Fight Back Against Weakened Immunity

By Kathleen Engel

You know that rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can weaken your immune system, making you more vulnerable to colds and flu. What can protect you besides hand washing and a flu shot? Plenty! Read on to learn about some clever ways to fortify your immunity and fight off illness.

Indulge in sounds you love; tune out those you don't

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

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

And in a study of office noise, Cornell University researchers noted that it was lack of control over a sound—not its intensity—that made it stressful; hence the importance of taking control. Also, listening to sounds that evoke positive emotions stimulates the release of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, and lowers the levels of cortisol and other stress hormones, explains rheumatologist/immunologist Esther M. Sternberg, MD, author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being.

Do this at night

Go to bed earlier. Simple advice, but heeding it can bring big payoffs. Going to bed even 30 minutes earlier can help you establish an eight-hour sleep habit—a key way to ward off viral infections. Morever, hitting the hay by 11 p.m. increases the chance you'll spend more time in the deeper stages of sleep, when the body repairs tissue and immune system glitches. (The hours near sunrise are reserved for lighter sleep stages, when more dreaming occurs.) Need more incentive to turn in early? How about shedding a few pounds? Researchers at Northwestern University discovered that night owls—those who stay up late and sleep in—had less healthful eating habits and consumed more calories overall, including more fast food, fewer veggies and more sugar-laden sodas. Not surprisingly, they gained more weight than the early-to-bed, early-to-rise folks.

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 asleep or staying asleep: Study participants who suffered even slight sleep deprivation (as little as 8%) were 5.5 times more likely to get sick than those who slept for a full eight hours.

Banish the word diet

You've heard it often enough: If you're trying to lose weight, you must cut calories (and add exercise, of course). Many folks are tempted to lose weight quickly before holidays like Thanksgiving as a preemptive strike, but it's a bad idea to bounce on and off diets. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, yo-yo dieting—losing weight, then regaining it, then starting yet another diet—weakens your immune system. A better idea? Get honest about your food intake by recording what you eat and noticing the times when you eat "mindlessly" or when you're not hungry.

Why it works: The maintenance of a stable weight is linked with a higher level of activity of natural killer cells, which means they're more effective at destroying cells infected with viruses and bacteria. And studies show that the simple act of recording what and when you eat can encourage gradual—yet permanent—changes in eating habits.

Get out and mingle

Spend some time with people you enjoy—or doing activities with others that you find rewarding. "Studies show that the more positive social interactions you have, the healthier you are," says Dr. Sternberg. You can also reap the same benefit by volunteering (try volunteermatch.org for ideas). The key, says Dr. Sternberg, is to balance time spent alone and time spent with others. You'll know you've had enough "me time" if you start feeling bored or lonely.

Why it works: The good feelings you experience from being with others cause a flood of nerve chemicals and brain hormones that stimulate the immune system to speed healing. Feeling isolated, on the other hand, can impair your immunity by raising the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, says Dr. Sternberg. She also notes that showing compassion toward others triggers a release of hormones that fight infection.

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 getting 20 minutes of sunlight on most days of the week. If you can't be outdoors much, consider using an indoor light box that provides full-spectrum light, which mimics the effects of sunshine (just do a Web search using the term light box therapy). Mood bonus: Exposure to bright morning light can help ward off the winter blues, too.

Why it works: "There are two ways light can help," says Dr. Sternberg. "Being in sunlight or full-spectrum light elevates mood and lowers stress. And anything you can do to reduce the stress response will strengthen the immune system." Additionally, when sunlight hits the skin, the body produces vitamin D, a nutrient that helps the immune system repel inflammation and accelerate healing.

Go "offline"

Dr. Sternberg recommends taking daily "mini-vacations" to reboot the immune system. "Find a place of peace where you can stop, look and listen—and try to go there every day," she says. That doesn't mean you have to go outdoors, either. 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. Not a great daydreamer? Look at photos from a happy time and spend a few minutes reminiscing about why it was so pleasurable.

Why it works: Meditating on anything you find peaceful can help combat stress hormones that weaken the immune system's ability to fight infection. "Chronic stress has been shown to prolong wound healing, decrease response to vaccines, and increase the frequency and severity of upper respiratory infections," says Dr. Sternberg.

Published March 2012

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