On the morning of December 7, 1941, a “surprise” attack by the Japanese took place at Pearl Harbor. The attack, however, did not come as a complete surprise. At seven o’clock that morning, two soldiers at a radar station in the Pacific Ocean noticed several small dots on a screen growing larger and larger until the entire screen was filled with dots. Alarmed, the soldiers notified their lieutenant, whose casual response was, “Don’t worry about it.”
The rest is history.
The lieutenant, thinking that the planes were from California and that there was nothing to fear, was totally unprepared for an enemy attack that led to a major world war.
Being prepared to fight off a contagious illness—whether it’s the flu, COVID-19, or any other infectious disease—is similar, in many ways, to the preparations and tactical moves that a military force must make to ward off an enemy. Our immune system is an amazing network of “soldiers”—comprised of white blood cells, B cells, T cells, natural killer cells, and more. In optimum conditions, they are ready to fight off any pathogens (bacteria, viruses, or other microorganisms) that try to invade our bodies and destroy our health. The more vigorous our immune system, the less likely we are to succumb to disease.
If you want to keep your immune system strong and ready to fight, try these natural defense tactics:
- Come clean
Over the past few months, as the COVID-19 pandemic dominated the news—and our lives—we heard this advice again and again: “Wash your hands.” And with good reason. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, washing your hands is one of the most effective steps you can take to lower the risk of getting sick and passing diseases on to others. Using warm water and soap for 20 seconds—about the time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice—is one of the simplest and cheapest things you can do to prevent infection.
Another important habit that lowers your risk of illness is proper sanitization of kitchen countertops, door handles, light switches, bathrooms, and other commonly used areas. If you’d rather not use harsh chemicals (my sentiments exactly!), you can find a slew of recipes on the internet for homemade cleaners and disinfectants that use such simple ingredients as vinegar, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, household bleach, or essential oils. (Note: Be careful when mixing ingredients, and be sure to follow the recipes exactly.)
2. Go to bed
Sleep is vital for our ability to function effectively in daily life. We have to have it to achieve adequate energy levels, a healthy mood, a good memory, the ability to concentrate, and other brain functions. A lack of adequate sleep can also lower your immune function. According to the Mayo Clinic, sleep deprivation makes you more vulnerable to viruses, such as the common cold, and also reduces your ability to recover when you get sick. Wes Youngberg, PhD, author of Hello Healthy, says that getting less than seven hours of nightly sleep puts you at risk for developing infections. (Teens need even more than adults—at least eight to nine hours of sleep a night.) One study of widows and widowers who had difficulty sleeping found that their disrupted sleep patterns had weakened their immune systems. To increase your resistance to disease, set a bedtime, and make it easier to stick to it by creating a calming bedtime ritual, such as taking a hot bath, listening to soothing music, and turning off screens an hour before you go to bed.
3. Step it up
We’ve heard about exercise’s amazing ability to enhance heart function, boost energy, improve mood, and help prevent cancer. But that’s not all it does. Moderate exercise also has a powerful effect on the immune system, helping the white blood cells to circulate more rapidly and raising the body temperature, which helps the body fight infection. A researcher from Appalachia State University compared the immune cell functioning of a group of women over 65 who exercised 90 minutes a day with their more sedentary counterparts. They found that the immune function of those who exercised was an incredible 55 percent stronger than those who didn’t.
4. Power up with plants
One of the most potent factors in building a strong immune system is a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables. While variety is important, certain fruits and vegetables pack a greater punch than others. Some of the best choices are foods high in antioxidants, such as garlic, kale, spinach, broccoli, red peppers, onions, blueberries, strawberries, plums, prunes, red grapes, oranges, grapefruits, tangerines, lemons, and limes. Be sure to include these on your menu, but don’t focus only on a few foods. A balanced diet that is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients is your best insurance protection against disease. A Pennsylvania State University study found that women between 60 and 80 years old who followed a healthy diet had immune systems that were just as strong as younger women ages 20 to 40.
5. Increase your water
Viruses can enter the body through small cracks in the mucous membranes. Staying hydrated prevents those membranes from cracking, thus reducing your risk of infection. Experts use a variety of formulas to calculate the recommended daily water intake, but an easy one to remember is “8 by 8,” or simply, drink 8 eight-ounce glasses a day. Keep in mind, the more you weigh, the more water you need; and during hot weather, everyone, regardless of size, should increase their water intake. If you do become infected with a virus or other pathogen, an adequate water intake will help flush out the toxins and speed your recovery.
6. Ditch the drinks
The use of alcohol has many negative health consequences, but according to research cited by Neil Nedley, MD, in his book Proof Positive, alcohol has a particularly damaging effect on the immune system. One study found that consuming only two alcoholic drinks can impair a person’s ability to fight bacteria and viruses by as much as 67 percent! Additionally, Nedley says that certain types of pneumonia are more common among those who consume alcohol. According to the American Addiction Centers, “the abuse of alcohol results in weakening of the immune system and increases the risk of contracting bacterial and viral infections, including HIV, respiratory infections, hepatitis (hepatitis B and C), and numerous other diseases.”
7. Pull your sweet tooth
According to an article in Nutrition Journal, the Western diet, largely comprised of sugar, salt, and fat, is harmful to the immune system. Processed sugar, in particular, reduces white blood cell phagocytosis, the process by which microorganisms and cellular debris are digested. In other words, eating sugar lowers your defenses against infection. And research shows that as sugar consumption rises, the white blood cells’ capacity to destroy bacteria is decreased. If you can’t bear to give it up altogether, try cutting back on your sugar intake by ditching sugary drinks, opting for fresh fruit instead of rich desserts, and reading labels to choose foods with a lower sugar content.
8. Soak up some sunlight
Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to infection. Since sunlight boosts vitamin D levels, spend a few minutes outside every day soaking up the “sunshine vitamin.” According to experts, the best time of day to absorb vitamin D through sun exposure is midday. The more skin that is exposed, the more vitamin D you will absorb. Of course, all things are best taken in moderation, and that goes for sunlight too. Lighter-skinned people need only about 10–15 minutes of exposure; darker-skinned people need more. And when you’re outside in the sun, be sure to stay hydrated and avoid burning your skin.
9. “Mind” your immune system
“A cheerful heart is good medicine” (Proverbs 17:22) is advice that was written thousands of years ago, but it still rings true. In fact, modern science continues to prove it. For example, research has found that laughing reduces our levels of stress hormones and increases the white blood cells that fight infection.
The reverse is also true—a stressed-out heart is bad medicine. People who are under stress have fewer and less-active natural killer cells, thus weakening the body’s ability to fight off illness.
Make it a point to add more laughter and joy to your day, whether it’s watching funny animal videos or talking to a friend. And find simple ways to reduce your stress level, such as taking deep breaths, going for a walk, or whispering a prayer.
10. Discover a lost art
During the Spanish flu outbreak of 1918, one of the deadliest pandemics in history, patients who were cared for with fomentations, a little-known hydrotherapy treatment, managed to survive while millions of people around them perished. Medical treatments have changed a lot in the past 100 years, but there’s still something we can learn from using water as a way to help treat and prevent illness.
Here’s a simple hydrotherapy treatment you can do every day to boost your immunity: the contrast shower. It’s effective and easy to do. It works like this: Take a hot shower—as hot as you can stand it—for three minutes, then immediately switch to cold water for 15–30 seconds. Alternate hot and cold in this fashion for 15 minutes total, ending with 30 seconds of cold. Then switch to warm water, cleansing your body with a gentle soap. Dry off thoroughly, then cover up with a blanket or sheet, and rest quietly for 20 minutes. This routine will create an army of “fighter” antibodies that will help ward off any viruses that try to attack.
Armed with these 10 tools, no invader can take you by surprise. Your body will be strong and ready to fight for your health.
is a retired communication professional who is actively involved in health-centered activities in her local community.