Strengthen Your Immune System

The immune system is the body’s main defence against organisms that cause diseases. A healthy immune system is key in keeping us from becoming ill. That makes boosting our immune system a worthy goal, but there is still much that remains unknown about how to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, there is no magic formula that improves immune function. However, that doesn’t mean we should give up on it. There are some things that we know can keep our immune systems working properly. As with every other part of our body, our immune system functions better when we choose healthy lifestyle habits that help protect it from attack by organisms present in our environment.

Healthy habits

Among the lifestyle choices that will help promote the health of your immune system are:

• Not smoking

• Eating a healthy diet high in vegetables and fruit

• Limiting alcohol consumption

• Getting regular physical activity

• Maintaining a healthy weight

• Getting enough sleep

• Dealing with stress in a healthy manner

• Practicing careful hygiene to prevent infection (such as frequent hand washing with soap and water, avoiding close contact with people who appear to be ill, and cooking meats thoroughly)

• Getting all of the vaccines your healthcare team recommends for you

Diet and immune function

To work properly, the immune system needs nourishment. Scientists believe this is why people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more likely to contract infectious diseases. There also seems to be a connection between nutrition and immune function in the elderly. Our immune response lessens as we age, and older people are more likely to experience what is known as micronutrient malnutrition—a situation in which a person doesn’t get enough of some essential vitamins and trace minerals, either through their diets or from taking supplements. If you suspect that your diet is not providing you with all of the nutrients you need, taking a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement may be of benefit, but taking mega doses of a single vitamin will not. If you have questions about whether you should take a supplement or about which supplement would be right for you, our pharmacists are available to advise you.

Stress and immune function

Science has come to recognize how closely the mind and body and linked, but there are still a lot of unknowns. Some researchers are investigating how stress affects the immune system. Most of the research is looking at constant, frequent stressors such as those caused by relationships with family, friends, and coworkers, or sustained career challenges rather than at a sudden, short-lived stressor. There are healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with stress. Consuming alcohol to help you relax is an example of an unhealthy way. Examples of healthy options include meditation, yoga, tai chi, practicing mindfulness, and seeking professional counselling.

Physical activity and immune function

Just as eating a healthy diet contributes to general good health and, therefore, a healthy immune system, so does getting regular physical activity. Following general guidelines for healthy living is the single best thing you can to do strengthen your immune system and safeguard yourself from disease-causing organisms.

Read other articles in our Fall-Winter 2021 volume of our Bettercare magazine here.

Dealing with Stress

Stress is all around us. From annoyances such as sitting in a traffic jam or missing a bus to serious stress-inducers like losing a job or the grave illness of a loved one, we face stressful situations throughout our lives.

When we experience stress, our bodies respond by making hormones that speed up our heart rate, make us breathe more rapidly, and release a burst of energy. This is called the stress response or the fight-or-flight response. It prepared our ancient ancestors to protect themselves when their lives were in danger—for example, from an attack by a wild animal they were trying to kill for food. Today we rarely find ourselves in those types of life-and-death situations on a daily basis, but our bodies still react to stress in the same way. A little stress can help us excel in a sporting event or finish an important project on schedule, but too much stress too often or for too long can have negative effects on our health, causing headaches, back pain, upset stomach, or difficulty sleeping. It can also weaken our immune system, making it harder for us to fight off disease.

Managing stress

The first step in controlling stress is to determine what is causing the stress in our lives and looking for ways to reduce it. We’ll never get rid of all of our stresses; some stress is a fact of life, so the next step is to learn healthy ways of managing the stress to reduce its harmful effects.
Some of the things that can help fight the effects of stress include:
• Eating a healthy diet
• Getting regular physical activity
• Doing something you enjoy, such as spending time on a hobby, watching a movie, or listening to calming music
• Keeping a journal and recording what makes you feel stressed and what relaxes you
• Expressing your feelings to someone you trust—a family member, friend, or professional counsellor
• Learning relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques

There is no single relaxation technique that is right for everyone. You may have to try several until you find what works best for you. Here are some common ones:
• Concentrate on your breathing. Take slow, deep breaths and turn your mind away from what is causing your stress. Feel the air entering and exiting your body in a controlled manner. This can be particularly helpful for some people, but it may not be appropriate for those with respiratory problems or heart failure.
• Try silently repeating a short phrase or prayer while focusing on your breathing. This may be particularly helpful for people who feel connected to a religion or spiritual path.
• After a few minutes of focusing on your deep breathing, direct your attention to one part of your body and mentally release any tension you feel there. Once you have released the tension from that spot, focus on another part of your body. Continue the exercise until you have released the tension from your whole body.
• Imagine a soothing scene, place, or experience that has personal meaning for you. Relax and enjoy the serenity this vision brings.
• Focus on the moment. Sit comfortably and turn your attention to that very moment in time. Don’t let your thoughts drift to the past or the present. Live in the now, even if only for a little while.
• Try yoga, tai chi, or another of the ancient arts that combine rhythmic breathing with a series of physical positions or flowing movements.
• To get the most benefit from relaxation techniques, combine them with other positive coping methods such as positive thinking, finding things to laugh about, getting enough sleep, and reaching out for support from family and friends.

Changing Destructive Thoughts

Everyone has bouts of low mood and excessive worrying. Thankfully, these are often temporary. For some, however, the feelings don’t go away on their own and more structured help is needed.

One very effective treatment is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT is a form of psychotherapy that helps treat problems by modifying our unhealthy thoughts, emotions and behaviors and has been shown to be as effective as medication in the treatment of anxiety and depression in some people.

Whether it’s a job interview, a date or just walking into a meeting, many of us carry our own negative inner voice amplifying small feelings of self-doubt into full on landslides.

Here are a couple of accessible CBT tips which you can employ the next time you are feeling stressed or anxious:

Focus on how these feelings will pass

It can be very calming to remember that feelings, and fears, are fluid and transitory. So when you feel yourself starting to feel overwhelmed by news or an event, try focusing on how you will feel once this initial sense of panic passes.

Write down those expected changes in a few words. For example, if you are a nervous wreck about an impending job interview or an exam, think about how calm and relieved and accomplished you will feel when you walk out the door afterwards! How you will have the rest of your day ahead of you and the anxiety will have dissipated.

Trick anxiety by “acting normal”

Anxiety is a survival response which kicks in when you sense a perceived threat. The key word here is “perceived”, because anxiety can be a little over-protective and tends to over-react! Let’s think of it like a protective lioness – determined to protect her cubs at any cost.

One way to train anxiety to be selective and not pounce into action at the slightest sound or movement is to calmly give it feedback to let it know that its help isn’t currently required and that “you got this”.

If you try and act calmly and without responding physically, anxiety will not be further roused and will follow your example and begin to fade. Talk to yourself softly and calmly, salivate, breathe deeply and try to smile (not always easy, we know!).

By behaving this way we alter the feedback to our fear response system. We are sending our anxiety a message that things aren’t as bad or as scary as they seem so they can “stand down” and this helps dial back the feeling of stress.

The Canadian Mental Health Association’s Bounce Back® program is founded on CBT principles provides and teaches effective skills to help individuals (aged 15+) overcome symptoms of mild to moderate depression or anxiety, and improve their mental health. Participants can learn skills to help combat unhelpful thinking, manage worry and anxiety, and become more active and assertive.

Available for free across BC, Bounce Back® has been shown to help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by half, and over 90% say they would recommend it to a friend or family member. Bounce Back® is also available in regions of Ontario and Manitoba.

 

For more information on Bounce Back®: https://cmha.bc.ca/programs-services/bounce-back/

 

 

How to Manage Stress at Work

Life can be stressful. We all know that, right? While money remains the biggest stressor for most Canadians, work comes in a close second. In fact, Statistics Canada figures state that 27% of Canadian workers claim to have high to extreme levels of stress on a daily basis and 46% admitted that they felt “a bit” of stress on a day-to-day basis.

Causes of this stress cover a range of issues including low salaries, excessive workloads, few opportunities for growth or advancement, conflicting demands or unclear performance expectations, and work that isn’t engaging or challenging.

The impact of stress on your health

Feeling stressed in today’s society is pretty much inevitable. Unfortunately work-related stress doesn’t just disappear when we leave the workplace at the end of the day and daily or prolonged stress can have a detrimental impact on our mental and physical health. Initially this can manifest as headaches, sleep disturbances, and difficulty concentrating, but if it becomes chronic it significantly increases our susceptibility to developing depression, heart disease, and/or substance use disorders.

However, the good news is that, believe it or not, you have some control over how stressed you get and how you cope with it. And that calls for a trifecta approach involving mind, body and soul!

The Trifecta Approach

Mind

  • Establish work-life boundaries. Disconnect from work in the evenings.  Don’t check your emails from home in the evenings or at weekends (unless you have to!).
  • Cultivate gratitude. Research has shown that reduces a multitude of toxic emotions such as stress, resentment, frustration and regret. Multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being confirms that gratitude effectively increases happiness and reduces depression.
  • Learn how to relax. Techniques such as meditation, deep breathing exercises and mindfulness can help melt away stress.
  • Take your lunch breaks. Wolfing down your lunch quickly at your desk will only add to your stress. Go outside, relax somewhere peaceful and enjoy your food. The break will help you clear your head and help you focus when you return to your work.

Body

  • Make healthy eating choices. You can’t fight stress with cake, wine or french fries. A few simple dietary changes may boost cognitive function and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  • Keep fighting fit. Pick an activity you enjoy and practice it regularly. This will improve your body’s ability to use oxygen and improve blood flow and help lower your overall stress levels and improve your quality of life, both mentally and physically. Exercise also increases your brain’s production of endorphins – the “feel-good” neurotransmitters that are responsible for “runner’s high” and help you get a better night’s sleep!
  • Get your required rest. Sleep and mood are directly related. During sleep your brain repairs your body physically and mentally, so good-quality sleep is vital for effective stress management. Stick to a sleep schedule and try to incorporate a relaxing bedtime ritual.

Soul

  • Reconnect with your whole self. With all the things competing for our attention it is easy to lose sight of what make you YOU. Each of us is more than the work we do. When our life is full of nothing but work and obligations, we begin to feel bitter, resentful, depressed, and even angry. Take time to reflect and remember what your core values are spend time nurturing your relationship with yourself.
  • Spend time with those you love. Positive relationships with close friends and family can buffer stress and facilitate physical health. Social connections like these not only give us pleasure, they also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking.
  • Make time for hobbies and favourite activities. Think about what gets you excited and makes you have and dedicate regular time to enjoying that pastime – from reading a book to pottery to trainspotting! This is valuable YOU time. Few things relieve stress and energize you like an activity you love doing.

 Move forward on managing stress

Now you should be all set to make some positive changes and manage that stress.

However, if your workplace issues are more serious and can’t be managed alone, for example, in the case of harassment or bullying, then it’s a good idea to talk to your supervisor at your earliest convenience.  Happy employees are productive employees so it is in your employer’s interests to provide you with support.

Your employer may also have stress management resources available through an employee assistance program (EAP), including online information, available counselling, and referral to mental health professionals.

For some great resources on mental health at work, check out Great West Life’s Workplace Strategies for Mental Health.

By Lorna Allen, CMHA BC

Dr Art Hister – Too Much Stress Can Kill You

Finally, a bit of proof.

Everyone out there probably believes – and it’s good old common sense to hold this view – that stress is a killer.

The problem is, however, that it’s very hard to show that link in studies. So, whereas many studies have shown that people who self-report having a lot of excess stress and people who seem to researchers to be under lots of stress have poorer health outcomes, including earlier deaths than people who don’t feel or don’t seem to be under as great a stress burden; those are not the best objective means to evaluate the role that stress plays in these deleterious health outcomes.

In other words, what you need is an objective standard measure of stress load, such as cortisol levels, for example.

And that’s the neat thing about a recent study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism (JCEM, thank God).

In this study, researchers measured urinary levels of cortisol, the stress-related hormone, in 861 people over the age of 65, and found that the death rate was directly related to the cortisol level, that is, the higher the cortisol level, the more likely it was that that person would die in the 6 years that the study went on.

And as you’d probably expect, too, elevated cortisol levels were related only to higher rates of death from cardiovascular disease, in other words, from heart attacks and strokes.

London Drugs betterCare – Stress Management

Stress. This one little word carries the weight of the world. And it’s responsible for many health complaints in doctors’ offices across Canada. But what exactly does this word mean? Stress is the “wear and tear” your body experiences as you adjust to the continually changing environment. It has physical and emotional effects and can cause a variety of feelings.

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