Eight Steps to Peak Health



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If you’re like most people, you probably don’t even think about your immune system – until you get sick. The human immune system is an elegant, effective tool for protecting us from environmental marauders. When it’s functioning normally, it helps defend your body from things you’re never even aware of. When functioning abnormally, it can lead to annoying or even deadly illnesses.

To truly stay well, it’s important to understand how disease attacks your body, and how your immune system defends itself. It’s a finely calibrated system. An overactive immune system can lead to allergies, because the body’s defenses overact to environmental substances that are not actually dangerous. Or it can cause arthritis, because it misidentifies the body’s own tissues, such as joints, as foreign and attacks them. Medicines to treat allergies and rheumatological conditions such as arthritis often are designed to suppress the immune system. An underactive immune system, which can be caused by everything from excessive exercise to chemotherapy to aging, makes you vulnerable to getting sick – often.

Although some things that affect the immune system are out of your control, you can focus on three basic areas to keep illness at bay. Stress, diet, and activity are the three pillars of the immune system. Here’s how you can boost your immunity now.

1. Limit Your Exposure To Germs And Viruses
Avoid spending too much time with family, friends, and co-workers who have signs or symptoms of colds, flu, or a bacterial respiratory infection. Because most bacterial infections and viruses are transmitted by droplets (sneezing, touching, rubbing the eyes and nose, and so forth), the less you’re around sick people, the less likely you are to catch their bugs. Obviously, contact with sick people can’t be completely avoided, especially within families.

Tip: Wash Your Hands. Scrub them thoroughly with soap and warm water before all meals and after encountering sick folks. Antibacterial soap isn’t necessary; regular soap is just as effective at peeling off the oils on skin that may contain germs. Try to avoid touching your face: the mucous membranes there – your nose, eyes, and mouth – are easy entry points for germs and viruses.

2. Exercise Regularly
Some exercise physiologists believe regular moderate activity enhances the immune system (thus reducing your susceptibility to infection), while intense exercise actually suppresses the immune-system response. (Studies of marathon runners show a significant increase in respiratory infections at the height of their training, indicating that their immune systems aren’t functioning at full capacity.) Although the controversy about the detrimental effects of heavy exercise is ongoing, there’s solid evidence that regular, moderate activity does boost immunity.

When you exercise regularly, you raise your core body temperature, which works to “pasteurize” your blood by killing off any germs that may be there. Some researchers theorize this may also kill off random cancer cells, which would explain why regular exercisers are less likely to develop cancer.

Tip: Get some form of aerobic exercise five (yes, five!) days a week – at least 30 minutes each time. A good rule of thumb if you’re sick: If your symptoms are in the neck or above (for instance, a head cold or sore throat), go ahead and exercise. If you develop symptoms below the neck (in your chest), don’t exercise until you’re better.

3. Listen To Your Body
Because immunity seems to drop when you’re short on sleep or overtraining, pay attention to excessive muscle soreness or fatigue, and sub-par exercise performance.

Tip: Take a one-week break from hard exercise every two to three months to let your body recover and recharge. (You won’t lose any gains in such a short time.)

4. Eat Better
Before the advent of modern medicine, a sound diet was the best defense against disease. As more and more medications were developed in the 20th century, we lost our focus on nutrition. More recently, a significant amount of research has been redirected toward the important effects of the six primary classes of nutrients (vitamins, minerals, proteins, fats, carbohydrates, and water) on the body. It is extraordinarily important to follow a good nutritional program. Among exercisers, particularly those trying to lose weight, it’s common to take in too few calories. The combination of overworking and under eating can place stress on your body and its immune system.

Tip: Most people require about 10 calories per pound of body weight per day. If you go over that amount, you’ll probably gain weight. If you fall too far short, you set yourself up for immune-system problems.

5. Take Nutritional Supplements
Studies show that certain vitamin supplements, taken with a well-balanced diet, may significantly reduce the frequency and duration of upper respiratory infections. One proven helper: extra vitamin C.

Tip: Take 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily. There’s evidence that certain other supplements, including zinc (a trace mineral) and echinacea (an herbal supplement), may reduce the duration and severity of an upper-respiratory infection when taken at the onset of illness. Appropriate dosages vary from brand to brand, but don’t take echinacea longer than eight weeks at a stretch.

6. Don’t Overuse Antibiotics
When antibiotics are used again and again, new generations of bacteria change their internal architecture to become resistant to those antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that half of the 100 million antibiotic courses prescribed each year are unnecessary. Antibiotics work only on bacteria, not on cold and flu viruses. Since 1974, the CDC reports, the ability of staph to resist common antibiotics such as penicillin has jumped from 2 percent to 50 percent.

Tip: When you’re sick wait a few days before asking your doctor for antibiotics. Most respiratory infections are caused by viruses. To treat a cold or the flu, first try over-the-counter cold and flu remedies containing decongestants, fever reducers, or antihistamines. If your symptoms last longer than the normal course of colds (three to four days) or the flu (seven to 10 days), see a doctor. Note. Two new non-antibiotic drugs on the market, Tamiflu and Relenza, can cut flu symptoms significantly if taken within the first two days.

7. Get Immunized
It makes sense to get a flu shot each fall. Influenza is still responsible for several thousand deaths every year in the United States, and beefing up your own immune system annually can trim your chances of developing this nasty bug. Don’t worry: The way vaccinations are formulated now, you won’t “get the flu” by getting the shot.

Tip: Get a flu shot even if you’re not in a “high-risk” group (those over age 65, pregnant women, or those whose immunity has been compromised by cancer treatments of HIV.)

8. Battle Stress
Managing everyday stress is a crucial factor in keeping the immune system in fighting shape. In addition to the effects stress has on certain physical reactions (higher blood pressure, higher heart rate, and greater blood flow), it also can overwork the immune system. Stress generates increased amounts of cortisol, a stress hormone, which can reduce white blood cells’ effectiveness in battling bugs.

Hectic work, home, school, or social schedules add to our chronic stress. Emotional stress caused by family illnesses, divorce, bereavement, and so forth can also affect the immune system.

Even if you believe you manage stress well emotionally, your body may be screaming for help. Sleep disturbances, migraine headaches, diminished sex drive, diarrhea, back pain, heartburn, and changes in appetite are just a few physical symptoms of chronic stress.

As medical science increasingly acknowledges the detrimental effects of stress on the immune system, physicians and researchers are paying more attention to the role stress may play in a wide variety of illnesses, including heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders such as lupus.

Tip: If you’re overstressed, take a three-day weekend or, if you can, an impromptu vacation. Even a night out helps to de-stress and give your immune system needed rest and relaxation. Also:

• Set realistic goals for yourself at work and home.
• Build a strong support system of friends.
• Balance your work and personal life. (Know when to be serious and when to laugh.)
• Shift from being self-centered to others-centered.
• Learn to slow down.
• Don’t hold grudges.

Tedd Mitchell, M.D. is the medical director for Cooper Wellness Program at the renowned Aerobics Center in Dallas, Texas. He also serves as the vice-president and associate medical director for The Cooper Clinic. His medical practice focuses on health maintenance and disease prevention through physical fitness and proper nutrition. In June of 2002 Dr. Mitchell was appointed by President Bush to serve on The Presidents Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

An active researcher and author, he has published dozens of studies in peer- reviewed scientific journals and serves as both a columnist and medical editor for USA Weekend which appears in 600 newspapers nationwide and has a circulation of more than 46 million readers. He is the co-author of the book Fit To Lead. In addition to his writing, he also lectures extensively to both lay and scientific groups.


Tedd Mitchell, M.D.


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