I do not wish to jinx myself, but I have gone fourteen months without an upper respiratory infection. Some reading I did about ten years back enabled me to cut their frequency from roughly three a year to one. Since I work in a school, I know I am exposed to a lot of pathogens, so it is hard to minimize exposure. But I have learned that the most important approach involves strengthening the immune system.
With a checklist of four priorities, I know that if I can address at least three at all times, I am far less likely to fall ill. For some stretches of time, I can even manage all four. Here are the items:
- minimize stress
- take daily megadoses of vitamin C
- get a minimum of seven hours of sleep nightly
- ensure prebiotic/probiotic intake
In my profession, the first is hardest. I make a point to emphasize that we cannot entirely eliminate stress, but we can eliminate unnecessary stress. My physician is a Sikh, who strongly recommends meditation, and I certainly agree that it has benefits. Long before I took up that recommendation, however, he mentioned some of my risk factors for serious health problems in coming years, and he provided some resources for me that enabled me to adjust my manner of thinking about most things. This slight change made a significant difference for me right away. Mindfulness practice started with this and grew over the years to something far more meaningful. Still, meditation and yoga will offer no guarantees in any set of circumstances, much less in our challenging modern world or in the profession of public education. Some stress will inevitably present itself. Stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine pose no harm when stress levels are manageable. Chronic unmanaged stress, however, enables these endogenic substances to do gradual but serious harm to our organs and tissues, the cardiovascular system in particular. The immune system is even more vulnerable. Stress weakens it significantly and quickly. Conversely, the immune system can rebound quickly in the absence of excess stress.
With regard to vitamin C, I learned in high school that it is water soluble. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E, and K, we need not worry about ingesting too much of it. But it simply would not, by traditional understanding, yield any benefit to have beyond the recommended amount. Nobel laureate Linus Pauling famously recommended megadoses for water-soluble vitamins, but he was not a physician, and during his lifetime, no empirical evidence emerged to support his recommendation. In the late 1990’s, however, a study showed that vitamin C megadoses were indeed an effective treatment for cold and influenza. Later studies demonstrated varying degrees of effectiveness–with some risk of stomach ailments and even kidney stones at very high quantities–in preventing respiratory infections in the first place with daily vitamin C megadosage. I take 2000 milligrams per day, far higher then the federal government recommends, but not as high as some of the clinical trials I have read about.
Concerning sleep, the Mayo clinic explains the release of cytokines–proteins that play an essential role in the immune system–as we slumber. One study in the late 2000’s that I read about in the newspaper (but cannot now find online) found that test subjects exposed to and infected with cold viruses were much less likely to come down with symptoms if they regularly slept over seven hours per night. Its authors speculated that the nightly release of cytokines not only protects against pathogens but also regulates and moderates our immune systems. Indeed, most cold viruses and even allergens do not directly cause symptoms. Many illnesses, as well as allergic reactions, occur when our immune responses go too far.
Finally, I learned of the benefits of pre- and probiotic intake from reading an illuminating article by Michael Pollan in the New York Times Magazine earlier this decade. In it, Pollan explains that scientists are just beginning to understand the role of the human microbiome in aiding our immune systems. Prebiotic foods such as a variety of raw vegetables in ample quantities (I eat them, but they disgust me) foster helpful bacteria–some of which we have identified and find in foods such as yogurt–to flourish in our intestines. Intriguingly, some studies associate healthy intestinal flora with lower levels of stress and depression. Scientists have not drawn firm conclusions about the explanation, but many suspect the role of the vagus nerve which runs from the gut past the heart to the brain.
I am no doctor. I merely read stuff. My experimentation on myself does not rise to the level of empiricism. Still, my strategies have made me healthier today than I was ten years ago. I consider that a sizable slice of life.