Balance your immune system


If you get an average of 3.2 colds every fall and Winter, your immune system needs tweaking. It isn't up to the job of sheltering your body from bacteria, viruses and other nasty bugs — not to mention environmental toxins, poor diets and stress. Once your system is breached, your body can't zap illness and infection successfully.

Rather than boosting your immunity, you should aim to balance it, says James Dillard, MD, attending physician at Columbia University Medical Center Eastside and assistant clinical professor at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. It's a myth or a misnomer to boost immunity. "We no more want to boost immunity than we want to boost blood pressure or anything else in the body," he says. In fact, trying to boost it could actually over-activate the immune system. There are even autoimmune diseases — such as lupus — that arise from the immune system being too active. Use the following suggestions to create an internal balance within your immune system so it operates at peak efficiency all year long.

proper diet
Eat a diet filled with low-glycemic carbohydrates (carbs such as whole grains and vegetables that stabilize blood sugar and reduce hunger); an abundance of omega-3 fats (which helps prevent inflammation in the body); and sufficient flax oil (1 tsp. to 1 Tbs. per day on food). Flax oil breaks down into anti-inflammatory hormone-like substances called prostaglandins, which help safeguard the immune system. To make disease-fighting antibodies, your immune system also needs the amino acids found in quality proteins, such as low-mercury seafood (perch, haddock, shrimp), poultry and soy. Avoid sugar (cakes, cookies, etc.) because sugar can suppress the immune system.

a balanced exercise program
Get your heart pumping with exercise at least 3-5 days a week. "In Chinese medicine, there's a list of yin and yang exercises," says Laurie Steelsmith, a naturopathic physician and author of Natural Choices for Women's Health. Yang includes jogging and aerobics, while yin focuses on yoga and tai chi — more gentle activities. "Create balance by doing some of both," says Steelsmith.

"If someone has a problem with frequent illness, acupuncture can help," says Dillard. "It creates a kind of internal balance and improves the body's healing environment." As a stand-alone therapy, it can balance immunity by strengthening or quieting various systems in your body as needed. When you have acupuncture done to help balance the immune system, the target areas are all over the upper body — everywhere from sinuses and forehead to chest, lungs and stomach. Acupuncture's stimulation strengthens and improves immunity.

stress reduction
"Stress is a huge immunity bummer," says Steelsmith. Attempt to create a life G that reduces it. Try relaxation therapy such as massage, which actually reduces the amount of stress hormones in the brain. "If you're glum and stressed, your immune chemistry is affected negatively," says Dillard. Anything that lifts your spirits — music, art, comedy, a long-abandoned hobby — is fodder for creating balance in your emotions and your immune system.

A good bet: Reishi mushrooms, which contain beta glucan, an immune enhancer. "They diminish allergic responses, enhance liver functioning and can maintain or increase white blood cell count, which are all parts of a healthy immune system," says Steelsmith.

Another: astragalus, which, according to traditional Chinese medicine, helps fortify "chi" or the life force that makes you stronger. Siberian ginseng is also excellent for shoring up long-term immunity. Steelsmith recommends eating garlic since it's a known antimicrobial agent — and the less cooked it is, the more essential oil you ingest.

At the end of a shower, run water as hot as you can stand (without burning yourself) down your spine, then flip to cold. Count to five, flip back to hot and count to ten. Switch several more times, ending on cold. "It stimulates circulation and strengthens the body's ability to withstand temperature changes, which promotes strength and vitality," says Steelsmith.

Through the practice of these immune-balancing techniques, you can both nourish and foster long-term immunity so colds and flu won't find their way to you all year long.


By Jennifer Nelson

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