Each year your personal ecosphere is invaded by 200 cold viruses and uncountable flu strains—and there’s just one of you to fight them off. Faced with those odds, the average adult gets knocked flat by two to five colds a year. Women are typically more likely than men to catch something because they have more contact with kids, whose bodies are little Petri dishes for germs. But by following the tips outlined here, you can fire up and fortify your immune defenses.
1. Take the right vitamins—at the right time
Read the label on your multivitamin or start taking one, making sure it contains 100 percent of the minimum daily requirements for the essential immune-enhancers: vitamins A, B6 and B12, C and zinc, says Elson Haas, M.D., a specialist in preventive medicine and coauthor ofStaying Healthy With Nutrition: Complete Guide to Diet and Nutritional Medicine. Two good choices are Enzymatic Therapy’s Doctor’s Choice for Women and TwinLabs Daily One Caps found at Whole Foods or online at VitaminShoppe.com.
Vitamins and supplements don’t kill viruses, but they can strengthen your defenses, relieve symptoms, and will help you recover faster, says Neil Schachter, M.D., professor of pulmonary medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City and author ofThe Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds & Flu.
2. Break a sweat
Getting your heart rate up sends blood through your lungs and lymph glands to begin your body’s fight against invaders, says Dr. Baxter Bell, M.D., a yoga instructor and physician in Oakland, California. Increased blood volume can also help increase the circulation of immune cells so you start fighting back against infections sooner.
But here’s what you probably don’t know: Too much working out can have the opposite effect. If you’ve recently switched gears from moderate activity to daily high-intensity exercise, or count yourself among the ranks of weekend warriors, you could be overtaxing your system. “When you suddenly start an intense workout program without allowing your body to gradually acclimate to the increased activity, your body senses that it’s under extreme stress, and your sympathetic nervous system—the flight-or-fight response—kicks in,” Dr. Bells says. And in that adrenalized state, the immune system temporarily turns itself off. That may be why so many marathoners end up sick after their races.
Already sick? Check your neck before lacing up your sneakers. If your symptoms are above your neck (as in sneezing, stuffy nose, sore throat), it’s ok to work out. But if your symptoms are below the neck (as in coughing, body aches, chills), skip the gym and give your body a break.
Immunity Booster: Shoot for half an hour to an hour of moderate-intensity cardio, and then add 20 minutes of weights, three to five times per week.
3. Stand on your head
“Yoga is unique because it gets you upside down,” Dr. Bell says. Doing inversions like Bridge pose and Downward Dog, in which your head is below your heart, helps carry bacteria, viruses, and toxins to the lymph system, your body’s natural poison flusher. Gentle back bends and forward bends can also help by expanding your chest, which improves lung function.
If you don’t already practice yoga, start off with a gentle practice two times a week, Dr. Bell says. For those who are already following a vigorous practice, stick to your regular routine every other day and add a 20-minute meditation on your off days. Every few weeks take two days off in a row to let your body recuperate, Dr. Bell says. If you’re already sick, leave your mat in the bag until you start feeling better, especially if you’re running a fever.
Immunity Booster: A simple legs-up-the-wall pose won’t strain you at all, but still gives you the benefits of an inversion. Sit on a folded blanket with one hip against the wall. Pivot your hips toward the wall as you lie back and extend your legs up the wall. Your hips and lower back should be on the blanket; your butt should hang slightly over the edge. Actively flex your feet. Hold for at least 2 minutes while taking slow, deep breaths. To release, bend your knees and roll over onto your side.
4. Stock up on superfoods
A well-balanced diet helps maintain your energy levels and keep your immune system strong. A small study conducted in the Netherlands found that eating a hearty meal that includes glutamine, an amino acid common in milk, meat and some nuts, boosts the immune response at the cellular level. In other words, you crave comfort food because your body needs it
The old adage “feed a cold, starve a fever”? It’s true. When you have a cold, eat up: That boosts immune response, which destroys cold-causing viruses. Fasting, on the other hand, which often happens naturally when you run a fever, helps build levels of bacteria battlers. And in both cases, avoid dehydration.
EAT THESE FOODS
Fish and shellfish. Omega-3 fatty acids (in salmon) and selenium (in oysters, lobsters, crabs, and clams) increase production of proteins called cytokines that send the signal to your body to start producing immune-protecting T-cells. (If you are trying to avoid mercury from fish like tuna and swordfish, stick to 12 ounces per week.)
Shiitake mushrooms. They help activate T-cells.
Chili peppers. Capsaicin, the compound that gives chili peppers their fire, can help increase antibody-producing cells.
Tomatoes. The lycopene in tomatoes acts as an antioxidant, helping white blood cells resist the harmful effects of cell-damaging free radicals.
Garlic. Crush it into salad dressing or broth, as garlic stimulates T cells.
Berries. Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries are all brimming with immune-enhancing vitamins and antioxidants, including Vitamin C.
Salad dressing—with fat. When it comes to fighting illness, fat’s actually the healthy move: It helps your body absorb some of the disease-fighting nutrients in the veggies.
Beans. High in antioxidants, and a good source of lean protein, which can help repair cell damage.