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Circumvent sniffle season by eating plenty of lean protein, getting moderate exercise every day and getting those vitamin D levels checked.
updated 11/25/2011 11:43:12 AM ET 2011-11-25T16:43:12

Your body’s immune system is more powerful than you probably imagine. How powerful, you ask? Scientists from the University of Pennsylvania recently took immune cells from three patients with leukemia, then genetically altered them into “serial killer” cells, designed to attack one tumor cell, then another and another. The study was small and the treatment experimental, but the results were groundbreaking—two patients went into complete remission, and the other had a dramatic antitumor response. The modified immune system cells multiplied at least 1,000 times in the body, wiped out cancer cells, and stimulated a population of “memory” cells that may protect against recurrences.

Could this treatment work for other types of cancer? Maybe. Much, much (much) more research is needed, but this study suggests that with the right kind of prodding, your immune system can fight ridiculously hard-to-battle toplady killersand keep you healthy. Granted, gene therapy is pretty serious prodding, but there are relatively simple steps you should take every day to strengthen your immune system, especially as we head into the sniffle season. Some of the best:

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1. Eat lean protein at every meal. No one food will magically fend off the flu, but certain nutrients take the lead in helping protect your body from billions of bacteria, viruses, and other germs—and protein is one of them. One of the reasons is that the antibodies that help fight disease are actually made of protein. Another reason: Many foods high in protein also contain other immune-boosting nutrients. Lean cuts of beef and pork, as well as protein from beans, soy, and seafood (particularly oysters and crab), contain zinc—a mineral that helps up the production of infection-fighting white blood cells; even mild zinc deficiencies can increase your susceptibility to infections. Nuts, like almonds and cashews, are also good sources of protein, as well as magnesium, both of which help support a healthy immune system.

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2. Shoot for 5 cups of fruits and veggies a day. Almost any kind is good, but if you’re going to pick and choose, opt for the ones rich in vitamins A, C, and E. Here’s why: Vitamin A (which you get from sweet potatoes, carrots, and dark leafy greens) helps white blood cells fight off infections more effectively; it also helps regulate the immune system. Citrus fruits (like lemons, oranges, and grapefruit), as well as bell peppers, papayas, and broccoli, contain vitamin C, which improves the absorption of iron from plant-based foods and helps the immune system protect against disease. And vitamin E, found in nuts, seeds, and turnip greens, has been shown in scientific studies to combat flu and upper respiratory infections. If you eat a variety of greens (and oranges and yellows and reds) as part of a balanced diet, you’ll get all the good stuff you need to help fight disease. Taking a multivitamin or mineral supplement may help in some cases, but talk to your doctor—sometimes too-high doses of certain minerals can cause imbalances and actually suppress your immune response.

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3. Take a 10-minute walk a few times a day. Getting a total of 20 to 30 minutes of daily physical activity can bolster many defenses of the immune system. Exercise gets antibodies and white blood cells moving through the body faster, so they may detect illnesses sooner; plus, an increase in circulation may also trigger the release of hormones that “warn” immune cells of intruding pathogens. Keep your workouts moderate; high-intensity activity, such as a marathon running or intense gym training, could actually decrease the amount of white blood cells circulating through the body and up your risk of illness.

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4. Get your vitamin D levels checked. About 50 nmol/L is generally enough to maintain overall health; less than 30 nmol/L is too low for most people. New research suggests vitamin D could boost immune response, and too-low levels may be linked to an increase in seasonal colds and flu. Many of us are deficient in vitamin D, which we can get from the sun and very few foods. Talk to your doctor; you may need a supplement to boost your numbers.

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5. Reduce your stress levels. Do yoga, play with your dog, listen to music—find ways to chill out because research shows stressalters how well your immune system works. Preliminary research published in the journal Biological Psychiatryexamined two groups of people—caregivers of family members with cancer and individuals without that type of stress. The scientists found something goes awry in the caregivers’ white blood cells, leaving them less responsive to inflammation and raising their risk of illness.

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6. Cook with olive and canola oils. These contain healthy fats, which act as a lubricant for cells. This lubricant improves flexibility and communication between the cells, which promotes immune function. Just be careful that you’re not consuming too many omega-6 fats in the meantime: Research shows that people who consume disproportionately more 6s (found in the soybean oil used in most processed snack foods) than 3s are at higher risk for inflammation and immune system problems.

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7. Limit your drinks. One is okay for most people, two is fine for some, but drinking any more could suppress the immune system. New research out of Brown University showed excessive alcohol consumption is toxic to immune system cells called dendritic cells, which play a critical role in helping seek and destroy invading microbes. This could lead to serious, and even life-threatening, infections, not to mention increased vulnerability to the cold and flu virus.

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