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Mother Nurture

© Rick Hanson, Ph.D., and Jan Hanson, L.Ac., 2005

 Boosting Your Immune System

Since having kids, I've been getting colds much more often, plus I developed a chronic rash that my doctor says is an autoimmune condition. Why is this happening to me? And what can I do?

We're very sorry that all this seems linked to becoming a mother - yet you're far from alone since studies have shown that bearing and rearing children gyrate the immune system in a number of ways, leading to increased colds and flus and more risk for autoimmune conditions.

Happily, there are things you can really do to strengthen your immune system so it is more able to fight off pesky invaders, and less likely to over-react and attack your body (i.e., an autoimmune illness). (Of course, this column is not meant to give advice about any particular condition.)

The approaches we're about to mention are all backed up by research (see our website for the references), but they may seem a little technical.Hang in there, and there's lots more info and back-up in chapter 5 of our book, Mother Nurture, which contains a thorough, research-based discussion of how to stay optimally healthy while raising a family.

A Solid Foundation
Actually, the most important thing you can do is mental, not physical: a positive outlook, social support, and low stress will nurture the healing powers of your body. Since angry quarrels depress immune system function, you'll also benefit from finding positive ways to work out issues with your partner.

Second, try to get lots of deep sleep.

Third, keep the overall load on your immune system as low as possible - by minimizing your exposure to toxins, allergens (including foods to which you are sensitive), or infection - so that it is not already burdened when new challenges come along.

Now, on this foundation, let's look at a range of specific options for strengthening and balancing your immune system.

This ancient system can increase T-cells and other white blood cells - essential soldiers within your specific immune system.

A number of studies have found that homeopathic remedies seem to reduce respiratory infections (through mechanisms that are not yet understood). Additionally, homeopathy appears able to help balance the immune system, decreasing both allergic and autoimmune reactions; various studies have successfully used remedies to control the symptoms of hay fever, asthma, and rheumatoid arthritis.

While a remedy is most likely to work when selected by an experienced homeopath, you could try Oscillococcinum on your own. This is used at the beginning of a flu or a cold, and it typically comes in small vials, each of which may be divided into three to four doses. Take one dose every hour at the onset of the flu, and after three or four doses, decrease to about three doses per day.

Moderate exercise boosts white blood cells over time, but strenuous exercise - like running a 10K race - briefly lowers their levels in your respiratory and digestive systems. And massage and even affectionate touching have also been shown to increase immune system function.

Have protein at every meal. Vegetables and fruit will give you immune-boosting carotenoids and flavenoids. Minimize sugar and refined flours: studies found that consuming about two sodas' worth of sugar knocked down the effectiveness of white blood cells by roughly 50% within one hour, with residual effects lasting for several more hours. Finally, a low-fat diet with minimal caffeine has also been shown to improve immune function.

The immune system requires a full cupboard of nutrients in your body, so we'll repeat our frequent recommendation that you take a high potency multi-vitamin/mineral supplement on a full stomach (typically entailing several capsules a day to get everything you need).

Depending on what your supplement contains and how your immune system is doing, you could add one or more of the nutrients listed below.

  • Vitamin A - As long as you are not pregnant (or could become pregnant) and do not have a liver disease, you could take 10,000 IU/day, or as much as 50,000 IU/day for a few days at the onset of a cold or flu.
  • B-vitamins - Each day, take a high-potency B-complex, and a sublingual B-12 tablet.
  • Vitamin C - For a week or two, you could take up to 10 grams/day; decrease if you develop diarrhea or your stomach hurts.
  • Vitamin D - We recommend 400-600 IU/day. If you think you might have an autoimmune condition, ask your doctor for what's called the "Vitamin D 25-OH" test, and increase your daily dosage if the test results are low.
  • Vitamin E - Try 800 IU/day.
  • Quercetin - This bioflavenoid helps settle the immune system and reduce the symptoms of allergies and food sensitivities; try 400-500 mg, three times a day, taken before meals.
  • Iron - Getting enough iron is best accomplished through eating liver from beef or chickens raised on organic foods and no artificial chemicals. The next best source of iron is a chelated supplement, such as iron glycinate, ferrous succinate, ferrous sulfate, or ferrous fumorate. But check with your doctor to make sure you're actually anemic since excessive iron can lower immune function.
  • Selenium - Try 200 mcg/day.
  • Zinc - For purposes of preventing illness, you could take 50 mg/day of zinc citrate, picolinate, or gluconate for one to two months, and then decrease to 30 mg/day. If you feel a cold coming on, zinc lozenges can be helpful (about 25 mg every two hours up to about 250 mg per day); one study found this dosing shortened the duration of colds by 64%.

In Conclusion
Fundamentally, your body is a warehouse with trillions of molecules, and the bottom-line is to keep adding good ones and getting rid of bad ones. That's a great way to stay healthy!


(Rick Hanson is a clinical psychologist, Jan Hanson is an acupuncturist/nutritionist, and they are raising a daughter and son, ages 12 and 14. With Ricki Pollycove, M.D., they are the authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, published by Penguin. You can see their website at or email them with questions or comments at; unfortunately, a personal reply may not always be possible.)