Common-sense immunity-Keeping that 'bug' away

Forget germ-phobia; these tips are free, they don't taste bad and there's a ton of research that clearly shows their benefit. Using common-sense strategies to increase immunity will both significantly decrease the frequency of infections taking hold and increase quality of life, especially during the vulnerable seasons of weather change and stress.

The highs and lows
One very obvious way to increase immunity is to avoid extreme temperature changes. According to traditional Chinese medicine, the most common cause of disease is wind, and they literally mean "wind"!

Cold and flu season happens whenever the seasons change. Dampness, cold spells, dry spells and heat waves all bring people into the pharmacy, regardless of the time of year. We have come to associate it with the "flu bug" that's "going around." This may be true, but if we're going to prevent anything, we must take a more proactive stance.

Since there isn't much that can be done about the weather, the best approach is to become aware of how sudden temperature changes affect you.

Our environment
First of all, the immune system uses body temperature as one of its basic immune mechanisms. We call it fever and chills.

Lymphocytes in the lymph nodes and spleen release TNF-alpha when stimulated by the presence of pathogens. As well as causing numerous other effects, TNF-alpha acts on the hypothalamus in the brain to raise body temperature, inducing fever. Fevers slow the metabolic rates of most pathogens while increasing the activity of immune cells.

When we are exposed to extreme changes in temperature, our body compensates accordingly. Environmentally induced fever, such as with a sauna, has been shown to initiate the basic immune mechanisms associated with fever.

Conversely, environmentally induced chills, such as going outside with wet hair, reduces immune cell activity.

Adaptation to temperature change occurs over a period of several days. However, most Americans seek comfort before acclimation, meaning air conditioning during hot weather and heating during cold weather. This poses daily challenges for the hypothalamus in the brain to maintain body temperature, as people walk in and out of doors many times each day without considering the effect it has on their immunity.

Protecting oneself
So what can be done about it? Wear a hat.

Clothing is the most practical, happy medium when temperature variations are unavoidable.

Taking measures to minimize extreme temperature changes will reduce susceptibility to infection, as well as allow the body to differentiate between pathogen-induced and environmentally induced fevers.

Another sure way to increase immunity, that is perhaps the most important and most difficult, is to reduce chronic stress and properly manage acute stress.

Stress, including insomnia, triggers the release of cortisol, which depresses the immune system and increases blood sugar. The connections between stress, sugar and illness are too numerous, but following are a few key points.

Cortisol is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal cortex in response to chronic and acute stress. Affecting almost every cell, cortisol passes freely through cell membranes, making it a very fast-acting, all-body hormone.

Once inside a cell, it binds to DNA, causing three things to happen. First, production of several chemicals involved with inflammation is halted. Next, the "feet," or adhesion molecules, that allow white blood cells to migrate to the site of infection are inactivated, so immune cells can't get where they're needed.

Third, cortisol causes early cell death, or apoptosis, in two very important white-blood-cell types and results in an increase in the "suppressor" T cells. This is believed to be how stress induces reactivation of latent herpes simplex virus in the form of a cold sore.

The final connection between stress and illness is regarding sugar. Blood sugar (and sugar craving) rises in response to stress hormones. The advantage of this is to provide extra energy to the muscles and brain to allow escape from harm. (Exercise is a great way to regulate stress hormones.)

The resulting combination of excess blood glucose and immune suppression provides an ideal condition for infections to grow in.

Personal responsibility
Taking good care of yourself really means taking responsibility for your relationship with your environment. It means knowing when you're stressed out and shouldn't be out in the cold.

There are numerous other common-sense strategies to protect yourself that do not involve drug therapy, flu shots or even herbal supplements. They include diet, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, exercise and good hygiene.

Recognizing how the immune system responds to various lifestyle patterns can put you in control of your own immunity and free you from frequent doctor visits and feeling miserable.

The best part is, they are all free of charge, fully accessible to everyone and guaranteed to work.

Jenn Dazey is an herbalist at Pharmaca Integrative Pharmacy in Madison Park. [[In-content Ad]]