February 05, 2013

7 Surprising Immune System Boosters

Between the flu epidemic and outbreaks of the stomach bug norovirus, you need to be proactive about protecting your health. Along with frequent hand washing, it’s important to avoid close contact with anyone who might be ill. A new study reports that infectious droplets exhaled by someone with flu can travel at least six feet.
What’s more, nearly 20 percent of flu sufferers are “super-emitters,” expelling up to 32 times more flu germs than other flu patients, the researchers reported in Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The good news, however, is that there are several simple, unexpected ways to rev up your immune system and stay healthy, even when everybody else is coughing and sneezing. Try these research-backed strategies:
  • Stretch and meditate. People who devote 45 minutes a day to mindful meditation, while also engaging in moderate exercises, such as walking, yoga, or stretching, were up to 50 percent less likely to develop respiratory illnesses during winter months than those with neither habit, according to a new study published in Annals of Family Medicine. The researchers theorize that mindful meditation helped ward off illness by reducing stress, which is known to take a toll on the immune system. Exercise alone was only half as effective as the combination of working out and meditating, the study found.
  • Sip hot coffee or tea. Compared to people who don’t drink hot coffee or tea, those who do are 50 percent less likely to harbor MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) bacteria in their nose—and may therefore be at significantly lower risk for developing a dangerous superbug infection. MRSA causes 278,000 hospitalizations and more than 6,500 deaths in the US each year. A Harvard study also found that people who drank 5 cups of black tea daily had five times more virus-fighting interferon in their blood than they did at the beginning of the two-week study. The researchers say that compounds in tea help jumpstart the immune system even before it’s exposed to germs.
  • Look on the bright side. People with an upbeat outlook—meaning that they are happy, relaxed, or pleased with life—have a lower risk for colds than those with a negative outlook, characterized by being depressed, anxious or hostile, according to a study published in Psychosomatic Medicine. The researchers assessed the emotional style of 314 healthy volunteers ages 18 to 54, then exposed them to rhinoviruses (via a nasal spray). Participants were put into quarantine and monitored to see if they developed a cold. Those with a gloomy style were nearly three times as likely to get sick.
  • Protect yourself with probiotics. Probiotics—the “good bacteria” found in yogurt, fermented foods and supplements—help ward off colds and other upper respiratory tract infections (URTIs), according to a Cochrane review pooling data from 10 randomized clinical studies involving 3,451 participants. People who took probiotics had an up to 47 percent drop in URTIs, compared to people treated with a placebo, the researchers reported, in the first systematic review to show this benefit of the immune-system boosters. Probiotics may also reduce both total and LDL (bad) cholesterol, according to a 2012 study presented at the American Heart Association scientific session.
  • Take a sauna. An Austrian study reported that people who steamed twice a week caught only half as many colds over a six-month period as those who didn’t. While the reason isn’t known, one possibility is that inhaling hot air may help kill respiratory viruses. However, once a cold starts, going to a sauna has no effect on the symptoms, a more recent study found.
  • Have a bowl of chicken soup. Used as a home remedy for respiratory infections since the 12th century, this classic comfort food really does have medicinal value. A 2012 study published in American Journal of Therapeutics reports that a substance called carnosine, found in both chicken soup and chicken breast, helps the immune system fight colds and flu, but the effect is temporary. Chicken soup may also fight inflammation and congestion from a cold, according to the National Institutes of Health.
  • Rev up your immune system with astragalus. This herb, available as a dietary supplement, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for centuries to protect and support the immune system. Along with potent antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties, studies show that it also combats viruses and may help prevent colds, according to University of Maryland Medical System.

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