Eat, breathe and medicate to boost immunity

  • Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Jan 10, 2015 18:27 IST

As the flu season peaks in India and sporadic swine flu deaths bring back memories of the 2009 pandemic that killed close to 20,000 people worldwide -- a 2012 study in The Lancet Infectious Diseases ( estimated the death-toll was 15 times higher -- what everyone wants to know is how you can ward off the flu.

Get a flu vaccine -- India-made HNVAC and NASOVAC shots and spray affordable and available -- if you are pregnant, older than 65 or have health problems such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease and lung diseases that can be aggravated by a flu attack. The rest of us are safe as long as we stay away from sniffling and coughing people, wash up after spending time in public places and shared spaces, and do our bit to boost our immunity.

Stay away from sniffling and coughing people, wash up after spending time in public places and shared spaces (Photo: Shutterstock)

The body's natural immunity is a marvellous thing, it can fight and adapt to multiple viruses and other malevolent organisms with enviable ease. And now that human body has had more than five years to develop natural immunity to H1N1, all we need to do is bolster its defence, which may under-perform because of repeated assaults from stress, bugs and environmental toxins.

Some things that lower immunity are beyond our control, such as genes, age and previous exposure to disease-causing microbes. But with a little work, we can work towards strengthening our defences against outside attack.

The first line of defence is to bolster immunity by eating natural foods, piling our plates high with fruits, vegetables and whole grains that are loaded with vitamins and micronutrients that fight off infection. How much we eat is as important. Obesity raises risk of infection and slows recovery by lowering the well-mediating immune responses and throwing the immune system out of whack, reported the International Journal of Obesity in 2013 ( Obesity is an established risk factor for surgical-site infections, hospital infections, gum and skin infections, which raise risk of complications.

While the claims of most immune-boosters are suspect -- human body anyway produces more immune cells than it can possibly use -- some supplements work. Zinc supplements, for example, can both prevent and shorten colds if taken within 24 hours of the symptoms appearing. Zinc works by stopping the cold viruses from replicating and preventing them from penetrating the cell linings of the airways.

Popular cold-buster Vitamin C fails spectacularly when it comes to preventing colds, though it reduces symptoms marginally. Research shows that that water-soluble Vitamin C -- the body cannot store it, unlike the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K that are stored in the liver and fatty tissue -- benefits only the severely malnourished and offers no benefits when had over the recommended limits.

Vitamin D, which is made by the skin on exposure to sunlight, and melatonin, the hormone that regulates the body's sleep-wake cycle, stimulate immune cell activity and keep the immune system from getting hyperactive and triggering autoimmune disorders such as allergies, asthma, eczema and multiple sclerosis.

What the body needs as much as energy is an oxygen boost. Moderate exercise - walking at a speed of 100 steps per minute, or 3,000 steps in half an hour at least five times a week - helps the immune system run like clockwork. Physical activity rids the lungs of airborne bacteria and viruses that cause throat and chest infections. Exercise boosts the production of macrophagus, the cells that fight bacteria and increases blood flow, which helps in the circulation of antibodies and white blood cells that fight infection, while simultaneously lowering the secretion of stress-related hormones that suppress immune function.

Those with intensive exercise schedules need to be cautious, though. Acute bouts of vigorous activity lower immune function for 3 to 24 hours after exercise, depending on its intensity and duration. Post-exercise immune function depression, however, is most pronounced when the exercise is continuous, prolonged (over 1.5 hours), of moderate to high intensity (55-75% of aerobic capacity or maximum heart rate), and done without eating, reports a study in the Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care (

Last of all, don't scrimp on sleep. People who sleep less than seven hours at night are three times more likely to catch a cold after being exposed to a cold-causing virus than those who sleep eight hours, report researchers in the Archives of Internal Medicine (

Sleep on this and wake up recharged to beat back microbial assault.

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