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In immunity there is strength: boost your body

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If you are like most Americans, you have heard - quite possibly more times than you have fingers and toes - that there is a shortage of flu vaccine.

We in the news media have perhaps scared the daylights out of you with that information. We do not do so with malice, but only to make sure you know what could lie ahead. At best, the disease makes you miserable. At worst, it's deadly.

An estimated 10 percent to 20 percent of Americans come down with the flu each flu season, says Dr. Becky Chandler, a physician at Family Medical Center at Garland, Texas. And yes, you could be one of those.

The good news is, even without a vaccination, there are steps to take to boost your immune system and lower your chances of catching the flu. These are no guarantees. But anything you can do is at least worth a try, right?

In addition to the all-important - washing your hands, washing produce, anything strangers' hands might have touched and keeping your hands away from your nose and mouth - here are other immune-boosters:

Walk - Walking not only burns calories, it also briefly increases levels of white blood cells, which serve as a defense against infection. And if that doesn't make you walk, maybe this will:

"No medicine, dietary supplement or other strategy has emerged to be as powerful as a 30- to 45-minute daily walk."

So says David Nieman, professor of health and exercise science and director of the Human Performance Laboratory at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. He's also a co-author of a new study on walking and immunity.

Studies show those who walk regularly take half as many sick days for upper-respiratory infections and colds as nonwalkers, Nieman says.

Sleep - Experts say that if you want your immune system to work, you have to do your part and get plenty of shut-eye.

Be cautious - Even at the risk of feeling silly. After you wash your hands, use a paper towel to open the restroom door, says Chandler. Wear a mask if somebody around you should be in bed instead of at work. (And yes, that person should be the one wearing the mask).

Eat a well-balanced diet - "A good, healthy diet is the best defense," says Lona Sandon, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Make sure you're eating healthy foods with vitamins C, A and E, which are immune-enhancers and antioxidants."

In addition, "zinc is strongly tied to our immune system," says Sandon, assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas.

"It helps us make white blood cells that help us fight off the germs and things that might cause the flu," she says. "It's very easy to get in lean beef, chicken, milk, eggs and yogurt."

Take your vitamins - Chandler recommends a daily multivitamin. Although studies haven't shown vitamin C to be either helpful or detrimental, it is an antioxidant, she says, so it may offer benefits.

Plus, adds Sandon, though it "may not prevent a cold, it may lessen the symptoms of illness if you take it before and during."

During flu season, some people take echinacea. But Sandon says research is mixed as to whether it protects against the common cold or flu.

"It won't necessarily stop it, but it may be a benefit in terms of shortening the time you suffer from a cold or the flu," says Sandon. If you do take it, she cautions, don't take it every day.

"There's indication you may build a tolerance, and it will become ineffective," she says. "Don't start taking it in October and take it through February. By January, it may not be effective if you come down with a cold or the flu."

But once you start showing the first symptoms of an upper-respiratory illness, you may want to start taking echinacea as well as zinc.

Drink plenty of fluids - Include tea, preferably black or green, which has been shown to help get the body's immune system battle-ready to fight infection, according to a study published last year in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science


(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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