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Taking Care of Your Immune System

separator Your immune system is invisible to you, but don’t ever forget how important it is. This complex network keeps your body in fighting shape to ward off bacteria, viruses and parasites. When your immune system isn’t as strong as possible, you’re more likely to get colds, flu, and other more serious illnesses, such as the autoimmune disorders we’ve discussed in this month’s article titled, “Autoimmune Diseases: When Your Immune System Makes a Mistake.

Chronic stress, poor diet and repeated exposure to environmental toxins can weaken the immune system, create an imbalance and sometimes cause the system to go into “overdrive,” which can cause inflammation that eventually can lead to autoimmune disorders. Family history can play a role in whether or not you’re likely to develop an immune system disorder, but there are a lot of things you can do to decrease those chances.

Choose to eat well
It’s the same old story—eating well has a positive impact on your health. The digestive tract is one of the four entry points for germs. The linings of your stomach and intestines need to be in good shape to play their part in immune system function. That’s why you want to eat foods that keep the digestive tract healthy, and avoid the foods that aggravate and irritate it.

Foods to choose: High fiber foods—fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains; fresh fish, lower fat dairy foods; healthier fats in small portions, such as olive and canola oil. These foods contribute to the health of your stomach and colon in particular, two important parts of the digestive system.

Foods to avoid and/or limit: Fatty snack foods (that’s most snack foods you buy at the grocery store); white flour, white bread, white pasta, white rice, sugary desserts; high fat dairy foods; alcohol (it irritates the lining of the stomach); caffeine (it can over-stimulate your intestine). These types of foods make your digestive system work too hard, placing stress on it that, over time, weakens your immune system.

Make sure you avoid eating any foods you’re allergic to or that irritate your system. Constant exposure to allergens weakens your immune system as well.

If you have an immune disorder now, have you talked with your doctor about how your diet can help you manage your condition? Many physicians and researchers are coming to believe that people with immune disorders do best to avoid eating red meat, poultry and pork most of the time, and to get their protein from fish and dried beans and legumes instead. They also recommend getting plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in fatty fish such as salmon and albacore tuna, avocadoes, walnuts and almonds. Some doctors also believe that eating pineapple is a good idea, because it contains bromelain, a substance that’s thought to reduce inflammation.

Your doctor may also suggest that you avoid alcohol completely. And ask whether you should be taking any special supplements. 

Practice stress reduction methods
Just about everybody should take up some sort of stress reduction activity. There are lots of ways to do this. For many people, having a daily religious or spiritual practice is helpful, which usually includes prayer or meditation. Yoga, t’ai chi and qigong are eastern exercises that help relax the body and mind. Setting aside quiet time to breathe deeply is another option. Whatever appeals to you—go for it. Managing stress is good for you and should be part of your everyday life.

Get regular exercise
Getting regular exercise is good for your overall health. It also helps relieve stress. And it’s good for your intestines, stimulating them to keep your bowels moving.

Strengthen social ties
Reach out to friends and family regularly. Make time for the people who are important to you. This is another way to reduce stress. In fact, research has shown that people who have more social ties tend to catch fewer colds than people who are not as socially active.

Baron-Faust, J. Buyon. The Autoimmune Connection. Contemporary Books, 2003; M. Hyman, M. Liponis. Ultra-Prevention, The 6-Week Plan That Will Make You Healthy for Life. Scribner, New York, 2003. R. Klatz, R. Goldman. Infection Protection. HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2002.
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