Nobody plans to get sick. Yet no matter how careful you are, the inevitable cold or flu can strike, often without warning. For most people, bacterial or viral infections are at the root of what ails them. These everyday illnesses usually run their course until the body builds up enough immunity to fight off the infection on its own. Along the way, the immune system learns to identify various microorganisms so it can defend against them in the future.
A healthy immune system is capable of dealing with the constant barrage of bacteria and viruses that we are exposed to day in and day out. It's our 24/7 knight in shining armor that keeps us alive and well. A strong immune system offers protection in a number of ways:
- It creates a barrier against harmful microorganisms.
- It carries out "search and destroy" missions to find and eliminate bacteria and viruses that do get into your body.
- It prevents dangerous bacteria and viruses from reproducing.
- It triggers the destruction of damaged cells in a process known as apoptosis.
However, as efficient as this internal defense system is, there are a number of things that can weaken our immunity. Topping the list is age. As we grow older our ability to fight off disease diminishes, possibly because the body is less able to produce immune cells. Many chronic health problems are also linked to an unhealthy lifestyle. Exposure to chronic stress, a lack of physical activity, and a steady diet of nutritionally bankrupt foods can weaken even the strongest immune system. Luckily, these are factors we can control.
Building a Strong Fortress
Your immune system functions better when it's well-nourished. But relying on food often isn't enough. The following supplements can help your immune system to function optimally.
Aged Garlic Extract (AGE) is best known for its cardiovascular benefits. But scientists at the University of Florida have found that this pungent herb (2.56 grams daily) also reduces the duration of cold or flu by as much as 61 percent. It does this by increasing the number of immune cells, especially NK cells and gamma-delta T-cells.
Astragalus has gained a reputation as an antiviral and immune booster. A staple in traditional Chinese medicilate thene, astragalus is rich in polysaccharides, flavonoids, trace minerals, and amino acids. Studies show that it can stimu immune system by increasing the activity of NK cells, macrophages, and T-cells. Taken long-term, it may help prevent some upper respiratory conditions, including colds. Take 1/4-1 tsp. liquid extract, one to two times daily.
Elderberry possesses potent immune-modulating, anti-viral, and antioxidant properties. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 60 flu patients found that people taking elderberry got relief from their symptoms four days earlier than their placebo-pumping counterparts. Another study tested elderberry against 10 different strains of the influenza virus and found that it stopped all of the flu strains dead in their tracks by significantly boosting cytokine production. Take 5 ml daily for prevention, and 15 ml one to two times daily for acute viral infections.
Iron is an essential mineral that plays a complex role in immunity. A deficiency impairs immune function-including inflammatory response-and increases susceptibility to infection. But make sure to have your iron levels measured before reaching for a supplement. Too much iron is just as harmful as too little since the immune system keeps invading microbes in check by depriving them of this key mineral. Also, iron is necessary for bacteria to reproduce, so if you supplement with iron and develop an infection, take a break from it.
Olive Leaf has been used medicinally since biblical times. The secret to its healing powers lies in the herb's natural antioxidants, especially oleuropein-a compound with antibacterial and antifungal properties. Unlike antibiotic drugs, oleuropein isn't broad-spectrum. Instead, it targets specific microbes and allows healthy bacteria to thrive. Olive leaf's bacteria-busting abilities have been shown in several studies to target some extremely harmful microbes including Helicobacter pylori (the ulcer bug) and Staphylococcus aureus. One to try: Barlean's Olive Leaf Extract.
Oregano is a powerful antioxidant and antibacterial, thanks to high levels of carvacrol. Studies suggest that the oxygen molecules in carvacrol team up with the water in your body to create heat that kills bacteria. When pitted against a variety of common infectious microbes, oregano oil can kill Salmonella, E. coli, and several types of the Staphylococcus bug, research has shown. Take 200 mg, one to three times per day.
Plant Sterols are fats similar in structure to cholesterol. When joined in the proper ratio of 100:1 with special sugar molecules called sterolins, plant sterols help regulate immune function. Studies of patients suggest that this dynamic duo selectively increases lymphocytes, which can boost underactive immunity and modulate an overactive immune system.
Probiotics strengthen the barrier function of the intestinal wall and boost immunity by stimulating the body's production of natural killer cells and T-cells. New research also shows that some probiotic strains tame intestinal inflammation that can lead to future health problems.
7 Disease-Fighting Foods
1. Beef. Zinc-found in red meat-plays a key role in the development of white blood cells. Just make sure you opt for lean cuts and enjoy it no more than twice a week to keep saturated fat to a minimum.
2. Carrots. An excellent source of beta carotene, carrots support the mucus membranes that line the respiratory and intestinal tracts, making it harder for pathogens to enter the bloodstream. Beta carotene also increases the number of NK cells and T-helper cells.
3. Fish. Selenium, plentiful in shellfish, helps white blood cells produce cytokines-proteins that help clear viruses out of the body. Salmon and other fatty, cold-water fish are rich in omega-3 fats, which reduce inflammation.
4. Spinach. This popular leafy green vegetable is loaded with folate and vitamin C, which aid in DNA repair and help the body produce new cells and tissues.
5. Tomatoes. They are packed with lycopene and vitamin C, and studies suggest that a diet rich in cooked tomato products can lower free radical damage to immune cells by up to 38 percent.
6. Watermelon. This summertime favorite is a wonderful source of glutathione. Since white blood cells rely on the availability of this key antioxidant to reproduce, enjoying this juicy fruit often can help you maintain adequate glutathione levels.
7. Yogurt. This tangy fermented food provides beneficial probiotics that help protect against harmful bacteria and fosters white blood cell production.
If you do find yourself under the weather, consider homeopathy. Based on highly diluted non-toxic remedies, homeopathy safely stimulates the body's own inherent healing capacity. Often referred to as "like cures like," homeopathic medicine is based on the belief that symptoms are a sign that the body is trying to heal itself against illness. As such, homeopathy works with your whole body to make you well instead of simply suppressing symptoms.
Common ailments such as a cough, cold, or the flu are good candidates for self-treatment with homeopathy. One study found that taking a proprietary over-the-counter homeopathic medicine within 24 hours of the onset of the flu eased or completely resolved symptoms in 63 percent of patients within just 48 hours. As this study suggests, it's important to begin taking a homeopathic dilution as soon as you notice symptoms. Picking the right remedy also matters. Since homeopathy stimulates the body's natural defenses, choose a homeopathic medicine that most closely matches your symptoms.
Bacteria or Virus?
What's the difference between bacteria and a virus? They can both cause similar symptoms and make you feel miserable. But that's where the similarity ends. Bacteria are single-celled organisms that can multiply rapidly. A virus, however, isn't really alive. It's just a fragment of DNA or RNA that's surrounded by a protective layer of protein. So how can it make you sick? A virus is capable of latching onto healthy cells and injecting its genetic material. Once inside, it hijacks the cell's machinery, redirecting it to produce the virus.