Surprising Things You Can Do to Bolster Immune Health

One thing that just about everyone knows — to be really healthy, you have to have a strong immune system. But here’s what most people don’t know about that: Your mindplays a big role in your immunity. And there are other surprises when it comes to creating immune strength… a walk in the forest, anyone?

Who’s In Charge?

But first things first — the mind connection. To discuss this, I called Mark Hyman, MD, founder and director of the UltraWellness Center in Lenox, Massachusetts, and author of The UltraMind Solution. Dr. Hyman believes that the mind-body connection is so powerful that it actually can transform a weakened immune system into an able disease fighter. He called the immune system “an organ of perception,” explaining that “it perceives what is happening in the environment around us, both physical and mental, and responds accordingly.” T cells (he calls these white blood cells “the soldiers of the immune system”) have receptors for neurotransmitters that are activated, in part, in response to our emotions. Consequently, says Dr. Hyman, “Our thoughts and feelings literally speak to the T cells.”

Here are some ways you can power up your brain for immune health…

Feed your T cells. Nourish your T cells with immunity-building messages by engaging in activities that produce positive and happy thoughts — for example, listening to joyful music and getting a massage. Also helpful, Dr. Hyman said, is to keep a regular sleep schedule, going to bed and awakening at approximately the same time each day. This boosts immune strength by contributing to melatonin modulation, keeping the body in tune with daily and seasonal rhythms and changes.

Train your brain to be “well”. A perfect example of the mind-body connection is meditation, which teaches your brain to achieve a healthful sense of calm. Harvard cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and author of The Relaxation Response, describes this as “remembered wellness.” This means that engaging in a regular practice of meditation effectively primes your body to remember how wellness feels so that it can create the sensation more readily. Dr. Benson’s research demonstrated that meditation triggers scientifically measurable health benefits, including reduced stress and blood pressure.

Stay optimistic. A study of 125 first-year law students discovered that when they reported feeling optimistic, their immunity improved. Tested at five points during the year, students had higher cell-mediated immunity (protection against viral infections as measured by T cell activity) when they were optimistic than they did when feeling down.

What Else Strengthens Immunity?

Not all the news about immunity is about the brain. Here are a few more fascinating findings relating to immune strength…

  • A Japanese study showed that time spent in a forest or wooded area — referred to as “forest bathing” in that country — increased immune function. Stress reduction was one reason, but in addition, all those trees give off therapeutic airborne chemicals (called phytoncides) that keep plants from rotting and have been shown to improve immune function.
  • A healthy digestive system helps immunity by ensuring that toxins do not escape from the gastrointestinal tract into the body. A new study shows that soluble fiber (including the kind found in oats, apples, nuts, lentils and citrus foods) boosts immunity by binding to and removing an inflammatory protein from the gut.

There is a simple take-home from this cornucopia of intriguing immune-bolstering research. It’s not hard to be good to your mind and your body, and nature offers plenty of easy, effective ways to do so — all of which can pay off with better health.