Several million years ago, it is hypothesized, the first Stone Age human caught the first cold. Ever since then, doctors, nurses, herbalists, shaman and healers of every sort have been confounded by colds and flu. Over the years, these devilish pathogens have been treated with cold baths, wet feet, chili peppers, tobacco, and the application of blood-sucking leeches.
Now we understand that colds and flu are caused by viruses -- but we're still no closer to a cure. The only defense is a good offense. But who says it has to be a drag?
Besides eating right, washing your hands regularly and getting enough sleep, you can maximize your pathogen-fighting potential with a handful of entertaining activities.
They're the richest source of zinc, essential for immune cell function (1), and many studies have shown that even mild deficiency depresses immunity (2). If you're not a fan of bivalves, grab a (grass-fed) burger: Beef and buffalo are other good sources of zinc.
Or whatever tickles your funny bone. A good belly laugh can boost immunity and increase natural endorphins, the body's natural feel-good chemicals. In one recent study, laughter appeared to specifically impact the activity of natural killer cells (3).
In one study, people who were physically active had 33 percent fewer sick days, and when they did get sick, their symptoms were less severe (4). Walking, running, dancing, or anything that gets your blood moving will have the same effect. But if you're coming down with something, skip the lift lines and stay in bed; exercising when you're already sick can weaken immune function.
Forget about isolating; people with stronger social networks and friendships are less likely to get sick. Many studies have consistently linked a strong support system with better immune function, as well as lower blood pressure and reduced mortality (5).
Tai chi, a slow-moving type of Chinese martial art, can help improve the immune response (6); qigong, a similar practice, can have the same benefits (7). In one study, a moderate tai chi and qigong practice improved immune response of older adults after only five months of practice (8).
They're the best food source of selenium, a powerful antioxidant that's been shown to significantly improve immune response. Other sources: tuna, turkey, egg yolks, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds (9).
In a recent study, people who practiced mindfulness meditation reduced the incidence, duration and severity of respiratory infections by as much as 50 percent (10). The study's authors noted that the results were nearly as effective as flu shots, which have only a 50 to 60 percent chance of preventing infection.
You'll find lots of foods on the menu that protect against infection. Order the salmon roll for immune-boosting omega-3 fats (11) and have pickled ginger on the side for its anti-viral activities (12). Start with miso soup; it contains probiotics that can help boost the body's resistance to pathogens (13). And order immune-boosting green tea -- not sake (14).
To reduce stress, one of the most important factors in improving immune function (15). Massage also increases the activity and number of the body's natural "killer cells" that fight off pathogens (16).
As long as your partner's well, it's a great way to fight colds and flu. An older (1999) study showed that people who had sex one or twice a week had higher levels of immunoglobulin (IGA), a cold-fighting antibody, than those who had sex less often or not at all. And even if it doesn't work, you'll have fun trying.
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1. Ibs, K. H.; Rink, L.; (2003). "Zinc-altered immune function." Journal of Nutrition 133 (5 Suppl 1): 1452S.
2. Rink, L.; Gabriel P. (2000). "Zinc and the immune system." Proc Nutr Soc 59 (4): 541.
3. Bennett MP, Lengacher C. "Humor and Laughter May Influence Health IV. Humor and Immune Function." Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2009 Jun;6(2):159-64. Epub 2007 Dec 5.
4. Walsh NP, Gleeson M, Pyne DB, Nieman DC, Dhabhar FS, Shephard RJ, Oliver SJ, Bermon S, Kajeniene A. "Position statement. Part Two: Maintaining Immune Health." Exerc Immunol Rev. 2011;17:64-103.
5. Hogan BE, Linden W, Najarian B. "Social Support Interventions: Do They Work?" Clin Psychol Rev. 2002 Apr;22(3):383-442.
6. Field T. "Tai Chi research review." Complement Ther Clin Pract. 2011 Aug;17(3):141-6. Epub 2010 Oct 24.
7. Jahnke R, Larkey L, Rogers C, Etnier J, Lin F. "A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi." Am J Health Promot. 2010 Jul-Aug;24(6):e1-e25.
8. Yang Y, Verkuilen J, Rosengren KS, Mariani RA, Reed M, Grubisich SA, Woods JA, Schlagal B. "Effects of a traditional Taiji/Qigong curriculum on older adults' immune response to influenza vaccine." Med Sport Sci. 2008;52:64-76.
9. Sanmartín C, Plano D, Font M, Palop JA. "Selenium and Clinical Trials: New Therapeutic Evidence for Multiple Diseases." Curr Med Chem. 2011 Aug 25. [Epub ahead of print]
10. Barrett B, Hayney MS, Muller D, Rakel D, Ward A, Obasi CN, Brown R, Zhang Z, Zgierska A, Gern J, West R, Ewers T, Barlow S, Gassman M, Coe CL. "Meditation or exercise for preventing acute respiratory infection: a randomized controlled trial." Ann Fam Med. 2012 Jul-Aug;10(4):337-46.
11. Swanson D, Block R, Mousa SA. "Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA: health benefits throughout life." Adv Nutr. 2012 Jan;3(1):1-7. Epub 2012 Jan 5. Review.
12. Chang JS, Wang KC, Yeh CF, Shieh DE, Chiang LC. "Fresh ginger (Zingiber officinale) has anti-viral activity against human respiratory syncytial virus in human respiratory tract cell lines." J Ethnopharmacol. 2012 Nov 1. pii: S0378-8741(12)00740-4. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2012.10.043. [Epub ahead of print]
13. Yan F, Polk DB. "Probiotics and immune health." Curr Opin Gastroenterol. 2011 Sep 3. [Epub ahead of print]
14. Clarke JO, Mullin GE. "A review of complementary and alternative approaches to immunomodulation." Nutr Clin Pract. 2008 Feb;23(1):49-62
15. Baumann N, Turpin JC. "Neurochemistry of stress. An overview." Neurochem Res. 2010 Dec;35(12):1875-9. Epub 2010 Oct 27.
16. Hernandez-Reif. "Breast cancer patients have improved immune functions following massage therapy." Journal of Psychosomatic Research, (2003). 57, 45-52.
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