Lifestyle factors can help fight against illness
By Kadesha Thomas
Think of the immune system as the body’s own armed militia. This network of cells, organs and tissues works to fight off bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites before they lead to illness. The immune system’s white blood cells leave the bone marrow, spleen, lymph nodes and thymus to parade throughout the human body looking for illness-inducing pathogens.
The first responders are called natural killer cells and function like the immune system’s SEAL Team Six. If a pathogen has gouged its way past the skin or climbed through the mucus membranes, the natural killer cells are there to attack. As the body becomes exposed to more pathogens, either naturally or through vaccinations, white blood cells called lymphocytes remember these pathogens and produce antigens to fight them off every time.
Studies have shown that cigarettes and alcohol or drug abuse suppress the body’s immune response or cause it to overreact. When this happens, wounds take longer to heal and infections occur more frequently, says Karishma Kaushik, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Integrated Cellular and Molecular Biology at the University of Texas at Austin. Kaushik recently led a study describing how infections are directly linked to illegal drug use, published in the April 2011 edition of the Journal of Medical Microbiology.
“As soon as substance abusers stop using, their immune system can still be in a compromised state,” Kaushik says. “The effects are long-term, and the immune system does not begin to repair itself right away.”
People in recovery can boost their immune system through a variety of lifestyle habits, and beating the addiction is a great start.
Stick With Recovery
“The most important thing is to stop using the substance,” advises John Sleasman, chair of Immunology at the University of South Florida. This applies to illegal drugs as well as alcohol and cigarettes. Trading illegal substances for alcohol and cigarettes, even once in a while, can be dangerous.
Occasional drinking, for example, “makes the whole body drunk, not just your mind,” Sleasman explains. “Alcohol makes the cells behave poorly. White blood cells don’t move to fight infection.” Cigarettes also blunt the immune system’s response because they decrease the body’s ability to clear out bacteria from the lungs and respiratory system. They also affect the body’s endothelium, a membrane that lines the heart, lungs, abdominal organs and blood vessels. The endothelium becomes stickier, helping infectious pathogens latch on.
Get Enough Rest
The National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep each night for adults. Adults who slept less than seven hours were nearly three times more likely to develop the common cold after receiving the virus that produces it, according to a 2009 study of 153 people published in the Archives of Internal Medicine. Those who slept more were better able to fight it off.
Unlike the body’s other cells that focus on a particular organ, the immune cells have to travel throughout the body searching for potential infections. “Natural killer cells and the immune cells have the highest metabolism,” Sleasman says. “These are the Ferraris of the body, and they are very high maintenance. They have to be agile, mobile and hostile.” For the highest performance, these cells require the body to rest. Just one sleep-deprived night causes the natural killer cells to slow down.
Work It Out
Heart-pumping exercise encourages a healthy immune response by making sure the body can deal with stress. “When you first start to exercise, it’s stressful to the body,” says Lois Sandon, a yoga instructor and certified fitness instructor. “The body says, ‘We need more stress defense systems to counterbalance this.’” A good workout signals the body to flush out defective immune cells and allows new, healthy cells to take over.
Adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, such as brisk walking or bike riding, and two strength-training sessions each week, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Eat a Balanced Diet
When bacteria and other infectious agents enter the body, the white blood cells produce antibodies, which remember how to fight those infectious agents in case they try to attack again. “We need nutrients to build the antibodies that fight infection,” says Sandon, who is also a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
Zinc and protein from eggs, dairy and lean meats are two of the most important nutrients to build the immune system. Antioxidants such as vitamin C and vitamin A keep the skin and mucus membranes healthy enough to block infections. Citrus fruits such as pineapple, mango and papaya are excellent sources of vitamin C, along with broccoli and leafy greens. The best sources of vitamin A are yellow and orange fruits and vegetables such as cantaloupe, carrots and sweet potatoes. “Avoid foods with no nutritional value such as cookies, cakes and sugary beverages,” Sandon says. “Those are just calories with no nutrients, so why bother with them?”
Kadesha Thomas is a health writer based in Chicago. She holds a bachelor’s of science in journalism from Florida A&M University and a master’s of public health from Tufts University School of Medicine.
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