The immune system is the body’s greatest defense mechanism, as I discussed in my immune system overview. However, it’s constantly threatened by aspects of our everyday lives, including chronic stress, poor diet, inactivity, isolation, sleep deprivation, toxins and negativity.To keep ourselves protected from cancer, we need to ensure that we’re keeping our immune system healthy and active.
Let’s examine some common threats and discuss some lifestyle modifications to mitigate their damage and help prevent cancer.
“Stress is responsible for as much as 90 percent of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease. The way it does this is by triggering chemical reactions and flooding the body with cortisol that, among other things, decreases inflammation, decreases white blood cells and NK cells (special cells that kill cancer), increases tumor development and growth, and increases the rate of infection and tissue damage.”
The body’s stress response normally stops as soon as a perceived threat has passed. However, if we constantly feel threatened, the reaction never shuts down. This is called chronic stress, and an article in Prevention explains the damage it can cause:
“There is compelling scientific evidence that chronic stress causes a measurable decline in the immune system’s ability to fight disease. Severe and chronic stress have a direct impact on the immune system that can cause disease or change the course of a preexisting disease. For example, studies have indicated that higher levels of stress hormones lead to more rapid cancer progression.”
Chronic stress can disrupt almost all of the body’s processes, which is why I tell all of my patients at Hope4Cancer that it’s so important to learn healthy ways to cope with everyday stressors.
While the body needs good fats to function, unhealthy fats – found in foods like pizza, cookies and chicken fingers – not only cause weight gain and high cholesterol but can also compromise our immune systems. As reported by Natural News:
“… fatty food inhibits the body’s ability to fight bacteria. In the study, mice fed a lard-based diet over an extended period became worse at fighting bacteria in the blood.”
Too much refined and processed sugar weakens the immune system as well by reducing the germ-killing ability of white blood cells. This starts happening less than 30 minutes after the sugar is eaten and can last up to five hours. Making healthy choices when it comes to our diet ensures that the immune system can perform at optimal levels.
A sedentary lifestyle can have a tremendously negative affect on health. In fact, the American Cancer Society reports that sitting for six hours a day or more (something that’s hard to avoid if you have a desk job), leads to an elevated cancer risk—even if you don’t smoke and are at a healthy weight.
In addition to the well-known benefits of exercise – such as its ability to fight high blood pressure, obesity and even cancer – exercise supports the lymphatic system, which works with the immune system to fight disease. The National Center on Health, Physical Activity and Disability also reported numerous advantages to physical activity, including a reduced risk of cancer, a 40-percent decrease in cancer mortality, and a more efficient immune system.
It’s for these reasons and more that we make exercise an integral part of the patient experience at Hope4Cancer.
Not only can social isolation impact our mental well-being, it can also affect us physically. The Prevention article states:
“Studies show that the fewer human connections we have at home, at work, and in the community, the more likely we are to get sick, flood our brains with anxiety-causing chemicals, and die prematurely. Other studies have found that people who are isolated may live only half as long as those who have a lot of human contact. Love seems to be an immune system nutrient.”
I don’t know about you, but I love sleep! When we don’t get enough sleep, we compromise our health. Poor sleep is directly linked to lower immune system function and reduced numbers of germ-fighting, cancer-killing cells. Studies have even shown that sleep restrictions result in changes to carbohydrate metabolism and hormone function that replicate aging changes. In short, when we don’t get enough sleep, we age faster.
Immunotoxic contaminants – things like pesticides, mercury, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) – present in our environment also pose a major threat to our immune health. It takes just one exposure of less than one-millionth of a gram of these toxins to disrupt immune function. They can also trigger serious autoimmune reactions and confuse the immune system’s ability to distinguish foreign invaders from the body’s own tissues.
Last but not least, a negative mindset can weaken our immune systems. This is perhaps due to the fact that optimists take better care of themselves and handle stress better than their pessimistic counterparts. The Prevention article reports:
“In one study, cancer patients who completed a special course designed to make them more optimistic had stronger immune systems than those who maintained their woesome ways.”
Research has also shown that people’s outlook and mood when stressed affects their bodies’ responses to ordinary immune threats, like the common cold, and that laughter can decrease stress hormones while increasing and activating immune cells.
What Can We Do?
It’s clear the immune system faces threats every day, so what can we do to support it? While we may not be able to completely overhaul our lives, we can take certain steps to manage our risk.
- Chronic stress: Learn to identify stress triggers, and work to modify reactions to them. Practice by using relaxation exercises, such as meditation and guided imagery.
- Poor diet: Try to cut total fat intake to less than 25 percent of daily calories, and reduce the amount of sugar you consume. Start with something simple, like cutting out soda from your diet. And look for the latest nutritious recipe from our own Oscar Puig on the blog!
- Inactivity: Slowly work up to exercising five times a week for 30 minutes at a time; this is because it takes a full half-hour of aerobic exercise to send immune-strengthening white blood cells back into circulation. Consult with a doctor before starting any exercise program.
- Isolation: Foster healthy relationships, keeping in mind that more human connections leads to a healthier, longer life.
- Sleep deprivation: Make sleep a priority and not something done only when time allows. Try setting a reminder on your smartphone to alert you when it’s time to head to bed! And check out the six tips for better sleep from our own Subrata Chakravarty, PhD.
- Toxins: Reduce exposure as much as possible by avoiding cigarette smoke and alcohol, thoroughly rinsing produce, and switching to natural gardening methods. Also, take a look at your beauty products to make sure you’re not exposing yourself to toxins in your daily routine without realizing it!
- Negativity: Try to think positively and find reasons to laugh.
At Hope4Cancer, we understand how all of these factors influence immunity. That’s why we help our patients learn to manage stress, deal with their emotions, eat well, exercise and detoxify, all while fostering a sense of community. The payoff for learning to live better is not only inner peace, but also a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life.