I often wondered how all my life, I had never seen my grandmother spend a single day in bed or experience a bout of cold, cough or fever. So, one day I asked her “What is the secret to your good health?” She replied, “I sleep by 9 pm, wake up by 5, eat fruits daily, eat only home-cooked food and go for a walk every day for 40 minutes.” Evidently, her disciplined lifestyle is the secret to her strong immunity.
As like any other system of our body, a strong immune system calls for a healthy lifestyle which comprises of adequate nourishment, sleep and exercise to function to its optimum capacity.
Now, we are aware that habits inculcated during childhood stay with us throughout life. Hence, it is important to ingrain healthy habits at a tender age.
While I have briefly touched upon the factors that are essential for staying away from ailments, let’s look at what factors should you look at for ensuring you stay as healthy as my grandma:
- Adequate sleep and effective stress management: A sleep cycle of 6-8 hours is essential because sleep deprivation increases the levels of stress hormone – cortisol which suppresses the immune system. Sleeping late at night and waking up late in the morning affects the circadian rhythm which plays a key role in lowering stress hormones and functioning of the immune system. Introducing habits like yoga, meditation is a good idea since they work as excellent stress busters.
- Physical activity: Exercise lowers the level of stress hormones, flushes bacteria out of the lungs and airways which reduce the risk of catching a cold, flu, or other illness. The rise in body temperature during and post-exercise creates unfavorable conditions for bacterial growth. Playing games/ walking/ cycling 5 times a week for 30 minutes or 150 minutes of exercise in a week is sufficient to boost immunity.
- Alcohol and smoking: Alcohol increases the level of cytokines in the bloodstream which weakens the immune system. Even a single episode of binge drinking can cause delayed wound healing, increased blood loss and susceptibility to respiratory infections. Smoking damages and destroys antibodies, which fight off infectious illnesses, in the blood stream. Smoking destroys antioxidants such as vitamin C which reduces the incidence of respiratory ailments and lung/oral cancer which is common among smokers.
4) Exposure to sunlight: 10 minutes of exposure to the sun a day provides Vitamin D which activates the key peptides in your immune system that trigger a strong anti-microbial response, allowing you to effectively fight off harmful bacteria before they can develop into a full-blown infection. Vitamin D prevents auto-immune diseases (i.e. diseases where the immune system attacks the body’s cells instead of pathogens) by promoting regulatory T cells, which are responsible for differentiating between outside invaders and ‘self’ cells.
The food you eat plays a key role in keeping your immune system working at its optimum capacity. In fact, nutrient deficiencies and unhealthy food choices form the root cause for a lowered immunity.
Today, it is very difficult to get your hands on fresh unadulterated food, like our grandparents had. Organic food may be a popular concept, but is not always available and is quite expensive. Eating the pesticide and preservative-laden food since childhood is diminishing our immune system. The only way to tackle this is by inculcating certain healthy food habits such as:
- Eating plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds, which are rich in Vitamin A, E and C, which function as anti-oxidants that protect the body against disease-causing free radicals. Eat the whole fruit instead of the juice since the whole fruit contains fiber which helps in elimination of toxins from the digestive tract.
- Eating fermented food. Healthy options such as idli, dosa or dhokla as well as curd are fermented food which contain probiotics (healthy bacteria) in the digestive tract thus reducing gastro-intestinal disorders. One should include curd for its calcium content daily to reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
- Consuming protein-rich food. Eggs, dairy products, sprouts, chicken, fish, dal, rajma, chole, are rich in protein and zinc, nutrients that boost immunity. One serving of protein-rich food must be consumed for all main meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner.
- Eating home-cooked food, not outside food. It is healthier and lower in calories, particularly fat. Eating out should be for special occasions, not an everyday affair. Obesity hampers the immune system (http://www.obesityaction.org/wp-content/uploads/obesity-and-the-immune-system-YWMM-Winter-2013.pdf)
- Cutting down on sugar. The white blood cells require Vitamin C for upping immunity, and when sugar is broken down to glucose, it has a chemical structure similar to Vitamin C. Thus, WBC’s often grab glucose instead of Vitamin C which lowers the ability of the WBC’s to kill bacteria/virus and thus weakens immunity.
Additionally, it leads to inflammation in the body as well as obesity. Hence, minimal intake of sweets, goodies, baked goods, sugar sweetened beverages, sugar, honey, jams, jelly, soda / soft drinks, ice creams is advisable.
- Avoiding trans-fats. They decrease the body’s ability to produce natural anti- inflammatory prostaglandins which fight inflammation, result in high calories and thus lead to obesity.
- Use spices moderately. – Indian spices like garlic, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, cloves, and cinnamon contain anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties and hence should be used in moderation to add flavor to food.
Other habits like washing hands before meals, eating freshly prepared meals, washing fruits, veggies and meats properly before eating/cooking go a long way in ensuring a strong defense against diseases.
Vishruta is a nutritionist by profession and a writer by heart. Content writing and menu planning have become her passions over the past few years. Love food, love life — is her mantra.