Fight Back Against Weakened Immunity

By Kathleen Engel

You know that chemotherapy can weaken your immune system, reducing the number of infection-fighting white blood cells, making it harder for your body to fight infection. So what can you do to protect yourself, besides washing your hands and getting a flu shot? Plenty! Read on to learn some clever ways to fortify your immunity and fight off illness.

Tune out the noise
Sure you’ve heard about the many health benefits of listening to music, but did you know that annoying sounds can weaken your immune system? That’s why it’s important to keep the sounds in your daily environment pleasant and to control the number of distracting or unwanted noises.

Two places to start: your work area and your bedroom. If it’s noisy at work, wear headphones and listen to your favorite tunes, or use a small fan to mask the noise. Can’t sleep because of a snoring roommate? Try a fan or a white noise machine. Another tip: Buy an inexpensive sleep app for your smartphone; you can find ones with guided meditations, soothing nature sounds and even a crackling campfire.

Why it works: A study in the Southern Medical Journal reports that noise pollution (chronic exposure to unwanted and uncontrollable sounds) can raise blood pressure, trigger stress hormones and disrupt your sleep quality—all factors that can be detrimental to the immune system.

Also, listening to sounds that evoke positive emotions stimulates the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, and lowers the levels of stress hormones, explains immunologist Esther M. Sternberg, MD, author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being.

Snooze a little sooner
Going to bed even 30 minutes earlier can help you establish an eight-hour sleep habit—key to warding off viral infections. Moreover, hitting the hay by 11 PM increases the chance you’ll spend more time in the deeper stages of sleep, when the body repairs tissue and immune system glitches.

Why it works: A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who sleep for fewer than seven hours a night are three times more likely to catch a cold than those who average eight hours or more. And the news is even worse for those who have trouble falling or staying asleep: Study participants with even as little as an 8% sleep deprivation were 5.5 times more likely to get sick than those who slept for eight hours.

Get out and mingle
Spend some time with people you enjoy or do rewarding activities with friends. “Studies show that the more positive social interactions you have, the healthier you are,” says Dr. Sternberg. You can reap the same benefits by volunteering.

Why it works: The good feelings you experience from being with others cause a flood of chemicals and hormones that stimulate the immune system to speed healing. Dr. Sternberg also notes that showing compassion toward others triggers a release of infection-fighting hormones.

Bask in the light
Taking in more bright light—whether outdoors or indoors—can enhance your sense of well-being and your immune system. Aim for 20 minutes of sunlight on most days of the week. If the sun isn’t shining, consider using an indoor light box that provides full-spectrum light, which mimics the effects of sunshine.

Why it works: “Being in sunlight or full-spectrum light elevates mood and lowers stress,” says Dr. Sternberg. “And anything you can do to reduce stress will strengthen the immune system.”

Go “offline”
Dr. Sternberg recommends taking daily mini vacations; to recharge your immune system. “Find a place of peace where you can stop, look and listen—and try to go there every day,” she says. No time to get outside? Take a mental getaway by visualizing a favorite place, like the beach or the mountains, and immersing yourself in the details: the smell of fresh pine, the sound of ocean waves crashing or the feeling of sun on your skin.

Why it works: Meditation can be shown to help combat stress hormones that weaken the immune system’s ability to fight infection.

Published June 2012

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