Winter weather makes most of us apprehensive about getting a cold or the flu, and often enough those fears are justified. No matter how religiously we wash our hands, keep our distance from others who already have the sniffles, or try to fortify our immune system with extra doses of vitamins, it seems to be a losing battle year after year. Yet some folks never appear to get affected. They just sail through this treacherous season without a hitch. How do these lucky few do it?
The reasons why a certain percentage of the population fares better than the rest in terms of resistance to illness in general are not really well understood. To some extent, it may be just a matter of luck when someone does not get infected.
And then, it is a simple fact that some people are healthier than others and better equipped to deal with the assaults that come their way.
Those who are of good health should be expected to have certain advantages over their less healthy and more vulnerable contemporaries. And even if they do get sick once in a while, they will probably recover more quickly, says Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.
A robust immune system is certainly one of the top ingredients for resistance to sickness, experts say. But it is not something people are born with. Far from it.
The immune system is both complex and individualized. If it is weakened from malnutrition or chronic health conditions like diabetes, or from unhealthy behavior like smoking or drug- and alcohol abuse, there is always a greater risk for disease. But when it is supported through health-promoting measures, it can keep improving over time.
But it is not those who try avoiding hazards like cold or flu viruses that end up with the strongest immune system. On the contrary. Exposure to germs of all kinds builds up the body’s immunity because it “remembers” earlier encounters and has the appropriate defenses in form of antibodies already in place. That may explain why moms, teachers and pediatricians often get through cold seasons more or less unscathed while everyone else around them seems to succumb.
Behavior, of course, plays an important role, too. Making things worse by counterproductive habits such as smoking, eating poorly, and remaining sedentary is always inadvisable. But stress, lack of sleep, and emotional disturbances like depression or seasonal affective disorders (SAD) can also factor in, and their effects should not be underestimated.
Unsurprisingly, our susceptibility to disease increases with age. Studies have shown that the immune system becomes gradually weaker as we grow older, no matter how well it served us in the past. The reason is that immune cells (like all other cells) steadily diminish in size and structure, and cease to function as effectively.
Still, healthful diet and lifestyle choices may help to slow down the process. Even a change in attitude may make a difference. As research has shown, positive thinking, optimism, hope and trust in the basic goodness of life are all part of our enduring wellness.
TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian, health counselor, newspaper columnist, and blogger. She’s the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.” Her website is www.timigustafson.com.