Can Lifestyle Boost Immunity
Chief Medical Officer
In these challenging times of emerging novel infectious diseases – it is always a good strategy to boost your immune system through healthy lifestyle choices. I like to think of your immune system as your personalized military that protects you from disease. Your soldiers and generals provide defense against infections and help to detect and destroy malignant (cancer) or autoreactive cells (inflammatory). Unfortunately as we age – our immune system weakens (immunosenescence)which makes us more susceptible to infections, cancer and autoimmune diseases. An interesting area of research is looking at whether longevity is determined by genetics or by lifestyle. Epigenetics looks at the influence of the environment and lifestyle on genetics. So how can we boost our immunity?
What about diet? Unfortunately studies on vitamins and supplements that boost immunity haven’t been helpful. However – studies do suggest that vitamins (A, D, E, B6, B12, folate and C) and trace elements (selenium, zinc, copper and zinc) are necessary for normal immune function. Nutritional deficiencies (particularly vitamin D and B12) may put older patients at risk. Studies have shown that a plant based diet (fruits, vegetables) can boost immunity particularly in older individuals (65 – 85 years old). It is always important to properly hydrate with water and have healthy sources of protein. Avoid smoking and excessive alcohol. Certain foods may boost immune cells (nuts, garlic) where others are good sources of vitamins (pumpkin - A, bell peppers – C, salmon – B6 and protein, oysters – zinc, sunflower seeds - E) or probiotics (kefir).
Exercise may improve immune function. Long term moderate exercise (3-5 times per week for 30-60 minutes) and particularly aerobic fitness may boost immune cells and decrease chronic inflammation. However – strenuous exercise may impair immune function depending on your baseline health. Rest, rejuvenation and good sleep hygiene becomes increasingly important as you get older. A nice summary of exercise guidelines for older adults can be found at this link
Chronic stress can also weaken your immune system. Stress management is important for immune health. A classic book on stress management is by Jon Kabat Zinn called “Full Catastrophe Living” that incorporate mindfulness based stress reduction. Vaccination is also an important strategy to protect the body from preventable infections and should be reviewed annually with your physician.
There is a lot of exciting cutting edge research happening in longevity and healthy immune systems. Cytokine therapies may boost the production of our soldiers (T cells). Researchers are also looking at drugs with anti-aging effects (mTOR inhibitors). Cholesterol lowering medications (statins) may also have an anti-inflammatory effect. Animal studies have shown that fasting (prolonged caloric restriction) may improve longevity. It is hypothesized that “intermittent fasting” might decrease damage from oxidation and improve insulin sensitivity. Other scientists are looking at targeting aging cells with medications.. More studies will be required in these areas.
Perhaps – the most important mechanism to prevent infection is hand hygiene. Washing your hands, avoid touching your face with infected hands and disinfecting common surfaces prevents many respiratory illnesses. Boosting your immune system boils down to creating daily healthy habits!