Welcome Fall! Ochre leaves crunching underfoot, sweet mulled cider, crisp apple picking…and…ahhh-choo! The return of cold and flu season. Ugh.
To try to isolate the best, most proven tips for staying well, I recently did a Q & A with Elizabeth Lyster, MD, a board-certified ob/gyn with Holtorf Medical Group in Foster City, California, who had some surprising tips and info for keeping well. (Hint: Hit the sack—both for the sleep and the sex!)
Q: What do you think are biggest misconceptions out there regarding immunity and/or regarding avoiding colds/flu?
A: One misconception is that eating healthy foods or taking vitamins and supplements is something you can do on short notice, like when you take an antibiotic.
Another misconception is that taking less than a prescribed amount of an antibiotic is OK. When you are prescribed 7 days of an antibiotic but only take it for 3 days because you feel better, what happens is that by partially treating the infection, you don’t properly clear it up, leaving a few bacteria behind that can develop a resistance to the antibiotic. This is becoming a significant medical problem.
Also, while hand sanitizers are better than nothing, I’m not convinced they really take the place of good old-fashioned frequent hand-washing and simply avoiding touching your hands to your nose or face when you have any cold or flu symptoms.
Q: At some point, despite doing everything ‘right’ are there just bugs that get you and you can’t do a heck of a lot about it? My daughter started pre-school this fall and we all keep getting sick!
A: Pre-school (and other young ages) is a special situation – these kids are sharing germs so continuously that they are developing antibodies to these germs before a large viral load is transferred from one kid to another. In contrast, when a child brings germs home, she is giving them to an adult who has not developed an antibody response. The result is that the child is not ill but carries the virus home to affect her parent, who can get really sick. I call these EPG’s – “Evil Preschool Germs”! Overall, it’s true – sometimes the quantity of infectious organisms can overwhelm even the best immune systems. Hopefully, all those good health habits will help your immune system fight off the bug as quickly as possible.
Q: How much does immunity change as we age? Does it peak or dip at certain times?
A: Our immune system has two major components – a cellular component and a hormonal component. The cellular aspect is what we think of when we think of the immune system – white blood cells attacking invading pathogens. Less recognized is the hormonal aspect. When hormones are out of balance in the human body, it can undermine the immune system. As people get older, many of their important hormone levels go down (including thyroid hormone, sex steroid hormones, growth hormone) which makes the immune system more vulnerable as we age. Temporary stresses can have the same effect – hormone imbalance that leads to lower immunity.
Q: How does ones menstrual cycle affect immunity?
A: The major female hormones, estrogen and progesterone, directly affect the immune system. Research shows that the function of immune cells is lower during the second half of a woman’s cycle (under the influence of progesterone) compared to the first half. When she is on her menstrual period, she needs to reduce external stress while her body is coping with the process of menstrual bleeding. Her immune function during her actual menstrual period is starting to improve again for the new cycle. Overall, if the balance and coordination of a woman’s hormones are out of whack, her immune system may be affected.
Q: I know you say that regular sex can help increase your immunity, because of the cortisol-lowering oxytocin produced during orgasm. So assuming that orgasm is the essential element in term of boosting immunity, I guess it’s not so much intercourse you need but rather, to climax — by whatever means necessary? Or does the human interaction make a difference?
A: The hormone oxytocin, released by the brain (pituitary gland), is the “bonding hormone” – it promotes blood flow, improves mood, and reduces stress on the body. The research is not conclusive as to whether masturbation achieves these effects equally to intercourse, although it is suggested that human interaction actually does increase the amount of oxytocin released.
Q: Besides vitamin D, are there any other supplements that have been proven to make a difference in whether you get sick?
A: In addition to good hormone balance, immune function is enhanced by antioxidants (found in fruits and vegetables), including Vitamin C, Vitamin E, beta-carotene, zinc and selenium. Also, having enough healthy fats in the diet, and having healthy gut function are essential to a strong immune system. The key is not to wait to take these measures only when you start to feel sick – a healthy balanced intake of a variety of food has to be an ongoing habit.
Here’s to a sniffle-free autumn!