The Prairie Doc: Here are four key areas to improve immune health

Jennifer May, M.D.
The Prairie Doc
Dr. Jennifer May

Many of my patients will say “Doctor, I am so inflamed.” 

The use of the word "inflammation" is commonplace as we search the market for anti-inflammatory diets or self-help books on inflammation. The inflammatory response created by the immune system contributes to healing, but, when left unchecked, can contribute to chronic disease, allergy and non-specific symptoms such as achy joints, fatigue and malaise.

The immune system has two main parts. The first of these is the innate immune system which is the body’s first line of defense. The innate immune system acts as a barrier that prevents harmful materials from entering the body and responds quickly when needed. The second part is the adaptive immune system. This system is more specialized and takes over if the innate immune system is unsuccessful. The adaptive immune system responds slower than the innate immune system but more accurately.

Building a better immune system

So, how can we make our immune system healthier? Here are four areas that one can focus on to improve immune health: quality rest, eating well, exercising and managing stress.

Lack of sleep weakens the immune system and makes it easier to become ill. This means your colds last longer and you may get them more often. Researchers recommend that adults get 7-8 hours of good sleep each night, while teens need about 10 hours.

Physicians often propose anti-inflammatory diets for people with chronic disease, inflammatory conditions and food sensitivities. No one diet fits all, but diets that avoid inflammatory foods have proven beneficial. Dietary recommendations include avoiding processed food — meaning, things that come in a box or a bag.

Focus on whole foods, such as apples, brown rice, nuts, seeds and legumes. A good diet for inflammation and cholesterol is the Mediterranean diet. It increases omega-3 fatty acids which help reduce inflammation and hopefully lower those cholesterol numbers.

Exercise also helps our immune system. Getting at least 20-30 minutes of moderate to high level exercise a day boosts antibody response which helps stave off illness. In addition, exercise will also improve your mood. Managing stress is difficult for everyone. However, unplugging and practicing mindfulness are good coping strategies that can help you decompress after a long day.

We are often overwhelmed by stressful, busy lives. Inflammation and immune system issues cannot be fixed with a pill or a bit of advice. It requires a personal commitment to assess your own habits. Then consider what changes are possible for you. Working on one or all the aforementioned areas is worth a try. The power to improve your health and immunity lies within.

Jennifer May, M.D. practices rheumatology in Rapid City, South Dakota. She is a contributing Prairie Doc® columnist and guest host this week on the Prairie Doc® encore television show. For free and easy access to the entire Prairie Doc® library, visit www.prairiedoc.org and follow Prairie Doc® on Facebook.