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Sick-proof your body

If you’re the kind of person who’s always the victim of a virus or an infection, here’s a definitive guide to staying well for ever. Believe us, it will change your life. Check it out.

health and fitness Updated: Jan 03, 2011 12:44 IST
Veenu Singh
Veenu Singh
Hindustan Times

As we keep saying, winter is here. This may not be a season of great joy to you at this moment – chances are you’re sniffing, sneezing and looking a lot like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Christmassy and New Year-ish, sure. But are you going to be well enough to party?

That’s a good question to ask, given that year after year, every time the season changes, newspapers are filled with depressing headlines. Either they blare: ‘Prepare for illness!’ Or they shriek ‘Hospitals full! Doctors run off their feet!’

Viruses, infections, we seem to fall ill all the time, don’t we? But worry not. Here at Brunch we’ve gone all out to bring you a complete guide on how to sick-proof yourself – for ever.

And this is a good time to start. According to ayurveda, winter is the best time to boost your immunity level. Blow your nose one last time then, and read on!

A matter of resistance
“The downside of living in a big metro lies in the fact that the hectic pace of life tends to take a toll on your health,” says Dr Sushum Sharma, head of the department of preventive care and advisor at Max Hospital, Gurgaon. “In cities, people fall sick more often than in smaller towns. And this is because most people have low immune levels.”

You’ve come across the word ‘immunity’ before. “Simply put, immunity means how your body resists different kinds of physical as well as environmental stresses,” explains Dr Hemant Tewari, senior consultant, pulmonology, Fortis Escorts and Fortis Vasant Kunj, Delhi. “Your physical health, your lifestyle and your working environment are the various factors that contribute towards immunity.”

Low immunity is why some of us fall ill when the temperature drops (or rises) by so much as a couple of degrees or are the first to succumb when an infectious disease starts in the city. Good immunity is why some of us fall ill only occasionally. While immunity is to a certain extent genetic, it’s built up over the years by your exposure to the germs in your environment. The more kinds of germs you’re exposed to (in limited quantities, that is), the stronger your immune system becomes because your body becomes good at recognising those germs and resisting them. That’s what vaccinations are about.

But vaccinations apart, there’s little you can do to help your inherited immunity get stronger. So, as Dr Vikram Jaggi, director, Asthma Chest Allergy Centre, New Delhi, says: “You can do something about your environment.”

Look outward – and inward
“Adults usually have a very strong immune system with memories of thousands of germs,” says doctor, nutritionist and Brunch columnist Shikha Sharma. “Immune cells are all over the body, from the skin to the respiratory tract to the intestines to the lymphatic system – everywhere.”

But environmental stresses can affect the level of these immune cells. “Over the years, studies have shown that an unhealthy lifestyle, chronic fatigue and stress also play a major role in lowering immunity,” says Dr Sushum Sharma.

By now we’ve heard the phrase ‘lifestyle diseases’ so often, the words no longer make an impact. Unfortunately however lifestyle diseases themselves make an impact – on our levels of immunity. So assuming you’re not genetically prone to any disease, your ability to sick-proof your body comes down to three things only – exercise, food and stress.

An active lifestyle is always seen as a sign of good health, which is why all healthcare professionals emphasise that you take up some form of activity for at least 30 minutes a day every day.

“Even a brisk walk helps your body sweat out toxins and release endorphins that keep stress levels down. And stress affects immunity in a big way,” says fitness expert Sumaya Dalmia.

If you do yoga and have been wondering why it makes you feel so good, there is a reason for it. Research has clearly shown that doing yoga regularly has a positive effect on your immunity because it works on the endocrinal glands. “Although every asana in yoga has a positive effect on your body and mind, pranayam in particular really helps improve immunity,” says Dalmia. “Anulom vilom and kapalbhati are extremely good for that.”

Many of us probably have gym memberships or have joined yoga classes. But sometimes these options seem boring. Still, you mustn’t give up, urges Namita Jain, clinical fitness specialist at Bombay Hospital. “There are options,” she says. “People in their 20s can go for anything that involves a high level of activity such as squash, basketball or kickboxing. For those in their 30s, activities with moderate intensity would be best, so brisk walking or walking uphill, or, if you’re physically fit, even running.” If you’re over 35, activities like swimming, cycling and walking uphill are considered best as they put the least pressure on the joints.

healthy foodFood

Nutritious foods give you the weapons to fight illness. To understand what a well-balanced diet is – one that has a good mix of vegetables and protein – take a look at the traditional thali.

"Almost all vitamins and minerals play a role in ensuring an optimal immune response," says Dr Shikha Sharma. "However, foods that contain vitamins A, B, C and E, folate and carotenoids, and minerals like zinc, chromium and selenium not only boost immunity, but are vital to a healthy immune system too."

Protein is very effective in improving immunity, says Dalmia. "It helps the body to repair, recover and refuel itself." Good sources of protein include chicken, fish, turkey and almost all lentils (moong and masoor dals in particular).

Seasonal fruits like oranges, kinnu, mosambi and amla are all rich in vitamin C and so help to raise your levels of immunity. Sprouted moong and channa are beneficial, and so is dahi which incidentally, is also a good source of probiotics – ‘good’ bacteria that help you digest your food well.

Ayurveda explicitly connects a good digestion with healthy immunity levels, says Dr Shikha Sharma. "It is believed that when you have a good digestive system and a strong appetite, your immunity is strengthened and when there are problems with digestion, you have a weak immunity," she explains.

Though some doctors don’t have much faith in it, the ayurvedic concoction of chaywanprash, a mix of tulsi patti, haldi, ginger, garlic and various herbs is said to be an excellent way to improve your immunity.

"Ayurveda focuses on three aspects that help us to keep healthy. That is aahaar (food), vihar (the place where we live) and dravya (the medicines we take)," explains Dr C K Katyal, head of healthcare and research, Dabur R&D Centre. "It is a fact that you are what you eat. Chaywanprash is made of 45 herbs including those known for antioxidant properties and immunity boosters."

That apart, turmeric (haldi), cinnamon, garlic and honey are considered immunity boosters and infection fighters, says Namita Jain. "Kacchi haldi mixed with pure desi ghee, extra virgin olive oil or coconut oil helps fight various ailments including coughs and colds," she says.

It’s important too to remember that the foods you eat must be fresh, says Dr Sanjay Bhatia, ENT surgeon and neurotologist at Fortis Hospital, Mulund, Mumbai. "Refrigerated or processed foods can trigger respiratory or gastric refluxes," he says. "Illnesses such as asthma or certain allergies used to be hereditary, but now they’ve become lifestyle diseases because we’re consuming products, such as colouring agents and preservatives, that we never used to eat before."

"The mind-body connection in immunity is very close,” says Dr Jaggi. “If you are stressed, you will catch infections very easily. We have known this since the ’60s, when an experiment was conducted where people were put under sudden stress. The lymphocyte function (these are white blood cells that fight common infections) went down. This can be quantified.” Given this situation, it’s clear that your mental and emotional health matter a great deal.

“When you are depressed or stressed, you are unable to pay attention to your diet and lifestyle,” says Jain. “Sleepless nights and constant mental fatigue lower the body’s defense mechanism, making you more prone to illnesses.”

On that level, it’s simple. Since the body is not able to absorb food and minerals, it loses its power to resist infection. And, if stress continues over a long period, it results in the degeneration of body tissues and accelerates the ageing process.

“Stress affects the immune system in a major way because it affects the functioning of the thymus (a small gland located near the heart mainly meant to create the antibody protection for the body), liver, spleen, etc,” explains Dr Shikha Sharma. “The chakras affected are the swathishtahan (endocrinal), the manipur (digestive system) and the heart chakra (immune system).”

Though it has clear physical effects on your body, stress itself can’t be ‘treated’ the way physical ailments can. If you’re too anxious to eat, you’re not going to eat well. If you’re too tense to sleep, then you can’t sleep. Stress requires a response that comes from within your head and your heart.

“In a chronic stress situation (stress that has built up over a period of time), the body’s response is not always perceptible in terms of physical symptoms, but the response of the brain, though of lower intensity is of a longer duration,” says Dr Vasant Mundra, consultant psychiatrist at Hinduja Hospital, Mumbai.

So whether you know it or not, physically you breathe faster, your muscles tense up and the liver produces glucose to send more energy to the muscles. “All this exhausts the body’s resources faster, which could impact your immunity,” explains Dr Mundra.

The thing to do say all doctors, is to change your response to stress. But change it how? We’re told that we must keep our spirits up, we must spend more time with family and friends, we must maintain a positive attitude. But not all of us are blessed with constantly happy (and stress-free) families, not all of us can see the silver lining in the cloud all the time, not all of us can be happy when, really, we’re not.

Dr Mundra has some advice:
1. See that your response in day-to-day situations is measured. Remember that no emotion is free of charge.
2. Seek to increase the level of good chemicals in the brain – via laughter, exercise and sex.

“Activities like yoga, Art of Living and prayer meetings all help to do this,” says Dr Mundra. “Yoga changes your physiological response to brain signals, while satsangs help you by attributing crises to a higher power and reminding you that you don’t have to suffer them alone. Even birthdays create situations to force you to change your perceptions – to remember that life is good.”

Fight the good fight
The most important thing to remember, however, is that good health needs discipline. “Success in health matters doesn’t come from quick fixes,” says Dr Jaggi. “For instance, popping vitamin tablets is not the answer. If you’re eating a good diet you don’t need to take vitamin tablets in any case. What matters is doing simple healthy things correctly and repeatedly and making them a habit. There are no short cuts.”

The discipline includes:
1. Good diet with good protein content
2. Regular exercise
3. Limited or no alcohol
4. No smoking
5. Maintaining your optimum body weight
6. Coping with stress and minimising stress levels.

Many of us worry about our health, but doctors have seen that we don’t often actually do anything about it, as work interferes with the discipline that we must maintain.

“You may not be able to change your job, but you can change your thinking,” says Dr Roy Patankar, Gastrointestinal surgeon and Endoscopist at Fortis Hospital, Mumbai. “For instance, I work with BPO companies where the employees work on US time and their lifestyles are thrown out of balance. The only way to get them to maintain a healthy lifestyle was to convince the companies’ HR departments to offer every employee an annual cash bonus if they maintained the correct body-mass index – and it worked.”

The other thing to know, says Dr Jaggi, is that allopathy does not have all the answers. “Allopathic doctors are taught how to treat illness. They are not that clued into the prevention aspect,” he explains. “And though the importance of a holistic approach is now being recognised by allopathic doctors, I do believe that alternative systems of medicines are better at both these aspects, prevention and a holistic approach (the mind-body connect). Ayurveda, yoga, naturopathy have a lot to offer.”

Risk factors for women
Haemoglobin count:
A low count could lead to anaemia. There is a need to start testing right from the school stage so that girls understand what their monthly blood loss implies.

Bone density: This is lifestyle-related and taking calcium after menopause does not rectify it. Loss of bone density can be attributed to smoking, crazy diets and the drastic weight loss they occasion. Thin women are more prone to osteoporosis.

Good health for life
As you age your body goes through changes that should be catered to. Here’s a guide.

In your 20s
For most of us, this is a carefree time. No one is concerned about health even now let alone in the future. “Fun, food and friends are the priority and the lifestyle consists of irregular timings and loads of junk food,” says fitness expert Namita Jain.

But if you’re in your 20s, eat things like:
Sandwiches made of whole wheat bread
A daily serving each of fruit and veggies
Lean meat like chicken and fish
Protein from curd, tofu, paneer and dal
A little fat

“You should also include a certain amount of activity in your lifestyle,” says wellness consultant and fitness expert Sumaya Dalmia. “Pick up a sport or join a dancing or aerobics class or do any form of activity that acts like a cardiovascular exercise.”

In your 30s
“Hormonal changes, especially among women, should not be ignored,” says Dr Hemant Tewari, senior consultant in pulmonology, Fortis Escort and Fortis Vasant Kunj, Delhi. “Consider this the time to plan a healthy and active lifestyle – and a preventive healthcare programme. Your stress levels need to be kept in check.”

For women the risk of calcium loss is high says Jain, so speak to your doctor about supplements.

For both men and women, the emphasis should be on nutrition and exercise. “Have an annual preventive health check after the age of 35,” says Dr Susham Sharma, head of the department of preventive care and advisor at Max Hospital, Gurgaon. “Test for blood levels, blood pressure, cholesterol, heart health, brittle bones and cervical and breast cancer for women, prostrate cancer for men.”

In your 40s
“This is a crucial age for both men and women. Your metabolism slows down, and your body’s defense mechanism also gets lower,” says Dr BB Mittal, senior consultant, internal medicine, Jaipur Golden Hospital. “Joint pains and backaches become more prominent and both men and women are at a high risk of osteoporosis.”

Men should not ignore joint pains and gum diseases, because an inflammation can lead to cardiovascular problems. Weight gain also needs to be kept in control.

Women must watch out for the effects of menopause, because the loss of estrogen leads to Osteoporosis.

“Follow a diet high in fruits and veggies, Omega 3-rich fish, and a little olive oil have four or five small meals instead of three big ones,” says Dr Shikha Sharma, nutritionist and Brunch columnist. “Garlic and ginger are anti-inflammatory herbs take them as supplements. Make sure you’re getting lots of the antioxidant vitamins C and E.”

Adds Jain: “An active lifestyle is essential. Try yoga or go for walks, or have massages. Take up golf or even gardening, and try and avoid depression.”

Take the Tests
“Vaccination as well as preventive health check-ups are a good way to ensure some kind of a safeguard against illnesses,” says Dr Mukesh Batra, CMD, Dr Batra’s Positive Health Clinic. Illnesses like chicken pox, swine flu, hay fever, influenza, measles, mumps, sunstroke and Japanese encephalitis all have preventive medicines available in homeopathy.

Aged 20-50
Blood sugar and cholesterol level test, TMT (Treadmill Test)
Additional tests when you’re aged 31-50
TMT (to look for occult anginaor coronary artery disease)
PFT (Pulmonary function test)
Echocardiography (to look at the structural details of the heart)
Further tests when you’re aged 50 and above

Aged 20-50
Blood sugar and cholesterol level test, pap smear test, bone densitometry test, thyroid test
Additional tests when you’re aged 31-50
Bone densitometry (osteoporosis and osteopenia are more common in this age group)
Mammography (peak incidence of breast cancer occur in the age group 50-70 years)
Further tests when you’re aged 50 and above
Stool for occult blood to screen for gastrointestinal malignancy
Blood test PSA for screening of prostate cancer
Stool to screen occult blood for gastrointestinal malignancy

Warning Signals
The body usually tries to warn us about any major illness. This is usually in the form of certain signals that should not be ignored.

According to Dr Hemant Tewari, senior consultant, pulmonology, Fortis Escorts and Fortis Vasant Kunj, Delhi, signals that could indicate diabetes, heart disease and hypertension include:
Frequent coughs, colds and flu-like symptoms
Frequent diarrhoea
Sudden weight gain
Dry, itchy eyes
Regular skin problems
Constant headaches
Regular chest pain or acidity
The urge to pass urine at night (nocturia)

According to Dr Vikram Jaggi, director, Asthma Chest Allergy Centre, Delhi, these signs indicate that all is not well with your body:
Feeling constantly tired
Frequent headaches
Frequent sore throats
Sleeping too much or too little
A general level of ‘sadness’ when you don’t enjoy the things you’ve always enjoyed
Feelings of anxiety

According to Dr Aashish Contractor, head of the department of cardiac prevention and rehabilitation at the Asian Heart Institute, Mumbai, these are signs of possible cardiac trouble:
Discomfort in the chest, neck and jaw areas – the upper body region – which gets worse upon exertion and eases when you lie down
Shortness of breath doing regular things. “If you live on the third floor and you’re used to walking up to that level, it’s fine if you’re short of breath when you climb eight floors,” he explains. “But if you get short of breath even when you go up three floors, it could mean trouble.”

Eat Up, Live Well
Green tea
Spinach and other green leafy vegetables
Pumpkins (kaddu)
Turmeric (haldi)
Cinnamon (dalchini)

The Naturopathy Route
Naturopathy is an art and science of living. According to Dr Rukamani Nair, medical superintendent, Bapu Nature Cure Hospital and Yogashram, Delhi, no drugs are used. “We believe that the body has five elements and when any of them are imbalanced you fall sick,” she says. “To prevent yourself from falling ill, we have the panch tantra – five lifestyle ways.”

1. We advise that you drink three to four litres of water every day, on an empty stomach. Eg: you wake up and drink two glasses of lukewarm water. Then half an hour before breakfast, drink some more water. Half an hour after breakfast, have some more water. Always drink water half an hour before a meal. Ninety minutes after lunch, drink some more water.

2. Eat two wholesome meals a day – chappati, rice, dal, subzi, salad, curd. These days people eat what they like, not what they should eat. Your third meal – breakfast – could be seasonal fruit, sprouts, salad. For an evening snack, eat these again. In summer, eat more raw food. In winter you can semi-cook it (except the fruit). For your evening snack you could also have some vegetable soup or lemon juice with honey.

3. Fast one day a week. You need to give your digestive system a rest. Either stay on a liquid diet (such as lemon juice with honey, mosambi juice, lassi, buttermilk). Or eat seasonal fruits, salads and drink juices.

4. Exercise is important. We recommend yoga. Exercise increases circulation so the blood nourishes all the organs of the body including the brain. Metabolism increases and you have joint and muscle mobility. Oxygenated blood reaching all your body cells purifies the system. Yoga strengthens your system, making it stronger against attack by germs.

5. Along with the body, your mind also requires food in the form of prayer / meditation / chanting / bhajans. Prayer is a must in today’s world.

Dr Rishma Dhillon-Pai, consultant gynaecologist, Lilavati and Jaslok Hospitals, Mumbai

From HT Brunch, December 19

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First Published: Dec 18, 2010 15:57 IST