The most important word in the phrase “immune system” is the second one, because what helps to keep you safe from infectious disease isn’t a single organ like your heart or brain. It’s an entire collective of body parts including your tonsils, spleen, bone marrow, lymph nodes and skin all working together to make, store and distribute cells that recognize, surround and hopefully conquer invading microorganisms.
Here are five easy ways to help keep these soldiers in fighting form.
1. CULTIVATE FRIENDS (INCLUDING A CLOSE ONE). People who mix with others tend to live longer and are healthier than hermits. People with one close friend do even better. Nineteen years ago, researchers at the University of California, Riverside discovered that mating improves immune function. True, they were talking about fruit flies, but several years later a similar group of curious scientists at Wilkes University in Pennsylvania reported that students who have sex once or twice a week had higher levels of certain antibodies to defend the body against germs, viruses and other intruders. Simply put, says, Yvonne K. Fulbright, adjunct professor at American University, and Penn State University. “Sexually active people take fewer sick days.”
2. SHOP AT THE GROCERY NOT THE HEALTH STORE. This is a tricky one because there are practically no studies showing the specific effects of diet on immunity and individual nutrient, food or supplement proven to boost immunity and protect us from infectious viruses like COVID-19. Yes, vitamin A supports white blood cells that zero in on bad bugs and B vitamins help produce immune system cells which vitamin D may strengthen, but you’d be hard pressed to find a nutrition expert who thinks you absorb nutrients better from supplements than from food such as the yellow, red and orange fruit and veggies that yield Vitamin A or the poultry, fish, and eggs which serve up B’s and D. (Caution: Megadoses of fat soluble vitamins A and D may be toxic. Megadoses of food? Not so much, except maybe to your hips.)
3. EXERCISE EVERY DAY. Regular exercise keeps your heart healthy, holds your weight steady and may contribute directly to your immune system by improving your circulation so that immune cells zip more freely around tour body. Luckily, living in Manhattan makes exercise easy and economical. No gym or special program required – just skip the bus and subway and walk briskly around the island every day. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from HHS and USDA , 30 minutes a day does the job for a person of normal body weight, 60 minutes if you want to control your weight and 90 minutes if you want to lose weight and keep it off.
4. LAUGH OUT LOUD. On February 25, 1883 when Ella Wheeler Wilcox published a poem called “Solitude” in The New York Sun, it’s unlikely she thought the first line – “Laugh and the world laughs with you” – should end with the words “at bacteria and viruses.” She should have. The living body needs oxygen to power its activities. Between 2001 and 2016, Japanese, Italian and American scientists published several studies proving that laughing out loud clears stale air out of the lungs and enriches the blood with new “clean” oxygen that powers everything, including the lymph vessels, nodes and tissues that pump immune cells all around the body.
5. PRACTICE YOUR BARK AND PURR. Fido and Fluffy don’t just make us smile; they also encourage us to exercise and interact with other humans, which may be why multiple studies show that pet owners tend to have healthier hearts than people without an animal in their lives. Yours doesn’t have to have four legs and a tail to improve your health. A recent study reported by the National Institute of Health and the Mars Corporation’s Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition showed that when teenagers with Type 1 diabetes were tasked with caring for pet fish, they became more disciplined about checking their blood glucose levels, an annoying but essential chore.
Now, having done all that, relax and get a good night’s sleep. After which, if you listen closely, you can practically hear your immune system whispering, “Thank you.”