Doctor Mary

Hi everyone and hope you are sailing fine through cold and flu season.

With well-maintained, strong immune systems we’re not as vulnerable to disease, whether flu or most others. I’ve been working on susceptibility to chemical contaminants, which often boils down to immune health. But rather than recount new discoveries I’m reading about, I thought more useful would be to summarize what is now — to the contrary — well-accepted. (In other words, what was new and innovative 20 or 30 years ago.) So I went to the source of all things well-accepted. Here are highlights from Harvard Medical School’s view on immune-boosting strategies (glossing over substantial research on diet, herbs, supplements, etc. they regard as not yet proven effective):

  • First, take seriously the usual advice: Don’t smoke, use alcohol reasonably, eat plentiful veggies, get regular exercise, watch your weight, sleep soundly and enough, and wash your hands a lot. Simply evaluating whether you really do these things, and changing habits where possible, will make you more disease-resistant.
  • Take a good multi-vitamin! (Remember triage theory?) Missing micronutrients can impair immune function particularly as we age; selenium, zinc and vitamin E are key. Vitamin D is increasingly recognized as important, best from sunshine (and D3 in your multi-vitamin if not).
  • Garlic, a strong anti-microbial (bacteria, virus, fungus), is creeping into the ranks of accepted general infection-fighters. Cooking it will reduce any digestion problems. (Eating it with parsley, or taking it in pill form, will address any breath problems…)
  • More surprising: The role of gut flora in immune health is (finally) increasingly recognized. Probiotics (“good” bacteria such as lactobaccilus and bifidobacterium) are helpful in increasing activity of immune cells. Explore them, favoring products that list number of live bacteria. Caution because the quality of probiotic supplements (like multi-vitamins) is variable. Go slowly and expect possible digestive distress in the first days.
  • Also now well-established, perhaps most prevalent and least appreciated: Stress does impair immune function. Social stress – in the family, in your group of friends, at work – is more detrimental than physical stress. Reduce it where you can with yoga, meditation, political activism, whatever works. But don’t worry about it!

So, this is the bare minimum you should be doing for your immune system. And hopefully in 20 or 30 years, I’ll be able to update you on the things I’m reading about now.

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