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December CONSULT

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Attaining healthy immune system all about balance

Published on Tuesday, December 1, 2020

By: Ruth Cummins

It could be the heat of July or a nippy January, but there’s never a bad time for Mississippians to appropriately boost and balance their immune systems.

Gailen Marshall

Having a strong immune system, or what some might call “natural defenses,” helps protect from diseases brought on by harmful bacteria, viruses and toxins. To get there, focus on the basics: good nutrition, good physical balance and good mental and spiritual balance, said Dr. Gailen Marshall, professor and R. Faser Triplett Chair of Allergy and Immunology at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“The host immune system is designed to help us separate out things that are potentially harmful to us,” said Marshall, who also serves as executive director of the Mississippi Clinical Research and Trials Center. “It also helps us repair various organs and our body’s inflammatory response. An organ can be damaged because of disease and age.

“A healthy immune system also helps us clean up things in our body after we use it.”

Proper nutrition plays a role in maintaining a healthy immune system, he said. Processed foods and other unhealthy staples in our diet can cause high levels of inflammation.

Experts have a list of diet no-nos when it comes to avoiding harmful inflammation that tax the immune system. Many of them are fat-laden favorites or comfort items: cookies, cakes, pastries, pasta, pizza, ice cream, sugary drinks, processed fish and chicken nuggets. Ditto for powdered meal substitutes, sausage and hot dogs.

On the ‘yes’ list: red, yellow, orange, blue and green fresh vegetables, including leafy veggies and tomatoes; fatty fish; and beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts and seeds.

Portrait of Dr. Josie Bidwell

“Fruits and vegetables are the foundation of a healthy lifestyle, and that includes a healthy immune system,” said Josie Bidwell, UMMC associate professor of preventive medicine and a nurse practitioner. “They are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber which are all essential to a healthy immune system.”

“If you allow yourself to become obese and eat a lot of foods heavy in fatty acids, that can be a problem for your immune system as well,” Marshall said. “There are trace elements that are important, such as vitamins, but for the person with a reasonable diet, there’s no evidence that supplements will make a balanced immune system more balanced. Those individuals as a rule will do fine immunologically from a diet standpoint.”

Physical balance can be likened to coping with a “fight or flight” response, Marshall said.

“We are presented with a danger, and the body either adjusts itself to fight, or escapes to flight. You don’t have to be a long-term athlete, but for your overall health, with moderate exercise or simply walking a mile a day four or five times a week, you can increase your immune system to help you with fight or flight. That’s important.”

Sleep also is key to physical balance.

“We don’t get enough sleep as a society,” Marshall said. “We are fatigued all the time, and it has an adverse effect on our fight or flight, and as a consequence, an adverse effect on our immune health.”

And don’t forget your spiritual health.

“That’s not necessarily associated with a specific religious tradition,” Marshall said. “It has to do with the idea of an individual recognizing that he or she has limits on what they can do. They need time for themselves . . . meditation, recreation, prayer. What makes us human is our mind and our spirit.”

Stressors associated with everyday life and the current COVID-19 pandemic are detrimental to mental health, he said.

“It’s a significant problem in our society, and in particular now. ‘Will I get infected? If I do, will it kill me? What about my job? What about staying away from my relatives?’ We need to manage our depression and anxiety risk. You can give up your holiday season and seeing the grandchildren this year so that you can see them for Christmas next year.

“It’s important to understand that the magic word is balance. You don’t want too much, and you don’t want too little. If you have too little, you are susceptible to infection. If it’s too much, then there can be consequences of too much inflammation.

“The goal is for your immune system to stay in balance and to respond appropriately and as aggressively as needed to a challenge, then settle back down again.”

The above article appears in CONSULT, UMMC’s monthly e-newsletter sharing news about cutting-edge clinical and health science education advances and innovative biomedical research at the Medical Center and giving you tips and suggestions on how you and the people you love can live a healthier life. Click here and enter your email address to receive CONSULT free of charge. You may cancel at any time.