Hold onto your seats. It’s going to be a bumpy flu season. According to the Center for Disease Control, “It’s too early to say for sure that this will be a severe flu season, but Americans should be prepared,” says CDC director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H. Especially since recent reports of the vaccine from last year’s viruses have shown a reduced effect on some of these “drift variant” flu viruses. And, with so many and varied viruses, the current vaccine covers only a handful of strains.
It’s the season to bolster your immune system, no matter what the news reports. First, researchers still want to know, how does the immune system work with other systems? The immune system is made up of white blood cells, called lymphocytes that mature and develop in a chest organ called the thymus. Referred to as “T-cells,” they navigate through the blood and lymph nodes, scanning for cellular abnormalities and infections. “Killer T-cells” destroy cells that are infected with germs, damaged by cancer, or in other ways. “Helper T-cells” activate and help other immune cells that ingest germs or make antibodies.
Experts recommend some healthy strategies to boost it up when you feel something’s coming on.
Get it, and no less than seven hours a night. Susan Zafarlotfi, PhD, clinical director of the Institute for Sleep and Wake Disorders at Hackensack University Medical Center, says a strong immune system may fight off illness with little or no sleep. “But if you have a weak immune system, you will likely be more prone to infection, if you are not getting enough sleep,” she says.
During sleep, the immune system releases proteins called cytokines. Cytokines are signalers and can trigger a response to disease. Without sleep, production of these protective cytokines decreases, and so do infection-fighting antibodies.
“One of the things that happens when we sleep is that we can get a better fever response,” says Diwakar Balachandran, MD, director of the Sleep Center at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. “This is why fevers tend to rise at night. But, if we are not sleeping, our fever reaction is not primed,” and we open the doors to infection.
Simply, exercise prolongs life. But is too much a good or a bad thing for the immune system? Moderate: good. But, high intensity work outs, involving different actions and paces, could actually decrease the amount of white blood cells circulating through the body and increase the presence of stress-related hormones. Dr. David C. Nieman says in Sports Medicine that killer T-cells “exhibit the greatest changes in response to marathon competition, both in terms of numbers and function.” Such changes include stress hormone and cytokine concentrations, body temperature changes, increases in blood flow and dehydration. “During this ‘open window’ of immune dysfunction (which may last between 3 and 72 hours,), viruses and bacteria may gain a foothold, increasing the risk of infection,” says Niemen.
Dr. Richard Besser, formerly the acting director of the American Centers for Disease Control, says to listen to your body. Instead of lifting weights, heavy intensity training or team sports, try a light jog, a fast walk, yoga or a low impact dance class. Upper respiratory illnesses produce clogged sinuses. Any of these light exercises open the air passages.
Scientists at Harvard Medical School are finding evidence of a relationship between digestion and the immune system. Probiotic bacteria, “good” living microorganisms prevent pathogens from adhering to the intestinal tract. Research shows that these bacteria correct deficiencies and increase the numbers of certain T-cells. Probiotics may prevent respiratory tract infections (common cold, influenza) and other infectious diseases.
Probiotics are found in fermented milk products, or yeast, and dietary supplements. Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., of the Mayo clinic, suggests that probiotics may help treating diarrhea, preventing and treating vaginal yeast infections and urinary tract infections; treating irritable bowel syndrome and other intestinal infections; and preventing or reducing viruses, such as colds and flu.
Vegetables and grains provide vitamins and minerals, but if you’re not getting enough, it’s time to take a multivitamin. Vitamin A deficiency may impair the immune system, as it tends to affect T-cells and cytokines. Vitamin B6 deficiency can prevent lymphocytes from maturing and forming T-and B-cells. Vitamin D, which is produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight, signals antibodies to combat the Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Whether Vitamin D has similar ability to fight off other diseases, or taking Vitamin D in supplement form, is beneficial, is under current research. Zinc deficiency interrupts the proper function of T-cells. Limit zinc intake to 15-25 mg per day. Too much zinc can inhibit the function of the immune system.