Never do I appreciate my good health more than when I’ve come down with one bug or another and find it difficult to get out of bed. Aches, pains, chills, fatigue—they all remind me that, most of the time, my body functions pretty well. A large part of what I take for granted, of course, is that my immune system is doing its job.
“A healthy immune system keeps us strong, centered, and able to fight off infections and disease,” says Sudha Carolyn Lundeen, RN, E-RYT 1000, a certified Ayurvedic Health Coach. “It’s at the core of getting us through our lives healthfully. When the immune system goes off the rails, all manner of struggles emerge.”
When functioning properly, the immune system identifies, attacks, and destroys threats like viruses, bacteria, and parasites, which keeps us from falling prey to colds, the flu, bacterial infections (like pneumonia, urinary tract infections, ear infections, and sinus infections), autoimmune diseases, and more.
“The immune system is important for fighting off infections and for preventing cancer,” says Elizabeth Boham, MD, MS, RD, of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts. “Our body makes cancer cells all of the time that do not develop into invasive cancer. If our immune system misses these abnormal cells, they can develop into invasive cancer. We need our immune system to be in balance.”
Despite how central the immune system is to our overall health, many of us unwittingly compromise it with poor lifestyle choices; chronic stress and insufficient fresh air and exercise are common culprits, Elizabeth says. As well, lack of adequate sleep diminishes our natural killer cells, which work to find and eliminate viruses, bacteria, and cancer cells. And when we eat a nutritionally deficient diet (also known as SAD, the Standard American Diet), we don’t have the nutrients necessary for our immune system to work properly (70 to 80 percent of immune tissue is located in the digestive tract).
“Heavy metals, such as mercury and lead, can also suppress the functioning of the immune system,” Elizabeth says, “and antibiotics kill off our good bacteria, which are part of the body’s first line of defense. They can increase the risk of getting a second infection, or ‘super-infection.’”
To boost the health of the immune system, Sudha and Elizabeth recommend these strategies.
Get more sleep: According to Sudha, sleep is at the top of the list. “It’s crucial,” she notes. “It’s during this period of rest—ideally seven to eight hours—that the cellular structures of the body cleanse and rejuvenate to prepare us for what the next day brings. Cultivating a regular sleep routine makes a huge difference in the quality of our sleep.”
Take in vital nutrients: Zinc and vitamin A are critical for the immune system to function well. Zinc is found in pumpkin seeds, oysters, nuts, seeds, beans, and legumes. Vitamin A comes in part from beta-carotene, found in orange and yellow fruits and vegetables. However, not everyone can convert beta-carotene into vitamin A efficiently, Elizabeth says. Some may do better with foods high in preformed Vitamin A, like cod liver oil, liver, fermented dairy like yogurt, and animal protein.
Do restorative yoga: Restorative yoga uses props to support the body in positions of ease and comfort. Sudha says two restorative poses in particular are excellent for supporting and strengthening the immune system: Reclining Bound Angle pose (lying over a rolled-up blanket that runs vertically up the spine with the legs bent in a diamond shape) and Legs Up the Wall (lying on your back with the legs above the hips, leaning against a wall). “These supported and longer held poses offer the parasympathetic nervous system—the rest-and-renew system—a real boost,” Sudha remarks.
Practice breathing exercises: Deep yogic breathing also helps to lower stress by calming the body and mind. Sudha recommends Alternate Nostril breathing, or Nadi Shodhana, and 2:1 breathing, where the exhale leans towards being twice and long as the inhale, for supporting the immune and nervous system.
Meditate: Meditation has a similar calming effect on body and mind—and there are many approaches to the practice. “Finding and practicing one that you’re willing to do is the key,” Sudha says. “I often tell my students that regularity trumps intensity. In other words, it’s better to take five to 10 minutes a day with these practices than to do them for an hour once a month.”
Add Ayurvedic self-care to your routine: Several Ayurvedic self-care practices support and boost the immune system. Sudha notes that it’s also important to tend to the five sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin). “For example, it’s important not only to clean the teeth upon waking but also to gently scrape the buildup off the tongue,” she explains. Here’s how. “The body systems work hard all night to clear the body of undigested waste, which can be easily seen on the tongue, especially after a day of not eating so well.” Abhyanga is another beneficial practice for supporting immunity: “Showering and rubbing on some sesame or coconut oil will be calming to the nervous system as well as moisturizing to the skin,” Sudha says.
Reduce your toxic load: While we’re all exposed to toxins, we can make choices that lower our exposure and support the body’s ability to detox, Elizabeth says. For example, choose organic whenever possible and opt for lower-mercury fish, like whitefish, salmon, and sardines, over high-mercury fish, such as shark, tuna, and swordfish.
Minimize antibiotic use: “Ask your doctor if antibiotics are necessary or if you can wait a few days to see if they’re necessary,” Elizabeth suggests, acknowledging that in the case of a high fever or an infection lasting more than two weeks, antibiotics might be needed.
The bottom line is that when we make an effort to practice self-care, the immune system is likely to reward us by functioning well. If it is, we’ll know it because we’ll have the energy to do what we want and need to do.
“It does take prioritizing,” Sudha admits, “but it doesn’t have to be all that hard. The body-mind wants to be healthy. Just start making changes toward the positive in small steps and build on that. After all, if we don’t take care of our body, mind, and emotions, who will?”
Originally published by Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health