Boosting Your Immune System

by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac.

"Since having kids, I've been getting colds much more often, plus I developed a chronic rash that my doctor says is an autoimmune condition. Why is this happening to me? And what can I do?"

We're very sorry that all this seems linked to becoming a mother -- yet you're far from alone since studies have shown that bearing and rearing children gyrate the immune system in a number of ways, leading to increased colds and flus and more risk for autoimmune conditions.

Happily, there are things you can really do to strengthen your immune system so it is more able to fight off pesky invaders, and less likely to over-react and attack your body (i.e., an autoimmune illness). (Of course, this column is not meant to give advice about any particular condition.)

The approaches we're about to mention are all backed up by research (see our website for the references), but they may seem a little technical. Hang in there, and there's lots more info and back-up in chapter 5 of our book, Mother Nurture, which contains a thorough, research-based discussion of how to stay optimally healthy while raising a family.

A Solid Foundation

Actually, the most important thing you can do is mental, not physical: a positive outlook, social support, and low stress will nurture the healing powers of your body. Since angry quarrels depress immune system function, you'll also benefit from finding positive ways to work out issues with your partner.

Second, try to get lots of deep sleep.

Third, keep the overall load on your immune system as low as possible -- by minimizing your exposure to toxins, allergens (including foods to which you are sensitive), or infection -- so that it is not already burdened when new challenges come along.

Now, on this foundation, let's look at a range of specific options for strengthening and balancing your immune system.

Acupuncture

This ancient system can increase T-cells and other white blood cells -- essential soldiers within your specific immune system.

Homeopathy

A number of studies have found that homeopathic remedies seem to reduce respiratory infections (through mechanisms that are not yet understood). Additionally, homeopathy appears able to help balance the immune system, decreasing both allergic and autoimmune reactions; various studies have successfully used remedies to control the symptoms of hay fever, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.

While a remedy is most likely to work when selected by an experienced homeopath, you could try Oscillococcinum on your own. This is used at the beginning of a flu or a cold, and it typically comes in small vials, each of which may be divided into three to four doses. Take one dose every hour at the onset of the flu, and after three or four doses, decrease to about three doses per day.

Musculoskeletal

Moderate exercise boosts white blood cells over time, but strenuous exercise -- like running a 10K race -- briefly lowers their levels in your respiratory and digestive systems. And massage and even affectionate touching have also been shown to increase immune system function.

Dietary

Have protein at every meal. Vegetables and fruit will give you immune-boosting carotenoids and flavenoids. Minimize sugar and refined flours: studies found that consuming about two sodas' worth of sugar knocked down the effectiveness of white blood cells by roughly 50% within one hour, with residual effects lasting for several more hours. Finally, a low-fat diet with minimal caffeine has also been shown to improve immune function.

Supplements

The immune system requires a full cupboard of nutrients in your body, so we'll repeat our frequent recommendation that you take a high potency multi-vitamin/mineral supplement on a full stomach (typically entailing several capsules a day to get everything you need).

Depending on what your supplement contains and how your immune system is doing, you could add one or more of the nutrients listed below.