Use Your Immune System to Prevent Flu

Last Editorial Review: 12/24/2008

Looking for some ways to boost your immune system so you can prevent flu this year? The immune system is a network that helps you avoid illness -- or sometimes it can become the underlying reason you get sick. Here are some ways to strengthen your immune system to help prevent viral and bacterial infections.

What is the immune system?

In simplest terms, the immune system is a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against disease. Your immune system blocks foreign proteins from getting into your body. If a few intruders happen to sneak by your biological sentry, that's OK. With a powerful "search and destroy" task force, your body deploys a host of additional immune cell forces that are designed to hunt down the unwanted intruders and ultimately work to destroy them.

How does my immune system fend off illnesses like the flu?

The human body has an innate ability to manufacture antibodies (proteins) that work as part of the immune system to destroy abnormal or foreign cells. Not only do these antibodies help fend off common illnesses like the flu or a cold, but they also play a role in protecting you against catastrophic diseases like cancer or heart disease.

Additionally, you also have a second protective response known as the "cell-mediated immune system." This immunity involves immune system cells rather than antibodies. The immune system cells are "helper" or "killer" cells, and they help our body create memory of past defenses against disease.

When the body identifies a pathogen (invader) again, it immediately calls upon the memory of the previous infection and sets out to destroy the invader before the disease develops. This physiological mechanism is what lies behind vaccines or immunizations for illnesses such as measles, chicken pox, or hepatitis. When you get a flu shot or measles vaccine, you're getting a deliberate but harmless amount of the pathogen so that your immune cells can react, learn, and remember how to produce antibodies to fight the pathogen.

What vaccines are recommended to prevent diseases?

According to the CDC, the recommended vaccines for children and adolescents include hepatitis A and B, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, polio, pneumococcus, and Haemophilus influenza type B -- called HiB.

The CDC says seniors need vaccines against pneumococcus and the flu, as do all adults whose immune system may be impaired by diseases such as HIV or cancer. In fact, the flu shot is recommended for almost all children and adults who want to reduce the risk of becoming ill with influenza or of transmitting influenza to others. (Babies under six months do not get a flu shot.)

In addition, everyone needs to update their tetanus vaccine once every 10 years, while those who work in high-risk jobs (like hospital workers) need vaccines for hepatitis A and B. The CDC recommends all children ages 11 to 18 get a vaccine for meningitis. This vaccine is also recommended for people at elevated risk of getting the disease, such as travelers to countries with high rates of meningococcal disease.

What causes the immune system to weaken?

Your immune cells can lose some of their protective effects when your body is constantly battling negative health habits such as a poor diet, little sleep, and too much stress. As such, it's not surprising that doctors frequently recommend certain lifestyle changes as a way to optimize the function of your immune system.

What's the most important lifestyle change to boost immunity?

Reduce stress. A steady cascade of stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, negatively impacts the body's ability to stay well. Findings show that reducing levels of stress through relaxation techniques, daily exercise, and coping skills helps your body maintain physical and emotional health.

What else can I do to boost immunity?

Get plenty of sleep -- every night. Prolonged sleep deprivation wears down immune protection while getting adequate rest each night helps to boost your defenses. Try to aim for 7 to 8 hours sleep for the best immune function.

Is there anything else I can do to stay well?

Try some ways to boost IGA, a protein from the immune system that helps fight infections. IGA is thought to play a critical role in keeping pathogens from entering your body -- and capturing those that do get in.

Some ways to boost IGA in the body include having sex and having a strong support system -- both result in the production of endorphins, the natural opioid peptides or brain chemicals that are released during sex and physical touch such as hugs and handshakes.

Moderate exercise three or four times a week also increases immune function while working out too much (overtraining) can run down the immune system.

Are there immune-boosting foods I can eat?

Studies published in the journal Chest in 2000 showed chicken soup can pump up immune power and may help you get well faster. In addition, mushroom varieties such as reichi, maitake, and shitake may have some powerful influence on immune function as well as enhance production of tumor necrosis factor, interleukins, and interferon. Also, stick with a mostly plant-based diet that's low in red meat and high in fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish.

Is that all I can do to boost immunity?

Nope! Take some time daily to be happy. Smell the roses. Enjoy life's journey and listen to your favorite tunes. Some findings indicate that listening to just 30 minutes of music increases IGA levels in the body.

Also important, keep your hands clean. Nothing beats the power of frequent hand washing to keep germs at bay. By washing hands thoroughly -- and often -- throughout the day, you can stay healthier and help your immune system protect you from the flu and catastrophic diseases.

WebMD Medical Reference

SOURCES: Mayo Clinic: "Germs: Understand and protect against bacteria, viruses and infection." Mayo Clinic: "Vaccines when your immune system is compromised." American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: "Tips to remember: Recurrent, or unusually severe infections."

Reviewed by Jonathan L. Gefland, MD on January 20, 2008

© 2008 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.


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