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Thought Leader Live Healthy, Atlanta!

Starting a New School Year and Strengthening Our Immune Systems

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By David Martin, President and CEO of VeinInnovations

The 2013 school year is in full swing. Students are back to balancing extracurricular activities and schoolwork while teachers are navigating parent-teacher meetings, lesson plans and improving last year’s test scores. For all the learning that goes on, the biggest lesson in the first few weeks is learned by the immune system. In a typical Georgia classroom, more than 20 students and a teacher spend hours sharing knowledge – and germs.

Parents know that children are likely to pick up a bug or two at the beginning of the school year, especially if they’re small. Exposure to a diverse group of people and their pathogens isn’t always bad. Our immune system benefits from a challenge. Once a pathogen (a foreign substance like a bacteria or virus that makes you ill) enters your body, the adaptive immune system gets to work creating cells that will recognize and fight the infection. Once the infection is defeated, those cells remain in the body. You have acquired immunity: after that first exposure to the antigen, your immune system builds a defense to protect you in the future.

The immune system is fascinating, and we’re still studying its intricacies. We’re born with innate immunity, the barriers that keep all antigens from entering our bodies. Our skin, stomach acid and mucus, as well as the cough reflex are examples of innate immunity. Vaccines work by activating adaptive immunity, which I described above.

We’re also born with passive immunity. Infants are protected from infection by the antibodies passed to them through their mother’s placenta. The antibodies start to disappear at six months and are gone by a year, replaced as the infants own immune system learns how to defend itself. You can learn about immune systems basics here. If you’re explaining the immune system to a young child, the CDC has created an immune system primer here.

Putting the benefits of exposing the immune system to antigens aside, no parent likes to see their child get sick and doesn’t want to catch a bug themselves. No one can avoid getting sick entirely, but we can lower our risk by making healthy choices. Researchers are still trying to scientifically prove specific ways we can strengthen the immune system. Today, the best way we know to protect ourselves and our families from infection is to follow general healthy living practices. Below, I’ve listed strategies that are believed to encourage a robust immune system.

  • Eat Colorful, Fresh Meals Fresh picked fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients than produce that had to travel a long way. Those nutrients promote immune health, as well as overall health. Focus on adding produce to you and your family’s diet and don’t overdo protein intake. Most of us are eating too much meat – two or three servings a week is plenty.
  • Practice Good Hygiene, and Teach Your Children the Same Wash your hands with soap and warm water frequently, especially after sneezing, coughing or using a tissue. Sneeze or cough into a tissue or your elbow to keep the germs as contained as possible. Don’t share cups or plates, and if you’re working with children, use hard surface toys that can be easily cleaned.
  • Get Vaccinated! The development of vaccines is one of the most incredible advances of modern medicine. Vaccines save millions of lives, and have made once-common diseases a thing of the past. Vaccines are safe and (despite what some groups have argued) do not cause autism. Vaccinating your children is the most effective way to protect them and all the people they come in contact with from contracting a potentially deadly disease.
  • Make Getting Enough Sleep a Priority We don’t fully understand why we need sleep, but we do know that adequate sleep is vital to our health. Not getting enough sleep depresses our immune function, and we’re more likely to come down with a bug. We’re told to go to bed when we’re sick. You can avoid getting sick in the first place by making shuteye a priority in your house. Learn about healthy sleep habits here.
  • Incorporate Exercise Into Your Routine Exercise is medicine you don’t need a doctor or an insurance company to get. Regular exercise can lower your blood pressure, help you maintain a healthy weight, and improve your mood. Regular exercise will also lower your chances of getting sick. Make moving a family affair – take walks after dinner, ride bikes, go swimming – just get moving! Do it together and you’ll all reap the benefits.

The start of school is as optimistic a time as it is stressful. Establishing a routine after the structure-free days of summer is challenging and getting sick can be a major inconvenience. If you or child does catch a bug in those first few weeks of school, take comfort in the fact that their immune system is working just as it should. Let it do its job, and help the healing process by getting lots of rest, drinking lots of fluids and remembering that the antigen causing you problems won’t be able to trouble you once you’re well.

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