Life demands so much out of an individual – whether you are female or male – work, family and social commitments may be never ending.

Even when you go off on vacation, how often have you felt on returning that you need another vacation?

All of this often robs us of the time that we need to care of our own overall wellness.

When we are mentally exhausted, we pay less attention to how we care for our bodies, and it’s easy to forget that it’s not just our physical appearance that is affected.

More importantly, our body’s internal functions can be disrupted, leaving the immune system susceptible to viruses and bacterial infection.

In boosting the effectiveness of our immune system, we might already be practising many of the right habits, but it does not hurt to have a reminder of what we should be doing while learning new information about the immune system.

The four key areas that we should always pay attention to include: food, exercise, hormonal balance and nutrition. This week, we will discuss food and exercise.

The influence of food on the immune system

Can you remember the last time you had a heavy meal?

Whether it was a large plate of char kuey teow with limau ais, or nasi lemak and teh tarik, did you feel the crash in energy one hour later?

While we often joke about needing a nap after a big Friday lunch at the office, one of the long-term effects of poor food choices is that it contributes to the breakdown of the immune system.

The body can only function efficiently with proper nutrition. Fill your fridge with whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, and good, nutrient-rich proteins like salmon and lean chicken.

Eliminate trans and saturated fats, simple carbs and refined sugar, as these clog your arteries and make your internal system work harder to figure out what to do with all these empty carbs.

Avoid additives and preservatives.

Generally, if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. Avoiding processed foods will also encourage healthier eating habits.

Some spices have been found to increase the immune response when you feel sickness coming on.

Certain spices like pepper, garlic, radish and hot mustard contain something known as “mucolytics”, which help to reduce nasal congestion.

Others have antioxidant potential, like cinnamon, where a teaspoon is equivalent to half a cup of blueberries or a cup of pomegranate juice.

Sweets or desserts should always be eaten in moderation. Choose good sugars over processed ones like dark chocolate and raw honey.

Avoid corn syrup and white table sugar, as these can suppress the immune system for several hours, as quickly as 30 minutes after consumption. White blood cell count decreases as a result of too much sugar. This makes it hard for you to ward off infections.

Drink plenty of fluids and make them healthy ones. Generally, you should drink eight glasses of water everyday. Make it more interesting with a dash of lemon or lime juice, or cut up fruit like strawberries and oranges, or greens like cucumber and mint for some fresh flavours in your water.

Green tea and herbal tea have antioxidant properties that promote good health.

Avoid drinking too many carbonated drinks, as well as fruit drinks with colouring and added sugar – opt for freshly-pressed juices instead.

Eat in moderation. The problem can sometimes be the amount of food that we choose to eat, not the type of food.

Binging on high-calorie foods leads to weight gain. Your immune system’s response to viral attacks will be slower, but it can be restored if you drop the weight by cutting back on the daily calories and an exercise plan.

You will also see an improvement in cell function and hormone balance.

The influence of exercise on your immune system

Rotating your workouts to include various types of exercise can be really beneficial to heart health, bone density, fat loss, stress reduction, and of course, the immune system.

Moderate levels of exercise like cycling in a park, swimming, tai chi or yoga deepens breathing and promotes blood flow, stimulating the immune system.

Good blood circulation helps white blood cells and antibodies move quickly against unwanted viral or bacterial intrusions, before they can cause any real damage to your system.

Why is it so important to increase blood circulation via deep breathing?

It has to do with two key components in your immune system. Known as lymphocytes, they are types of white blood cells, B-cells and T-cells, that shield against harmful germs and toxins.

When B-cells and T-cells interact with foreign particles, the action occurs in the lymph glands, where an activator of the lymphatic system is deep breathing. When you exercise, the movement of your limbs provide a pumping motion that activates and distributes lymph fluid to the rest of your system.

Your immune system will also benefit from the right amount of oxygen metabolism.

Otto Warburg won a Nobel Prize in 1931 for his research on the link between cancer and adequate oxygen to the cells, but the research on oxygen benefits has not stagnated – studies are being conducted on the link between immune deficiency and reduced oxygen metabolism, and the preliminary findings indicate that increasing one’s oxygen intake can help reduce the problem.

Essentially, what we are trying to say is that we should all get up and get moving.

Work out according to individual capacity. Do not push beyond what you are capable of doing, especially in the beginning, as this can cause more harm than good.

Start slow, then work up to a more advanced level.

Once you’ve advanced to a higher level of intensity in your workouts, it’s a good idea to consider supplements rich in vital nutrients and antioxidants before beginning your routine.

Make sure you stop to recover in between tough workouts to avoid blackouts and other problems.

Yet, it’s quite understandable if an exercise routine seems daunting, time-consuming or just “not your thing”.

With exercise, a little is better than none at all. Save time by including moments throughout the days to do something a little more rigorous than just sitting or standing.

At work, take the stairs, or walk to the other end of the office to talk to your colleague instead of calling.

At home, there are plenty of household chores to get your heart rate going: wash the car, sweep or vacuum the floors, paint a dirty wall or clean the toilets.

Make time to take walks around your neighbourhood in the evenings or early mornings. You’ll be impressed at how such a simple activity can clear your mind and keep you mentally refreshed.

We will discuss how nutrition and hormonal balance impact the immune system in the next article.


Datuk Dr Nor Ashikin Mokhtar is a consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist. For further information, visit www.primanora.com. The information provided is for educational and communication purposes only and it should not be construed as personal medical advice. Information published in this article is not intended to replace, supplant or augment a consultation with a health professional regarding the reader’s own medical care. The Star does not give any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to the content appearing in this column. The Star disclaims all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.