Indrajit Basu Ray is a 77-year-old author and retired academic who is fairly healthy, particularly given his age. The only serious illness he recalls having as an adult is herpes. Though he remembers the intense pain he suffered, it was only a blip in his otherwise healthy life so far. A stickler for discipline, he leads a balanced lifestyle, is socially active, and suffused with a positive outlook. “I do not smoke and drink only occasionally – just malt or a glass of wine, maybe. I get up early and go to bed early. My daily routine involves a number of physical activities, including regular walks and gardening,” he says. Sleep has never been a problem. Though he stays alone, his reading and writing keeps him busy. He usually works until 9pm and has recently published a book on a late-Victorian architect.
Mr Basu Ray’s dear friend Supriyo Sengupta’s situation is, however, completely different. The septuagenarian is frequently down with bouts of illness. A few months back he had to be hospitalized with a lung infection. Mr Sengupta has never been one for a disciplined life. His refrain had always been ‘let me live life my way today, who knows what is going to happen tomorrow?’ Up until a few months back, when his illness shook him up, he had been a regular smoker. Early mornings and long walks were not for him. Playing cards with his friends was the only ‘physical activity’ he liked to indulge in. And he was not really particular about what he was eating, indulging in fried food and sweets as much as his heart desired!
So what is the secret of Indrajit Basu Ray’s good health? Not difficult to guess. It is his strong immune system. So was he born with it? Perhaps he was, but he has cared for it all these years by leading a disciplined life and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
The immune system is a complex network of organs, cells, and tissues, working in tandem to protect our body from infection. While genetics does play a role, as we know from several studies, the strength of our immune system is also largely determined by non-heritable factors. The germs we are exposed to over a lifetime along with lifestyle factors such as stress, diet, sleep, and exercises play a role in strengthening our immunity.
The bottom line is that there is no magic pill or a specific food guaranteed to bolster immunity and protect us from any virus or pandemic. But there are ways we can take care of ourselves and give our immune system the best opportunity to do its job. Here are some of those:
#1 Eat a balanced diet and skip supplements
A balanced diet is important for maintaining a strong immune system. However, no single food or natural remedy has been proven to bolster a person’s immune system or help ward off diseases.
But that hasn’t prevented individuals from making specious claims. Some studies have suggested benefits from some specific foods and supplements, but scientific evidence is absent.
It has been seen that zinc supplements are popular as remedy for colds and respiratory illnesses. Zinc lozenges may help in relieving symptoms of cold or distress caused by upper respiratory infections in children, but there is no evidence that proves its medical benefits. If you enjoy certain foods labeled as immune boosters, there is no harm in eating them as part of a balanced diet. Just be sure that you don’t neglect proven health advices —like maintaining the necessary hygiene – when it comes to protecting yourself from infections.
A healthy diet is usually rich in fiber, whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, unsaturated or good fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. These dietary components turn down inflammation. Going easy on processed foods is a key element of healthy eating. Sweets, foods made with highly refined grains, and sugar-sweetened beverages cause spikes in blood sugar. High blood sugar is also linked to diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and dementia.
#2 Improve your sleep habits
A healthy immune system can fight against infections. A sleep-deprived immune system cannot work as well. In a recent study, 164 men and women were exposed to the cold virus. It was found that the ‘short sleepers’ — those who slept for less than six hours a night on an average — were more prone to the infection compared to those who slept for more than seven hours.
Focusing on improved sleep habits is a good way of strengthening your immune system.
- Remember that the recommended sleep time is six to seven hours a night
- Follow a regular wake-up and bedtime schedule
- Avoid watching television, eating, and exercising right before going to bed
#3 Avoid excessive alcohol consumption
Numerous studies have established a link between excessive alcohol consumption and deteriorated immune function. These studies show that individuals who drink in excess are more susceptible to respiratory illness and pneumonia and recover from wounds or infections more slowly.
Alcohol alters the number of microbes present in the gut microbiome, a community of microorganisms that have the ability to affect our immune system. Excessive alcohol can also damage the lungs and impair the mucosal immune system, which is essential in helping the body recognise pathogens and fight against infections. And both chronic and binge drinking impairs the immune system.
A cocktail or glass of wine occasionally is fine. But avoid drinking to excess. The recommended quantity is up to one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
#4 Perform physical activities
Staying active is also necessary for healthy living. It can greatly reduce the risks of heart diseases, strokes, type 2 diabetes, breast and colon cancers, depression, and unprecedented falls. Physical activity is likely to improve sleep and endurance, among other things. Aim for moderate-intensity exercise daily, such as brisk walking. Strength training, which is important for balance, bone health, controlling blood sugar, and mobility is recommended 2-3 times per week, but only if advised by your physician.
Finding ways to reduce stress is extremely important, given the connection between stress and a variety of disorders. There are many ways to bust stress:
- Sporting activities
- Taking vacations
#5 Establish a rapport with a primary care physician
A physician you know —and who knows you — will be in the best position to help. He/she can guide you with exercises and recommend other strategies for enhancing your lifestyle, and also check for hidden health conditions and treat them effectively.