Question of the Week

January 12, 2009


While many people have resolved to eat better in the new year, a recent study warns that those doing so need to be careful.

"The team at Michigan State University found even though the mice on the lower calorie diet received adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals, their bodies were still not able to produce the amount of killer cells needed to fight an infection. As well as being more likely to die from the virus, the mice -- which were consuming around 40% of the calories given to their counterparts on a normal diet -- took longer to recover, lost more weight and displayed other symptoms of poor health. 'Our research shows that having a body ready to fight a virus will lead to a faster recovery and less-severe effects than if it is calorically restricted,' said study author Professor Elizabeth Gardner."

While this does suggest that a drastic reduction in calories can lower the body's ability to fight disease, it is important to keep in mind that these mice were consuming less than half of what their peers were eating. Minimally reducing the amount of calories to help someone reach a healthy weight does not have to be the same as starving oneself on a diet. There needs to be balance.

This is flu season, and it is not a good idea to intentionally reduce one's ability to fight disease when germs seem unavoidable. That said, bodies fight disease best when they can work at their best. Eating better (but not starving oneself), exercising more (to increase the amount of calories burned and help the body to function at its best), and keeping lifestyle changes gradual and in moderation can help improve overall health -- which helps keep the immune system stronger for the short term while the body stronger for the long term. No one wants to weaken their immune system to the point where they have a more difficult time fighting the flu.

"Influenza (the flu) is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses. It can cause mild to severe illness, and at times can lead to death. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting a flu vaccination each year. Every year in the United States, on average 5% to 20% of the population gets the flu; more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications, and; about 36,000 people die from flu. Some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk for serious flu complications."

While hand washing can greatly reduce one's risk of contracting the flu, the influenza virus can also be spread directly through the air.

"Flu viruses travel through the air in droplets when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes or talks. You can inhale the droplets directly, or you can pick up the germs from an object, such as a telephone or computer keyboard, and then transfer them to your eyes, nose or mouth."

Since the virus can be unavoidable, it is important for people to take care of their bodies and help keep their immune systems at their best. While it is important to get enough calories, it is also important to get enough of the right calories. Cutting the empty calories (those with minimal nutrition for the calories eaten) can help a person reduce calorie intake, lose excess weight, and stay healthier.

With calories, it's about quantity and quality. A person who is getting more calories than they need, but not the right nutrients can be both overweight from too much food, and malnourished from not enough of the right foods. This means that people need to make sure that they are getting enough of the right foods and the right nutrients.

"There are a handful of vitamins and minerals that help the immune system in various ways, and many of these can be found in fruits and vegetables. In the last 30 years, studies have uncovered that nutrient deficiencies (even when the deficiencies are mild) do, in fact, impair the immune response and lead to frequent, severe infections. To name a few -- several immune factors depend on B-6 to do their job, for example. Vitamin C decreases the oxidative damage in human white blood cells, while zinc affects the development and integrity of the immune system by affecting several key immunity mediators or helpers."

The role our immune systems play in keeping us healthy can be complicated.

"In simplest terms, the immune system is a balanced network of cells and organs that work together to defend you against disease. It blocks foreign proteins from getting into your body. If a few happen to sneak by your biological sentry, not to worry. With a powerful "search and destroy" task force, your body deploys a host of additional immune cell forces designed to hunt down these unwanted invaders and ultimately works to destroy them. 'This entire system is known as the "humoral" response. It's your body's innate ability to manufacture antibodies that counter the infectious particle -- allowing your body to eradicate it.'"

If a person's immune system is compromised, then it is more difficult for that person to fight diseases, such as the flu, when he/she does contract them.

"Most healthy people recover from the flu without complications. If you get the flu:

  • Stay home,
  • Get lots of rest, drink plenty of liquids, and avoid using alcohol and tobacco.
  • There are over-the-counter (OTC) medications to relieve the symptoms of the flu (but never give aspirin to children or teenagers who have flu-like symptoms, particularly fever).
  • Remember that serious illness from the flu is more likely in certain groups of people including people 65 and older, pregnant women, people with certain chronic medical conditions and young children.
  • Consult your doctor early on for the best treatment, but also be aware of emergency warning signs that require urgent medical attention."

Complications are more likely, but not limited to, those whose immune systems are in some way compromised. The healthier people can keep their bodies, the easier it is for them to fight the diseases to which they might be exposed.

Questions of the Week:
What changes can you make in order to improve your eating habits, reach a healthier weight, and/or maintain a healthy weight? If you need to lose weight, how can you do it in such a manner that will be the least likely to compromise your immune system? In addition to modifying your eating habits, what else can you do to reduce your chances of catching the flu, or other diseases that are going around?

Please email me with any ideas or suggestions.
Note: Due to increasing amounts of SPAM sent to this account, please include "QOW" in the subject line when sending me email.

I look forward to reading what you have to say.

Health Community Coordinator
Access Excellence @ the National Health Museum

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