Process," www.chetday.com/haasdetox.htm
10. Medical Hypotheses (12:227-37)
11. Molecular Biotherapy (June 1991;3:103-7)
12. Combs GF, Jr., Clark LC, Turnbull BW. Reduction of cancer risk with an oral supplement of selenium. Biomed Environ Sci 1997;10:227-34. [PubMed abstract]