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The good fight

All of us are born with some innate protection against diseases. But can that be enhanced? Kushalrani Gulab finds out.

health and fitness Updated: Feb 23, 2009 18:07 IST
Kushalrani Gulab

If there’s one thing that annoys marketing executive Priyanka Mehra, it’s the fact that she constantly falls sick. At least once a month for a few days, she gets the sniffles, a stuffy nose and mild fever. How she wishes she were healthy, just like everyone else seems to be.

But that’s not going to happen, says Mumbai-based consultant dietician Dr Sushila Sharangdhar, unless Priyanka manages to build up her immunity. “People tend to fall sick more often with common ailments like the cold, when immunity levels are low,” says Dr Sharangdhar. What is immunity, however? And can you build it up?

What is immunity?
Immunity is simply the body’s ability to fight disease, says Dr Altaf Patel from Jaslok Hospital, Mumbai. Dr Sharangdhar adds that immunity levels differ from person to person and cannot be quantified to a standard level. So you only know that your immunity levels are low when you find yourself falling sick often.

While there are various types of immunity, including artificial immunity granted by vaccinations and inoculations, we are all born with some innate protection against the common diseases of our environment, thanks to our genes. This can be affected by various factors, says Dr Patel, including age, chronic disorders such as diabetes and immune system disorders like AIDS, which destroys the body’s ability to produce antibodies that fight germs, and leaves the victim open to diseases. Your genes also have a role to play in how susceptible you are to disease, adds Dr Patel.

Raise the bar
Though it’s easy to explain why our immunity levels might fall, it’s harder to work on enhancing them for the simple reason that you’re born with what you have. You can help strengthen your defences against disease, however, by following a healthy lifestyle (a balanced diet, regular exercise), avoiding stress and getting adequate rest.

This sounds wonderful, but the fact is, if we all followed these principles regularly, there would be no need for the media to focus so much on health. So, while there are no quick fixes, Dr Sharangdhar believes a few dietary changes can help boost immunity.

“The chief destructive force that the immune system has to contend with is free radicals,” she says. These cause alterations in cells that can lead to illness. So you must eat an antioxidant-rich diet (antioxidants destroy free radicals) and make sure you’re getting enough nutrients. So here are the usual suspects to strengthen your immunity: green leafy vegetables, including broccoli, and lots of fibre.

Exercise can also help, says Dr Sharangdhar. A brisk 30-minute walk five days a week can help even if you do no other exercise. Exercise also helps you de-stress, which strengthens your body’s immune response. “But the best thing to do if you’re always falling sick,” says Dr Patel, “Is to check your blood sugar, live healthy and be happy.”