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The #1 Cause of Stronger Immunity, Say Experts

Strengthen your immune system by doing the 6 following things, doctor says.

Our immune system protects our body from disease, infection and harmful toxins. It's made up of white blood cells, proteins, antibodies and other various components that fight on our behalf to help prevent us from getting sick. Our immune system starts developing before we're born and is fully developed by age 8. Having a strong immune system is key to staying healthy and Eat This, Not That! Health talked to Dr. Robert G. Lahita MD, Ph.D. ("Dr. Bob"), Director of the Institute for Autoimmune and Rheumatic Disease at Saint Joseph Health and author of the upcoming book Immunity Strong, who explained ways to keep your immune system strong. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID


Don't be Afraid to Get Dirty

feet in grass

Dr. Bob states, "Studies of rural children who wallow and even swallow dirt when they are little reveal that they are less prone to allergies that affect suburban and urban children. Children living on a farm, being around and breathing in (and likely ingesting a bit of) manure have less allergies and healthier immune systems. There is also evidence in adults of being 'dirt happy,' meaning playing in and laying in dirt acts as a natural antidepressant and mood lifter. This is something we continue to study but think about the next time you resist the urge to lie on the ground. Howard Hughes be damned—the power of dirt might be the best thing for training immune systems! Don't ignore the power of dirt! Your bowel uses the abundance of bacteria in and on the body to inform the immune system. The biomes of the bowel, as well as your skin, lung, and gastrointestinal tract, have effects on many bodily functions. They are a welcome community of organisms with their own genes and essential to good health—and have been since our ancestors began to migrate around this planet, allowing them to adapt to new environments. There is growing evidence that this power of dirt starts the moment we are born. This is called the 'Hygiene Hypothesis.'"

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Give Yourself the Nutrients You Need

Woman holding a slice of cucumber

"What I advocate for is balance in everything you eat that fits your lifestyle," says Dr. Bob. " I do not think vitamins and other nutritional supplements can supply what you don't eat or undo the damage of what you do. But there are practical ways to use a diet to eliminate the hyperimmune state and make your immunity strong and boost your immune system, particularly prebiotics and probiotics."

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Slate plate with fresh garlic and onion on wooden table.

Dr. Bob explains, "Prebiotics are microbes that you ingest to encourage the growth of healthy microorganisms like bacteria or yeast that boost the health of your gut and your health overall. They are not digested by your gut but metabolized by the gut bacteria and can change the course of atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, and possibly even correct behavioral issues. They can be found naturally in food sources such as onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, bananas, chicory root, and dandelion greens. Many consider foods with fiber like barley and oats as great prebiotic foods as well."

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eating yogurt

According to Dr. Bob, "Probiotics are friendly bacteria that restore your gut flora. Certain foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir, tempeh (a fermented soybean product), kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage), miso (a Japanese seasoning), kombucha (fermented tea), pickles, traditional buttermilk, natto (another fermented soybean product) and many kinds of cheese are natural probiotics for your gut. All of these can boost immune function by way of biomes. For most people, the inclusion of probiotics is a natural thing. Use of prebiotics may take a little planning and thought. Consider this and any information you read carefully as you look at what you eat and any modification of your diet. Millions of people around the world believe in the use of probiotics, and while they are not tested in rigorous scientific trials, there is substantive evidence that the ingestion of these probiotics is safe. Just be careful to check claims on packaging to be sure you are getting more of the good stuff and less of the sugar and processed substances used to transport them. There are also prebiotics and probiotics which can be prescribed by physicians and nutritionists. All in all, what should be clear is achieving longevity of your biological soul must include your diet and the biome of the bowel, which have been teaching your immune system good from bad since and before you were born."

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Doctor vaccinating male patient in clinic

Dr. Bob says, "A vaccine is medicine that trains your body to fight foreign invasions and, in many cases, provides acquired immunity to the invader. All vaccines begin with an exposure to a virus or pathogen to trigger a strong cellular immune response that involves your MHC class I natural killer T cells. They learn to respond to that viral infection and eliminate it. Vaccines have been with us for more than 200 years and no advance in public health short of sanitation has been more important. Both control infections, the leading causes of death in the world. The origin of the word vaccine comes from vacca, the Latin word for cow. That's because the vaccination story begins with Edward Jenner, an English country doctor who used a live but weakened or attenuated foreign antigen found in the exudate (pus) from a pus-tule of cowpox and injected it into a boy to create a state of immune protection against the smallpox virus. The inoculation worked. In 1880, Louis Pasteur built on the work of Jenner when he realized old chicken cholera germs could not transmit the disease and used them to develop a lab-created vaccine to inoculate chickens against the disease. He later created animal vaccines against rabies and anthrax. Jenner's and Pasteur's monumental work using weakened or attenuated organisms to create a state of immune protection is the foundation for the live-attenuated vaccines we are familiar with today."

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Do Yoga

woman doing yoga

"The 5,000-year-old discipline of yoga teaches mindfulness, improves our wellness, and has extreme benefits for us through the immune system. First of all, the very root of the word yoga comes from the Sanskrit word for join or unite and uniting mind, spirit, and all aspects of yourself is essential to destressing," Dr. Bob explains. "Specifically, I am talking about a broader connection to spirituality or concern with your soul and those of others (as opposed to material things), which is beneficial to immune protection because it offers you peace. This spiritual peace has no relationship to which God you worship, religion you choose, or if you believe or worship at all. In Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel, from 1997, Dr. Candace Pert, a neuroscientist who is known as 'the Mother of Psychoneuroimmunology,' called this peace 'freedom from disturbance' and 'better vibration'—a 'spark of oneness [that] increases the number of endorphins in the body.' I call endorphins the feel-good molecules of the immune system, because they help give you peace and put you in a blissful state of balance. My wife, Carolyn, is my go-to expert for all things spiritual. She likes to say that we are a community of animals and the good and evil within our bodies are in a constant fight for this balance. I get it now. When these competing emotions in concert with the immune system are in balance, they can naturally overcome disease and encourage a homeostatic state. And remarkably, the immune system maintains this homeostasis thousands of times daily in an imperceptible manner. 

Yoga can help your immune system do it even better. There are many branches of yoga—from extreme to those involving beer and goats (separately, mind you)—but the most popular in the Western world is hatha yoga, which uses a set of exercises or postures to align all parts of your body, manipulate respiration, and create balance of strength and flexibility. Yoga has also been shown to assist bone growth and act as an antidepressant. Most important for your immune system, however, is that yoga increases the levels of superoxide dismutase (an enzyme that changes oxygen radicals into plain oxygen) and glutathione (an antioxidant produced in your cells) that are major defenses against oxidative stress, which can damage cells and contribute to aging. Perhaps most intriguing for the future, a neuro-immune study found that yoga positively affects gene expression profiles in immune cells. This could be epigenetics at its best: a behavioral practice that influences gene expression. Gene expression differences were found in peripheral blood mononuclear cells of those who practice yoga. In another study, mind-body interventions lowered the production of a chemical substance called NF-kB, which alters the levels of cytokines and helps to alleviate stress. As Dr. Ivana Buric of Coventry University in the United Kingdom said in Frontiers of Immunology (2017), 'These activities are leaving what we would call a molecular signature in our cells that reverses the effect stress or anxiety would have on the body by changing how our genes are expressed.'" So do all of the above, and to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather