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Published on March 10, 2020

4 steps to a stronger immune system

Immune Health

With a nearly constant reminder these days that new and well-known pathogens are all around us and ready to make us sick, it behooves us to stay as healthy as we can. But, what are the best ways to boost our immune system and ward off disease?

Internal Medicine physician Miguel Prieto, MD, who lectures and teaches about the importance of eating a plant-based diet for optimal health, said there are four key components to living a healthy life. They are:

Spiritual Practice

A spiritual practice can be any number of things, said Dr. Prieto. It can be organized religion, meditation, connecting with nature, or simply practicing random acts of kindness. Incorporating a spiritual practice of some kind into your life enables you to deal more effectively with stress and protects against depression, two things that work against our immune system, he said.

“Depression or stress is a strong negative modulator of your immune system,” he said. “It’s about not letting stress control you and making decisions in spite of stress, instead of because of stress.”

When we participate in a spiritual practice, like prayer, meditation or loving kindness, we are filling our minds with positive, loving thoughts and energy, which nurture our immune system, Dr. Prieto said.

“It’s not about emptying your mind, it’s filling it with something you love,” he said. “Meditate on the thing you love.”

Socialization

“When you socialize, you release neural chemicals that suppress biochemical pathways that inhibit your own stem cells,” said Dr. Prieto. Stem cells are necessary to rejuvenate and heal the damage done by inflammation and other assaults on our bodies. By staying engaged and active with others, we help our bodies heal and stay healthy, he said.

“This is not about feel good, touchy feely stuff. This is scientifically proven.”

Exercise

Regular exercise of some kind, whether it is formal practice of some kind or simply getting out and walking, again enhances your immune system so that your body can effectively recognize and remove invading pathogens, said Dr. Prieto.

Nutritious Diet

Finally, and most importantly, the best way to promote good health is to eat a whole food, preferably plant-based, diet, Dr. Prieto said. He has lectured and taught cooking classes on plant-based diets and has studied its effect on overall health.

“There are a multitude of studies showing that whole food, plant-based diets certainly reverse inflammation and have the potential to reverse the damage that has already taken place,” he said.

When someone has a lot of inflammation in their body, it is usually associated with insulin peaks, which affects cells and promotes changes in their DNA, he said. These changes tend to suppress the protective genes that fight cancer.

A plant-based diet protects against inflammation and helps your body resist and repair cell damage, he said.

Dr. Prieto pointed to another promising area of research, which shows the effectiveness of calorie reduction, fasting and intermittent fasting on our immune system. Researchers at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California San Francisco have demonstrated that reducing calories, fasting or practicing intermittent fasting allows your immune system to better repair cell damage.

“Scientific studies show that calorie reduction significantly lengthens your lifespan,” Dr. Prieto said.

He cited studies done at the Osher Center on mice who had lung cancer that showed that a combination of chemotherapy and fasting for two or three days prior to chemotherapy showed markedly better results in cancer-free survival after treatment. The chemotherapy side effects were also greatly reduced when fasting took place, he said. The results were equally as promising on mice with breast cancer, he said.

“Besides not getting as many side effects (from the chemo), the efficacy went through the roof,” he said.

Fasting, which is abstaining from eating, drinking only water, coffee or tea, for a period of time (typically one day or more), usually results in weight loss, Dr. Prieto said. Those who are concerned about weight loss can try intermittent fasting on a daily basis by concentrating their caloric intake into about 8 hours each day. Since your body does much of the repair of cell damage while you are asleep, you should end your caloric intake four hours before bed each day, he said.

The Osher Center website gives these suggestions for boosting your immune system and, specifically, protecting against cancer:

  • In general, follow an anti-inflammatory diet with lots of colorful fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, herbs and spices.
  • Low to moderate carbohydrate intake with low glycemic starches
  • Healthy fats at every meal, including good sources of Omega-3s
  • Moderate protein intake of 3-4 ounces per meal from a combination of animal and plant proteins
  • Lengthen the time between dinner and breakfast to allow for a longer overnight fast, with the goal of 13 or more hours, for example dinner by 6:00 pm and breakfast after 7:00 am.
  • Short-term water fasts of 1-3 days to possibly help re-generate the immune system and increase cellular protection against oxidative stress. Working with a healthcare provider, you can determine how often it may be appropriate for you to engage in a fast.

By incorporating some or all of these practices into your daily, you will enhance your quality of life, Dr. Prieto said. “Your body just functions better. You feel better. You’re able to do the things you enjoy much longer.”