Fall is in the air, and for many that means the first cold of the season. You might be able to ward of this misery by helping your immune system through diet, exercise, and relaxation.

Ah yes, fall. Bright autumn colors, the crackle of leaves underfoot, football snaps and a snap to the air, and a runny nose. The first four are great, but how can you avoid the runny nose? Or, more generally, how can you avoid the routine winter bouts with ill health and also ensure better health year around? Well, there is no guarantee, but the trio of diet, exercise, and relaxation can give your immune system a head start in warding off the winter whammies, as well as keeping general ill health at bay.


People talk about putting on the "winter fat" but this is not what you should be doing. It does not matter so much the quantity you eat, but the quality you eat. Saturated fats, sugar, and salt all contribute to a weaker immune system. For example, when you digest sugar, there is a measurable slowdown in activity by a class of white blood cells involved in the immune system. It is not long lasting—a few hours, but those who continually graze for sugar might be experiencing constant suppression. The same happen if you eat a lot of sugar at one setting: drink that Big Gulp of soda and suppress your immune system.

There are a number of publications and books that tell you exactly what nutrient you need for what part of the immune system (see box for information). In a "roundtable discussion" in the Nutrition Action Healthletter, Susanna Cunningham-Rundles, associate professor of immunology at Cornell University Medical school, states that "Studies have shown that zinc helps the immune systems of the elderly. That may be because zinc is essential for the functioning of the thymic hormone, which is needed to produce T cells..."

Does this mean we should zero in on specific foods are stuff ourselves? No. The consensus of experts in the field is that any one nutrient, or any one food, may help somewhat, but the best thing you can do is develop an all-around healthy diet. Indeed, it is even possible to have too much of a good thing. For example, garlic, which in lower doses has demonstrated immune-building properties, in large doses has the opposite effect. Speaking of a study that had to be canceled, Johanna Dwyer of Tufts Medical School and School of Nutrition in Boston is quoted as saying, "Patients developed flu-like symptoms. Researchers realized it was some kind of immune response to the very large doses." Does this mean giving up garlic for colds? Of course not. Just don't take it in massive quantities.


Exercise has also proven helpful to the immune system. Don't be fooled into thinking you have to become an athlete and exert maximum energy everyday. Something as simple as going for a moderate-paced walk has proven helpful. According to a study by University of North Carolina exercise physiologist David Nieman, women who walk 45 minutes a day are half as likely to catch a flu or cold bug. What's more, active women in their 70s had immune systems that were as healthy as women in their 30s and twice as healthy as more sedentary seniors.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to exercise is indirectly related to the immune system in that exercise gives you "well-worked" organs, muscle, tissue, fluids, and so on which results in healthier bodies later in life and even more years. Many different studies have shown that exercise slows down the body's deterioration. According to the figures of Fred Kasch of the Fred Kasch Exercise Physiology Lab at Sand Diego State University, aging accounts for about one-third of a body's aerobic decline. Inactivity is responsible for the remaining two-thirds. Jim Graves of the University of Florida Center for Exercise Sciences, quoted in Health says, "Exercise will prevent most age-related-deteriorations through age 60." After 60, the body does slow down, but exercise can still keep your body fit and active.


Another important component in helping our immune system should be an easy one: relaxation. This means sleep, low stress, and a good attitude. When we sleep, our bodies recharge themselves: this means repairing tissue, healing, and fueling cells and organs up with fuel. Sleep may be the single most important thing we can do to help our immune system. Ever wonder why you catch a cold when you feel "tired and rundown"? That's why.

Stress also hurts the immune system. Indirectly, when we worry about family, jobs, friends or school, we often lose sleep and cannot relax. This means taking valuable recharge time away from our immune system. On a more technical level, recent studies have shown that stressful arguments change the level of hormones that promote or reduce immune system functions. A 1993 study demonstrated that immune function markers showed significant changes after newlywed couples had words on a sensitive topic.

Finally, feeling good about things makes a difference. Although there have long been reports of laughter helping people through illness and the like, they were often dismissed as "testimonial." Now, however, science is discovering why a healthy mental attitude bolsters the immune system. Studies have shown that components of the immune system can respond to chemical secretions by the central nervous system. White blood cells, for example, become less active in fighting infection when exposed to a neuro chemical released in response to stress. David Spiegel of the University of California, San Francisco, led a study showing that women with advanced breast cancer survived nearly twice as long if they participated in a weekly support group. Other researches have found the same results in patients with melanoma, leukemia, and lymphoma.

So, what is the secret of a healthy body, less disease, and longer life? Ponce de Leon aside, it is not a fountain located in Florida. It is something found around us and found within ourselves. It is the desire and will to eat better, exercise, and relax. That is the secret to a longer and healthier life. It's yours for the taking.


Vitamin A: Aids in the efficient production of T cells and aids the kidney in filtering and removing immunological debris from the blood. Necessary for the production of bacteria-fighting chemicals in ears, saliva, and sweat. Stimulates the activity of T and B cells in fighting infection.

Vitamin B complex: Effects all aspects of the immune system, increases antibody response, keeps the thymus active, maintains the body's bacterial destruction's abilities, and keeps cellular immune responses efficient.

Vitamin C: Helps the thymus make T cells and stimulates other white blood cells to kill bacteria. Important for the production of interferon, a substance that battles viruses. A deficiency can show up in decreased activity of bacterial eating cells and slowed wound healing.

Vitamin E: Stimulates antibody production and speeds up T cell reactions.

Potassium and Copper: Provide energy to drive biochemical reaction in lymphoid cells. Iron: Affects lymph nodes, energized T cells, and is essential for chemical reaction by which white blood cells kill bacteria.

Zinc: Affects helper and suppressor T cell regulation.


  • Eat Well Eat a variety of foods not just "immune system foods": The immune system is varied and thus needs many different nutrients. If you stick with only a few foods, you may hurt your body's other nutritional needs.

  • Eat generous amounts of fruits and vegetables: Fruits and vegetables contain important vitamins as well as phtyochemicals that can help your body fight disease.

  • Eat foods that contain minerals, especially zinc, iron and copper. Don't over do it; too much of these is as bad as not enough. (Which is why you should eat foods, not take supplements.)

  • Eat complex carbohydrates such as grains and legumes. This results in longer-lasting energy. If you do not get enough carbohydrates, your body will draw on protein, robbing immunological cells of important foods.

  • Eat foods high in fiber. Try to consume 30-40 grams of fiber a day.

  • Eat before or during times of stress. This way the body does not have to find energy from the immune system.

  • If you have a baby, breast feed. This ensures that important antibodies and hormones are sent to the child.

  • Don't eat fat. Try not to make fats any more than 20% of your daily caloric intake.

  • Don't eat sweets. They suppress the immune system.

    This bulletin is for information only. It has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure. or prevent any disease.

    The article "Improving Your Immunity" is reproduced with the permission of AIM International.
    ©1997, 1998, 1999 by AIM International

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