As if our lives weren’t hectic enough trying to juggle the endless rounds of work, school, kids and all of the associated activities; not to mention doing laundry, washing dishes and all the other household maintenances!  Then, right in the midst of all that chaos, you start either feeling the first twinges of a microbial assault or, BAM! You are down for the count my friend; feeling knocked out and not even realizing that you had entered the ring in the first place.  Unless there’s a flashing neon sign right in front of us, most of us push aside those subtle signals of fatigue, lack of appetite, feeling fuzzy or just “off”, and forge on ahead.  Microbes and stress are an everyday part of our lives, but we can learn to better equip ourselves by doing a few simple things.  Below are five easy ways to boost your immune system naturally and economically.

1) Mushrooms:  More Than Meets the Eye.

This plentiful, tasteful culinary tidbit of nature is a well-recognized staple to the human diet, but its many other attributes are gaining recognition on the medical front, too.  Mushrooms contain beta-glucans, a compound known to activate the immune system.  Beta-glucans work by making the immune system work more efficiently (without over-stimulating it), aid in the healing of wounds, help to prevent infections with direct anti-viral/anti-microbial properties, and act as an adjuvant (support) in the treatment of cancer.  In fact, mushrooms are thought to impede the growth of tumors.

There are also antioxidant benefits- the lowering effects on blood sugar levels by producing a substance called an alpha-glucosidase inhibitor, reducing LDL cholesterol levels, and this may influence the production of certain hormones.  Aromatase is responsible for the production of estrogen, a hormone that certain breast cancers are reliant on for growth, while a mushroom’s anti-aromatase activity may partially inhibit the action of aromatase and help to lower breast cancer risk.  Just like humans, following exposure to UV light, mushrooms contain large amounts of Vitamin D.  They are the only naturally occurring crop that harbors this talent for Vitamin D production and to store it.

2) Laughter: No Prescription Needed.

Voltaire said that “The art of medicine consists of keeping the patient amused while nature heals the disease”.  Laughter is strong medicine for both mind and body.  And, it’s fun, free, and easy to “use” and without a complicated sets of directions!  We use our visual and/or auditory senses; the corners of the mouth curve upwards and a sudden forceful exhalation passes through the vocal cords emitting sound- sometimes to the extent that the sound stops and we clutch our sides in pleasureful pain.  Our eyes sparkle and a grin remains in place when we have finished, plus (no joke)- this process is repeatable at no extra charge and uses no airtime!  This spontaneous overflow of happiness and mirth has more purposes than we may have previously thought.

It’s a fact that laughter has a cascading, total body effect.  If we were able to take a look inside the body during a period of laughter, we would see some amazing things going on.  Notice how after a good laugh, you have a feeling of relaxation?  The simple little act of laughter has the power to relieve physical and emotional tensions and stress.  Laughter has the same power as a massage, and muscles, even after 45 minutes, continue to feel relaxed.  This fantastic gift we all possess also works as an immune stimulator by increasing immune system cells and infection fighting antibodies.  Resistance to disease is improved as well.

Laughter is also a natural pain-reliever because it triggers the release of all those feel good chemicals called endorphins.  The body produces 4 main types of endorphins (alpha, beta, gamma, and sigma) and these wonderful chemicals help to heighten the immune system, slow down aging, and reduce pain and anxiety.   Every time you laugh you are increasing blood to and around your heart plus improving the function of the blood vessels.  Laughter is like jogging and is for the body, by definition, healthy.

Seek out your own opportunities to enjoy some humor, especially at your own expense, it’s cheap medicine for a life that is full of such moments.  We are naturally drawn to people who exhibit a positive, upbeat vibe.  Looking for a way to break the ice around new people?  Laughter is the shortest distance between two people; nothing creates connections quite like it.  If you have children, sneak up and tickle them, or play with them; those happy little squeals do so much for the soul.  Nothing beats the sound of laughter coming from a child.  Do the same with a partner or loved one.  It’s especially fun if they are very ticklish…  The point?  Humans are the only species that can enjoy the quality and joyfulness of laughter.  Do so often, and share- it’s more rewarding that way!

3) Echinacea:  The New Old Miracle Herb?

Long before the introduction around WW II of the modern antibiotic, there was another remedy that enjoyed immense popularity in the world of medicine.  This American Great Plains plant, also known as the purple coneflower, is one of the nation’s best selling medicines, but certainly not without some competition.  With the help of double-blind German and American studies, echinacea is certainly gaining a foothold as a safe, effective immune system stimulant working to help the body combat all sorts of invaders and as a promoter of healing.  When infection strikes, echinacea enhances the abilities of white blood cells called macrophages to seek out and destroy offending organisms, energizing other types of white blood cells with the call to action and increasing interferon-1 secretions.  This hardy plant also contains its own antibiotic, echinacoside, which has broad-spectrum anti-microbial capabilities.

Echinacea can also strengthen tissues against the assaults of invaders.  Our cells use a chemical called hyaluronic acid or HA to help shield themselves from attack.  This is usually effective, unless that shield comes into contact with a germ that can produce hyaluronidase; that will dissolve the HA, rendering the cell vulnerable to harm.  But it’s checkmate to the germs as echinacea steps in with a power punch to counter the germ’s counter-chemical with a substance of its own; echinacein.  That same chemical also prompts the healing of broken skin by encouraging fibroblasts to work more efficiently, just as it stimulates interferon-1 production.  This makes our cells are more resistant to infection.

Cold and flu can happen at any time, but usually they rear their ugly faces more often during the colder winter months.  When taken at the first twinges of symptoms, echinacea can cut the duration and severity of those symptoms by up to half.  Take it several times a day and the taper off as you begin to feel better.  Women who have trouble with recurrent yeast infections may benefit by adding echinacea to their treatment regimen.  Echinacea is not meant as a preventative measure, but works best when taken as needed during times of illness.

4) The Power of Touch: Truly a Necessity for a Healthy Life.

Nothing compares to or influences us quite as profoundly as the power of touch;  it’s the first language that we learn and how the various ways that language was taught to us is something we don’t lightly forget.   Touch is the first to develop in humans and may be the last to fade away.  The need for human contact is essential.  For more than 5,000 years (and documented in cultures), extinct and otherwise, touch and massage have been recognized as healing therapies.  The body, of course,  is designed to heal itself.  The use of massage has shown to not only increase immune system function, but also to lower the stress hormones cortisol and norephinephrine.  But the benefits don’t stop there-  even conditions that adversely affect the body, such as diabetes, migraines, colic, and hyperactivity have been improved when massage is employed, according to numerous studies from the University of Miami’s Touch Research Institute.   Premature babies thrived to a much greater degree when touched and massaged than babies that were not.   Touch is not exclusive to only humans.  People bring animals into their homes and call them pets.  They pet, stroke, communicate, shelter, and open their lives to these animals.  It’s been proven that having a companion animal lowers your risk of certain diseases and can help you live longer.

Ever notice when you stub your toe, or you’re reeling from the effects of a broken heart, or smashing/cutting a finger- that touch is the first comforter we turn to when you’re in pain?  We put our hand over our hearts or grab our injured digit and rub it or stick the finger in our mouths.  We do these things on an unconscious level.  This desire for physical contact is part of an innate need and healing instinct which resides in each of us.  Children, in their unbridled innocence and simple, unabashed recognition of this need come to their parents/caregivers when their world is not in order, seeking reassurances in the form of physical contact more so than verbal.  Human babies who are not touched fail to grow normally and children can grow up to have more violent tendencies when they are not the recipient of loving, unthreatening touch patterns.  Humans have 8,000+ receptors on their bodies capable of responding to the different intensities of touch, although women are reportedly more sensitive to the degrees of contact than men are.

But it’s not just being the receiver of tactile stimulation, it is also being able to give back the same feelings of comfort that make us feel well.  Touching one another also boosts the production of oxytocin, a bonding chemical that allows us to form close ties, and serotonin.  People who have close friendships and strong support systems tend to be healthier because of the connections they have to one another.  Even when negative emotions are expressed, the simple touch of a hand on the back or arm, or a hug is enough to halt those negative emotions and bring back to that person some emotional peace of mind.  Couples that are in constant discord with one another or who touch infrequently have up to 40% longer healing times than couples who express their feelings in this delightfully pleasing way.  Want to make a difference in the lives around you?  Start greeting people you are familiar with with a light touch on the arm, or hug-then sit back and notice the transformations!

5) Probiotics:  It’s Not Just “an Apple a Day” Anymore.

So if you knew that 70% of your active immune system was situated in a central location, wouldn’t it make sense to keep that area as healthy as possible?  Yet, with the lifestyles that many of us enjoy during these times of fried fast food and pre-made dinner convenience, we are neglecting to properly care for ourselves in this area.  I’m talking about our intestinal tracts.  Actually, 95% of naturally produced serotonin is used by the digestive tract.  That’s the wonderful little chemical responsible for that almost euphoric state of being after a great meal.  Since our GI tracts are considered our “second” brain, it’s no surprise that we can’t focus beyond the pain when we are sick.

We have trillions of wonderful little microbes that, with our direction, supply our bodies with all sorts of goodies that keep us running at our best.  They provide us with vitamins and much needed chemicals, manufacture natural antibiotics and anti-fungals, have anti-carcinogenic benefits, protect us from free radicals, improves nutrient absorption and so much more! They also keep those bad little bugs at bay through a process known as competitive exclusion. This means while intestinal real estate is in high demand, the good microflora act as immigration control and send potential intruders right on down the line… and out the door, where they belong.  Have you ever noticed how crappy and unintentionally self-absorbed we feel when our tummy’s hurting, or we have the flu?  Not providing our microbial friends such as Lactobacillus Acidophilus and Bifidobacterium with the right environment affects more than their population, it affects our health.

What wonderfully complex machinery our bodies are.  You kind of have to wonder at the priorities the body has and where they place them.  Digestion, oddly enough, takes precedence over immune health.  Fifty percent of body enzyme production is used for digestion. These enzymes are responsible for releasing the nutrients in the food that we eat and work to help balance body chemistry.  Our digestive system will actually steal the enzymes that it needs to break down food from our immune system, and this can weaken the body.  Poor digestive capabilities increase the body’s toxic load and put further stress on the already over-worked systems.  Probiotics serve our bodies like a little army; each part has its own job to do,  and we’re most effective when they’re all working together.

Fortunately, what we can do to help is pretty simple, with just a few tiny diet modifications.  Many of us already take probiotics in some form or another, yogurt or cottage cheese are very popular foods that are tasty and functional.  For those that may be lactose intolerant, a probiotic supplement may be more appropriate and probiotics can actually help with symptoms by either reducing severity or cutting them out all together.  Kefir is a cousin of yogurt and comes in many taste-bud pleasing varieties.  Kombucha Tea is a delicious probiotic-loaded drink with many flavors.  Since we live lives on the go, the easy portability of these products makes it very easy to integrate them into our lives.

The human race has been around long before the introduction of man-made drugs and pharmaceuticals.  In a perfect world, illness and stress would have no place but of course, we do not live a perfect world.  We live in a world of microbes.  By incorporating more of the things that we already do, we can harness the natural healing abilities of our bodies.  The majority of health issues can be related to  immune system disorders.  Your immune system silently loses its abilities.  Help your body stop it-before it starts, or fix it before it gets worse.  It’s the only body that you get, so take care of it and it will take care of you.