Learn how you can build a stronger immune system to ward off any illness by taking advantage of your daily habits
Research shows that doing these simple, everyday activities have immunity boosting powers that help you stay not just happier but healthier too. Give your immune system a boost and try them today! (Then, try out these extra 5 Ways to Boost Your Immune System Without Medicine.)
Go Out and Mingle
Your immune system likes it when you spend time with friends. "We have phenomenal data showing the value of nurturing, social support and camaraderie," says neurologist Barry Bittman, M.D., CEO of the Mind-Body Wellness Center in Meadville, Pa. In one study, researchers exposed people to a cold virus. The more social contacts the people had—and the more diverse the contacts—the less likely they were to catch the cold. Touch is important too. Touch can boost the activity of the cells that seek out and destroy cancer cells or cells that have been invaded by viruses.
Listen to Beethoven (or Britney)
Listening to music can boost your immunity. "The trick is finding music that soothes your soul," Berk says. Scientists at McGill University in Montreal found that listening to music that sent "shivers down the spine" stimulated the same "feel-good" parts of the brain that are activated by food and sex. "Even better than listening to music is making it," says Bittman, who found that people who took part in a group-drumming session had greatly enhanced natural killer-cell activity. (Learn more about Your Brain On: Music.)
Turn Down the Volume
Unwanted and intrusive sound can trigger muscle tension, speed heartbeat, constrict blood vessels and cause digestive upsets. Chronic exposure to noise can lead to long-lasting changes in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and immune function. Cornell University research found that women who work in moderately noisy offices produce more of the stress hormone adrenaline and may be more vulnerable to heart disease than women who work in quiet offices. Even worse are unwelcome sounds you perceive as uncontrollable, such as car alarms, barking dogs and P.A. systems. Try to take control over your environment, even if it means wearing earplugs or asking a restaurant owner or gym manager to turn down the music.
Look on the Bright Side
The immune system takes many of its cues from our thoughts and feelings. Years ago, Mayo Clinic researchers found that people who were optimists in their youth tended to live 12 years longer than pessimists. A recent study by Anna L. Marsland, Ph.D., R.N., a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that people who were negative, moody, nervous and easily stressed had a weaker immune response to a hepatitis vaccination than their more positive peers.
Any kind of nutritional deficiency may lead to more frequent and prolonged illnesses. If you starve yourself, your body will pump out stress hormones. Dropping more than 2 pounds per week is hard on the T cells that detect diseased or foreign cells. Choose fats carefully (omega-3s are good), get enough protein, eat your fruits and vegetables and drink plenty of fluids. "Dehydration lowers resistance," says Lee Berk, Dr.P.H.,M.P.H., an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of California, Irvine, College of Medicine. (Check out these 6 Hot, Healthy Drinks to Warm You This Winter for beverages with immune boosting benefits.)
Laugh Out Loud
While painful emotions like anger and grief can impair health, laughter does the opposite. A real belly laugh increases infection-fighting antibodies and boosts natural killer-cell activity, says Berk, who has shown students funny videos and measured their immune systems' response. "Even anticipating a humorous encounter can enhance immunity," he says. Laughter also increases circulation, stimulates digestion, lowers blood pressure and reduces muscle tension.
Use Your Brain
Certain kinds of thinking may boost immunity. University of California, Berkeley, neuroscientist Marian Diamond, Ph.D., found that playing bridge stimulated women's immune systems showing a connection between the immune system and the part of the brain that handles planning, memory, initiative, judgment and abstract thinking. Says Diamond: "Any mental activity that uses one or a combination of these intellectual functions might benefit immune activity."
Move Your Body
Regular, moderate exercise can boost several aspects of your body's self-defense system. "Physical activity not only strengthens your cardiovascular system," Berk says, "it improves your mood and reduces stress." Many studies show that long-term training also elevates natural killer-cell activity. But don't push too hard: if your training is unusually prolonged and intense, your risk for illness and infection goes up.
Learn How to Relax
Stress jacks up your body's production of cortisol and adrenaline, hormones that lower immune response. Stress-induced anxiety also can inhibit natural killer-cell activity. If practiced regularly, aerobic exercise and progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, prayer and chanting help block release of stress hormones and increase immune function.
Douse the Night Light
Only when it's really dark does your body produce melatonin, a hormone that helps prevent certain diseases. Not sleeping enough, or being exposed to light during the night, decreases melatonin production and boosts estrogen levels, increasing breast-cancer risk. In fact, recent studies have found a heightened risk of breast cancer—up to 60 percent—among women who work the graveyard shift. Not surprisingly, blind women have an approximate 20-50 percent reduction in breast-cancer risk. Even a dim source like a bedside clock or a night light may switch melatonin production off, so keep your bedroom as dark as possible.