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Your immune system keeps you healthy by protecting you from disease—or, if you do get sick, helping you fight off illness. That’s one major reason building a strong immune system is so important. Cleveland Clinic physician Neha Vyas, MD, shares tips on how you can stay healthy—and the best steps to take for a speedy recovery if you do get sick.

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Immune System Support: Tips from Dr. Neha Vyas

Podcast Transcript

Introduction:
There's so much health advice out there, lots of different voices and opinions, but who can you trust? Trust the experts, the world's brightest medical minds, our very own Cleveland Clinic experts. We ask them tough intimate health questions so you get the answers you need. This is the Health Essentials Podcast, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. This podcast is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician.

Annie Zaleski:
Hello, and thank you for joining us for this episode of the Health Essentials Podcast. I'm your host, Annie Zaleski. And today we're talking to Cleveland Clinic physician Dr. Neha Vyas about immune system support. Your immune system keeps you healthy by protecting you from disease, or if you do get sick, helping you fight off illness. That's one major reason building a strong immune system is so important. Dr. Vyas is here to explain ways you can prevent illness by being as healthy as you can and what helps you recover if you do get sick. Dr. Vyas, thanks for being here. Let's first start with a brief overview. What is the immune system?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Well, Annie, the immune system is actually a group of cells, tissues, and organs in your body that work together to fight infections.

Annie Zaleski:
How does it kind of keep us healthy then? Talk about, and why is the immune system sort of our defense against these things?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
That's a great question. There's many different ways that the immune system keeps us healthy. First and foremost, it actually fights the germs. And by germs, I mean bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. It also recognizes and neutralizes some of the harmful environmental substances that we encounter so that we keep from getting sick. And it also can fight diseases that are internal within us, such as cancers. And it does that in a twofold mechanism by one thing called innate immunity, which is the immunity that we have as we're born and as we develop, and also by another entity called adaptive immunity, which is the immunity that we create when we are exposed to a potential foreign entity.

Annie Zaleski:
Wow. That's amazing. So obviously this is something that's just so important throughout our entire life to kind of keep healthy. Let's talk about some of the ways you can support your immune health then. First off, getting vaccinated annually against the flu and also getting a COVID-19 vaccine are crucial to keep illness away. So why are both of these things so important?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Well, as we said before, the vaccines actually help generate that adaptive immunity towards that particular virus, either the influenza virus or the COVID virus. So it's a really important step in making sure that if and when we do get exposed to those particular viruses, that we have what it takes to fight them.

Annie Zaleski:
Getting enough sleep is also key. Why is sleep so important to maintaining our immune health?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Well, think of ourselves as the battery or an iPhone that needs to be recharged. Sleeping allows us to recharge our immune system. Without the sleep that we need, we are running on empty, so to speak. And imagine if we haven't been getting enough sleep, we go several hours or several days without sleep, then when it comes time to fight these particular viruses, bacteria organisms, we don't have the strength and we don't have the immunity necessary to do so.

Annie Zaleski:
So how much sleep should adults aim to get per night to recharge our batteries?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Well, that's variable between different people and certainly different stages of our lives. Most healthy adults can get around and six or seven hours of sleep, but some people need more. And certainly as we age, we may need more sleep because the sleep that we do get is fragmented and also our younger populations definitely need more sleep. And along with that, some people may actually need a small nap throughout the day to get going as well.

Annie Zaleski:
Excellent. So if you take a nap app at lunchtime, you are totally justified.

Dr. Neha Vyas:
You didn't hear it from me though.

Annie Zaleski:
Hand hygiene is also very important for immune health. And so why is this in particular so key to good health and what are some best practices people should follow?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
That's a great question. One of the things that we didn't mention earlier is that the skin is actually a great barrier in our immune system. It acts as a very nice barrier. And our hands, as you know, are one of the dirtiest parts of our bodies. We touch everything. The average human hand can carry between 3,000 organisms, and in some healthcare workers can the up to a million organisms. So hand hygiene, as you can imagine, is really important in reducing the spread of these particular germs and keeping our skin barrier intact.

Annie Zaleski:
I know that I think it's 20 seconds, is that correct? For hand washing. Then what are some other things that you need to follow, some best practices maybe?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
That's a great question. Hand washing certainly important, which is getting a good soap and lathering up if you can, for those people who have a soap that's capable of lathering up and making sure that you rinse well as well. And the old adage singing happy birthdays, it's about the length of that song, which is helpful as well.

Annie Zaleski:
Talk a little bit about the role of eye protection in keeping you healthy.

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Certainly, that's another way that germs can potentially enter our body. Not only through our skin, through our mucus membranes, such as our nose and mouth, but also through the eye. So wearing adequate eye protection, if you're in an environment such as for healthcare workers during COVID. Wearing appropriate eye protection can help stop the spread of potential viruses.

Annie Zaleski:
Eating a healthy diet is also very, very key to staying healthy. So what does kind of an immunity-boosting diet look like?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Well, the best diet is a varied diet. So plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. And if you're able to eat certain other foods, such as carbohydrates and proteins in moderation are also very good. Now, certain people such as those who are pregnant and those who have underlying medical conditions may benefit from targeted doses of certain vitamins or minerals, or even a multivitamin. But you should talk to about that if you think that's the case for you.

Annie Zaleski:
Some people want to decide to take a multivitamin, why is it important that they talk to their doctor before taking that step?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
That's a really good question, Annie. Sometimes we don't know what exactly is in any multivitamin that patients decide to take either through Amazon or if they purchase. And it's really important for a doctor or your healthcare provider to know exactly what you're taking, because you may be taking too much or too little of something. And the only way to know that is to know exactly what's in the list of ingredients that you put in your mouth.

Annie Zaleski:
I want to talk about a few of the other things you can do for immune health that people might not necessarily be aware of. And it's the role of clean air in good health. So what is sort of the relation between that?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
That's a great question. Well, certainly good air is very important. You don't want to overly expose your immune system to toxins in the air. So refraining from smoking is really good or avoiding prolonged exposure to secondhand smoke as well. If you are in a profession or an environment where you do have quite a bit of exposure to exhaust fumes or dust particles, it may be helpful to purchase a purifier for your air.

Annie Zaleski:
What about humidifiers? I know that sometimes people recommend that as well. Can that help with air purity? And is that something that people should potentially use for immune health?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Certainly. In certain situations with and when the air is dry or if you're prone to nosebleeds, it actually may be really helpful to purchase a humidifier for your home or for your work environment.

Annie Zaleski:
What are some other things that we maybe haven't talked about that can help us stay healthy and prevent illness?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Exercise is very important in maintaining good health. And there's studies that show that people who exercise, even people who just walk, maintain better immune systems than those who don't. And let's not forget the importance of maintaining healthy social networks. We know no man is an island. And that's also true when it comes to maintaining good immune responses. We need each other, and especially during COVID. Even with Zoom calls or social distancing, it's important to connect with others and that will help boost your immune response as well. And then of course, relaxation, meditation, yoga, those things that help calm ourselves down are very helpful for maintaining an active and healthy immune system as well.

Annie Zaleski:
There are so many ways and it's so nice that we have some control over our immune system, too, that we can do things to help ourselves.

Dr. Neha Vyas:
That we do.

Annie Zaleski:
Despite our best intentions and despite everything we can do, we're going to get sick. It's almost inevitable then. So if you do happen to get sick, what's your first move? What is the best thing you should do?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
I always like to make sure I remove myself from that particular situation. And we used to fight through it and continue to go to work and continue to slog through, but sometimes it helps to take a pause and to really examine what our symptoms are. And that's been so true during the pandemic. And if you feel that you're sick, best to get tested, best to get evaluated, best to regroup and try to avoid crowds and removing yourself from others. And just making sure that you know what's going on with your body. Washing your hands is also very important. And course, remember to rest and get the sleep that you need.

Annie Zaleski:
Different people say... we mentioned exercise just a minute ago, that if they get sick, they power through and keep exercising. Is that something that's recommended or should people take a break from their daily routine if they do get sick?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
That's a really good question, and it really depends on the symptoms and the person. Generally people who have healthy, active immune systems and don't have a fever, can typically power through their exercise, but it's important to know when you need to stop and when your body is telling you to stop. And if you have a fever or if you're not getting better or if feel very run down, best to stop your activity and either go get checked out or to get some rest.

Annie Zaleski:
Listening to your body and what it's telling you is so important, in other words.

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Yes, it is.

Annie Zaleski:
What kind of staple things should people have in their medicine cabinet at home so if they do get sick they're prepared?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
The staples, I think an absolute must are a good thermometer, one that's not mercury, fever-reducing medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen are also really helpful. And then symptom-based relief. If you tend to get colds or respiratory infections, then I would suggest a cough syrup or perhaps even an antihistamine or decongestant, depending on what your underlying medical problems are. Or if you tend to more of a GI or gastrointestinal concerns or ailments, then either have some antidiarrhea medications or a laxative may be helpful for you depending on your symptoms. And of course, if you have any questions, make sure to talk to your doctor about what could be best for you.

Annie Zaleski:
Excellent. So if you do end up with something respiratory, beyond what's already been mentioned, what are some other things that should be in your toolkit to help your symptoms?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Certainly a cough syrup and an expectorant is very helpful. I tend to like a cough syrup during the nighttime, when I need a good night of sleep, something that will suppress your cough. And then during the daytime, taking an expectorant, which will help you bring up some of the junk in your lungs. Fever-reducing medications are also helpful for body aches and of course, a fever. And then of course, a saline nasal spray or neti pot can be very helpful to keep those mucus membranes moist.

Annie Zaleski:
We've talked a little bit about recovery tips already; resting and potentially seeing your doctor. Are there some other recovery tips if you do get sick that people should follow?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Remember chicken soup or any warm beverage is really helpful. I try to tell my patients to stay away from caffeine and alcoholic beverages when they're ill, but certainly chicken soup or whatever soup you like. Broth-based soup is very helpful in helping promote and improve your immune response when you're sick. Resting, as you mentioned, is also very helpful. And of course, using anti-inflammatories or anti-fever reducers as needed.

Annie Zaleski:
We have such busy day-to-day lives and I think being able to rest I think is something many people find difficult. So if you don't stop to rest when you get sick, will that slow down your ability to get better?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
It can depending on how healthy you are to begin with. So rest is a good chance. If you're feeling unwell and you're running on empty, maybe a good time take a reset and pause and just to kind of take a deep breath or two and just see how you're feeling. So, yes, remember what we said earlier, rest is a way to recharge your batteries.

Annie Zaleski:
You're feeling sick and you've been doing what you can at home. When do you know it time to see the doctor?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Great question. It really depends on how your symptoms are. If you feel like you're getting a little better every day, it may be okay to wait it out, especially if you don't have any underlying medical issues. But if you do, or if you aren't getting better after a week of respiratory symptoms, or if you're getting worse, then that would be a good time to call your doctor.

Annie Zaleski:
Especially with the in incoming flu season and then with COVID-19 in the last couple years, why has it become so important for a doctor to diagnose what's going on?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Because sometimes it's really hard to tell whether you have a cold or whether you have influenza or whether you have COVID. And that's when a doctor's professional opinion can be very helpful.

Annie Zaleski:
What are some of the biggest myths about immune system health or maybe misconceptions that people tend to have?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Well, the big thing is you have to keep everything super clean and certainly in the time of COVID, that has come to light. And there is some evidence to show that the indoor microbiome or the germs that we have inside in our environments may actually be beneficial, and that may include pets as well. People tend to think pets are dirty, but there are some studies that show that exposure to pets, especially at an early age, may actually help promote a healthy immune response.

Annie Zaleski:
Wow. That's very surprising. That's very cool. So when your kids beg to get a pet, you should say yes.

Dr. Neha Vyas:
It may not be a bad idea. And it's okay if you don't get to dust every week.

Annie Zaleski:
Are there any final thoughts or information we haven't covered that you feel is important to share with our listeners?

Dr. Neha Vyas:
One thing I wanted to mention is early on when we were talking about the role of the immune system and keeping healthy, I wanted to say that there are two major ways of germs hitting us. And then one is through the skin. The skin is actually a very big barrier and is integral in the immune system response. So we want to protect our skin, making sure that we don't have any cuts or open wounds that may become infected. And then of course our mucus membranes are another way that organism symptoms can enter either through the mouth or the nose. That's that moist tissue that is in your mouth and nose. And that's why masking is still very important to stop the spread, not just COVID, but other germs as well.

Annie Zaleski:
Dr. Vyas, thank you. You've been great to talk to today. And thank you for being here and sharing your insights with us.

Dr. Neha Vyas:
Thank you so much for having me here, Annie.

Annie Zaleski:
Remember, if you're feeling sick, don't try and tough out your illness without help. It's important that you address your symptoms with proper treatment under the care of your doctor. With that being said, if you'd like to make an appointment with a primary care physician at Cleveland Clinic, visit www.clevelandclinic.org/primarycare.

Outro:
Thank you for listening to Health Essentials, brought to you by Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland Clinic Children's. To make sure you never miss an episode, subscribe wherever you get your podcasts or visit clevelandclinic.org/hepodcast. You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for the latest health tips, news and information.

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