Health and Wellness Update: Immunity

What’s your immunity IQ?

There are many misperceptions about the cold and flu; take our immune quiz to see how cold/flu-smart you are:

Answer true or false for these questions:

Getting wet in the rain will make you sick. (false) There is no evidence that damp cold weather and the risk of getting a cold are related. Chock it up to being an old wives’ tale or the ancient belief in “ill winds," but modern science does not support a connection between being cold and getting a cold or flu.

Flu is a virus, cold is a bacteria. (false) Both cold and flu are viruses. There are well over 200 different strains of the cold virus (rhinovirus being the most common) and flu viruses mutate and change every year.

The flu is harmless. (false) The flu is far from harmless. According to the CDC, in a normal year somewhere between 3,000 and 49,000 people die from the flu (depending on the severity, the spread, and the type of flu virus). In 1918, approximately 675,000 people died in the United States from the Spanish flu. On the other hand, the common cold is rarely harmful—unless it leads to other infections.

Antibiotics are no help for cold or flu. (true) Both the common cold and flu are the result of a virus, and antibiotics cannot help reduce the severity or duration of a cold. Doctors do occasionally prescribe antibiotics to people with colds and flu to help treat secondary bacterial infections such as sinusitis, ear infections, bronchitis, and other infections.

Once you have the flu, you won’t have it again that season. (The answer to this one is both false and true.) You won’t get the same cold or flu once you have had it, but that doesn’t mean you cannot get another strain. There are often multiple types of cold and flu circulating at the same time; it is very possible to have one and then have another. This is also the reason why the flu shot is not 100 percent effective: the flu shot is effective against one strain and there is always the possibility of another strain infecting you.

You are only contagious when you have symptoms? (false) You are most likely to spread the flu five to seven days from when you first feel bad. When you have a cold, you are the most contagious during the first three days of getting that cold (during that sore throat phase). You can transmit either virus to other people by touching your nose or mouth and then touching another surface they touch (doorknobs, phones, etc.) or by coughing or sneezing.

Kids get more colds and flu? (true) According to the CDC, adults have an average of 2 to 3 colds per year, and young children may get as many as 8 to 10 each year before the age of two.

Take control of your health

There is scientific evidence that suggests that supporting your immune system with proper nutrition is a good way to stay healthy.

Healthy Eating

As part of a healthy diet, it is important to get enough protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats. Protein is especially important and essential for the health of the immune system.1Healthy fats, (including EPA and DHA) are important to the immune system as well.2

When choosing foods, make sure you focus on fruits and vegetables because they contain nutrients your body needs such as antioxidants, vitamin Cvitamin A, and minerals such aszinc and magnesium.

MANY FOODS HAVE MEDICINAL PROPERTIES, MAKE SURE YOU INCLUDE AS MANY AS POSSIBLE:

Mushrooms (shiitake, matsutake, and others) have a long history of helping support the immune system, especially the reishi mushroom in traditional Chinese medicine. Modern science has shown that mushrooms contain substances (such as beta-glucans and others) that can enhance immune system function.3

Garlic and onions not only taste great but have research supporting their ability to modulate immune function.4

Herbs such as turmeric,5 ginger,6 and others have long been used as spices and to preserve foods; these herbs also have benefits for our immune system.

Nutrients

Vitamins and minerals can also affect the immune system.7 Vitamins B6, B12, folate, C, E, and minerals zinc, copper, and iron all support an effective immune response.8

OTHER BENEFICIAL NUTRIENTS:

Beneficial bacteria: Research supports the relationship between probiotics and general immunity.9 Since 80 percent of your immune system is located around your digestive tract, it makes sense that having good gut flora would benefit the immune system.

Vitamin D: Vitamin D, in particular, has been the focus of much research on optimal immune system functioning. Vitamin D plays a role in the improving mucous membrane barrier functioning, the production of antimicrobial peptides (small proteins), and in overall immune support.10

Vitamin C: While there has been some controversy regarding the usefulness of vitamin C, a recent review of evidence suggests vitamin C may help the immune system of people who are exposed to extreme physical stress and also may shorten the duration of colds.11

Herbs: There are a number of herbs that have been used traditionally for immune system support. Research supports the immune modulating, antiviral, and antimicrobial activity of echinacea13, larch13, elderberry,14 and others.

Your immune system is complex and has many moving parts that all need proper nutrition in order to function well. Giving your immune system the nutritional support it needs gives you the best chance of being well prepared for the upcoming cold and flu season.


  1. Li P, Yin YL, Li D, Kim SW, Wu G. Amino acids and immune function. Br J Nutr. 2007 Aug;98(2):237-52. Epub 2007 Apr 3. PMID: 17403271.
  2. Das UN. Essential fatty acids in health and disease. J Assoc Physicians India.1999 Sep;47(9):906-11. PMID: 10778663.
  3. Vannucci L, Krizan J, Sima P, et al. Immunostimulatory properties and antitumor activities of glucans (Review). Int J Oncol. 2013 Aug;43(2):357-64. PMID: 2373980.
  4. Corzo-Martínez, Nieves Corzo, Mar Villamiel. Biological properties of onions and garlic. Trends in Food Science & Technology. 2007, 18:609-625.
  5. Gautam SC, Gao X, Dulchavsky S. Immunomodulation by curcumin. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:321-41.PMID: 17569218.
  6. Butt MS, Sultan MT. Ginger and its health claims: molecular aspects. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2011 May;51(5):383 93. PMID: 21491265.
  7. Wintergerst ES, Maggini S, Hornig DH. Contribution of selected vitamins and trace elements to immune function. Ann Nutr Metab. 2007;51(4):301-23. Epub 2007Aug 28. PMID: 17726308.
  8. Chandra S, Chandra RK. Nutrition, immune response, and outcome. Prog Food Nutr Sci. 1986;10(1-2):1-65. Review. PMID: 3097756.
  9. Purchiaroni F, Tortora A, Gabrielli M, et al. The role of intestinal microbiota and the immune system. Eur Rev Med Pharmacol Sci. 2013 Feb;17(3):323-33. PMID: 23426535.
  10. Schwalfenberg GK. A review of the critical role of vitamin D in the functioning of the immune system and the clinical implications of vitamin D deficiency. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2011 Jan;55(1):96-108. PMID: 20824663.
  11. Hemilä H, Chalker E. Vitamin C for preventing and treating the common cold. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Jan 31;1:CD000980. PMID: 23440782.
  12. Hudson JB. Applications of the phytomedicine Echinacea purpurea (Purple Coneflower) in infectious diseases. J Biomed Biotechnol. 2012;2012:769896. PMID: 22131823.
  13. Kelly GS. Larch arabinogalactan: clinical relevance of a novel immune-enhancing polysaccharide. Altern Med Rev. 1999 Apr;4(2):96-103. PMID: 10231609.
  14. Roxas M, Jurenka J. Colds and influenza: a review of diagnosis and conventional, botanical, and nutritional considerations. Altern Med Rev. 2007 Mar;12(1):25-48. PMID: 17397266.

Reduce your risk for colds and flu

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 5 to 20 percent of the population will get the flu every year, and more than 200,000 people are hospitalized every year because of flu-related complications.1 The cold is much more common, with the average person getting the cold around 2 to 3 times per year.2

There are ways to reduce your risk of getting these viral infections—both before (and during) the cold and flu season.

Stop touching your face: Studies suggest that people touch their face around 3 to 4 times every hour.3 While that may not sound like that often, you touch your face far more than you wash your hands. The key here is that each time you touch your mouth or nose you are risking transferring bacteria and viruses from contaminated surfaces to your body. This "self-inoculation" is the primary way colds and flu spread through a population (you can also contract a cold or flu when someone coughs or sneezes and you breathe it in). Scientists who study the spread of disease suggest that learning to avoid touching your face may be the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of getting a cold or flu.4

Wash your hands often: Even if you train yourself to avoid touching your face, you still need to wash your hands often. Every surface your hands come in contact with has the potential to be contaminated with bacteria and viruses. Washing with warm soapy water and scrubbing for at least a minute is a good habit to practice throughout the year (and not just during cold and flu season).

Exercise: The key to understanding the benefits of exercise on our immune systems is that it all depends on how much you exercise. Moderate exercise does appear to boost immunity and inactive people do seem to get more colds than active people, but extreme exercise (especially in elite athletes training for competition) does the opposite.5 If you have a moderate exercise program, continue that throughout the year to get the most benefit from exercise. If you don’t currently exercise, start slowly and build up to a regular routine.

Sleep: The importance of good sleep to your health can’t be underestimated. While not many studies look at sleep quality and the immune system, a small study of healthy young men reported a drop in the number and function of white blood cells (neutrophils) with just one night’s poor sleep.6

Diet: Your immune system relies on you to nourish your body well in order to have on hand the basic building blocks for its many functions. The general recommendation for a healthy immune system is to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, avoid excessive alcohol intake, and eat a low-fat, low-sugar diet.

The cold and flu season is on its way and starting now is the best way to be prepared. Developing healthy habits not only helps you in the upcoming season, but for the rest of your life.


  1. http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/disease.htm
  2. http://www.cdc.gov/features/rhinoviruses/
  3. Alonso WJ, Nascimento FC, Shapiro J, Schuck-Paim C. Facing ubiquitous viruses: when hand washing is not enough. Clin Infect Dis. 2013 Feb;56(4):617. PMID: 23155148.
  4. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13548506.2011.564188#.VE_Wk1ftiiA
  5. Moreira A, Delgado L, Moreira P, Haahtela T. Does exercise increase the risk of upper respiratory tract infections? Br Med Bull. 2009;90:111-31. PMID: 19336500.
  6. Christoffersson G, Vågesjö E, Pettersson US, et al. Acute sleep deprivation in healthy young men: Impact on population diversity and function of circulating neutrophils. Brain Behav Immun. 2014 May 28. 
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