By Courtney Hutchison, published on February 17, 2009 - last reviewed on April 13, 2009
We all have remedies we reach for when we feel a cold coming on, but whether it's chicken soup or the latest vitamin C concoction, you could be missing out on some surprising immune-boosters that are right in front of your stuffy nose. From getting a massage to getting some action, recent research reveals several unexpected cures for the common cold that are easy on your wallet and awesome for your health.
When city dwellers retired to the countryside to nurse their ailments, there may have been more to the remedy than the benefit of fresh air. Growing research shows that having access to natural environments helps boost the immune system. In one study, patients recovered quicker and required less pain medication when they had a view of natural elements from their hospital rooms when compared with their windowless peers. Worker bees with views of nature from their offices also have fewer sick days than those stuck in cubicle-land. Making time to be in nature, even if it's just passing through a park, may save you from calling in sick.
It turns out a session between the sheets can keep you out of the sick bed, too. A study done at Wilkes University shows that sex can enhance the immune system. In the study, those who had sex one to two times a week had elevated levels of IgA, a protein that plays an important role in keeping out pathogens and fighting off infection. Conversely, those who abstained or those who had sex too frequently had significantly lower concentrations of the protein in their system. More research is needed to determine why. So when it comes to sex and immunity, you can have too much of a good thing. Nonetheless, here's to sexual healing.
You might have the key to a healthier immune system right at your fingertips—or should we say, in the fingertips of another. While massage therapy has long been acknowledged as a treatment for muscle or joint pain, research from the University of Miami School of Medicine finds that regular massage treatments boost immunity as well. Massage increases the activity level and number of the body's natural "killer cells," which fight off pathogens, and decreases the level of cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses immune function. So treat yourself to a professional massage or simply swap massages with a friend to keep infection at bay.
It might seem silly to think you can snicker away a case of the sniffles, but a study from Indiana State University suggests just that. When subjects were told they would soon receive an electrical shock, their sympathetic nervous system kicked into gear, releasing cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses the immune system in the face of anxiety or stress. After some of the subjects were shown a funny movie, their cortisol levels returned to normal. The study shows that the healing power of humor is no joke; the subjects literally chuckled away the harmful effects of stress.
Your mother always warned you that forgoing sleep might land you sick in bed, but now research has identified a possible link between lack of sleep and infection. By comparing sleep patterns and immune system strength in various mammals, researchers show those species who have evolved to sleep for longer periods each night, like the Mongoose lemur—11.9 hours—have reduced levels of parasitic infection and a higher count of immune boosting white blood cells when compared with light sleepers like the Guinea pig—6.8 hours. The connection suggests that sleep fuels the immune system by allowing it to take the main stage in the bodies' allocation of resources. Indeed we all need to take a break from the stress of our waking hours.
If you're worried about catching that flu bug going around, breathe easy—literally. Mindful meditation, a practice that focuses on breathing patterns, has been proven to enhance immune function. In one study by psychologist Richard Davidson, compared with people who did not meditate, those who did regularly showed lower levels of suppressor t-cells, which inhibit immune function. Another study injected subjects with an influenza vaccine that contained a weakened form of the virus. Patients who meditated daily produced more antibodies to fight off the virus than those who did not. So focusing on deep breaths and a clear, peaceful mind for 45 minutes a few times a week might well help you stay flu-free.
Moderate exercise, such as a brisk half-hour walk several times a week, bolsters the immune system by increasing the function of phagocytes and lymphocytes, the immune system cells responsible for recognizing and destroying invading pathogens. Exercise also reduces stress hormones like cortisol that suppress the immune system. If you're prone to coughs and colds, staying active can decrease your chances of catching what's going around: regular exercisers report half as many days of cold or cough symptoms when compared with their sedentary peers.