Q&A: How to Avoid Getting Sick

Dr. Michael Klaper answers questions on a wide variety of health and nutrition-related subjects. To submit a question or topic for possible inclusion here, send e-mail to: answers@DoctorKlaper.com

Dear Dr. Klaper:

I have been a lacto-vegetarian for ten years and find myself getting several episodes of bronchitis every winter. I am a drummer in a rock music band and hate to miss work. Why do I keep getting ill? Is there something I’m not seeing?

– J.R.G.

Dear J.R.G.:

Whenever I hear, “Doctor, why did I get sick?” I am reminded of the last words of famed microbiologist, Louis Pasteur. In the late 1800′s, Dr. Pasteur’s scientific insights into microbiology pioneered great strides in public health and food safety including pasteurization. Pasteur felt that bacteria and other microbes were the all-powerful factors in causing disease -and for good reason. The terrible tissue destruction caused by the Staphylococcus and Pneumococcus bacteria, which Pasteur observed and described, is rightly feared by physicians and patients everywhere.

We now know that even smaller particles, such as viruses, can be agents of scourges (e.g., smallpox and encephalitis), as well as influenza and the common cold. Pasteur believed that conquering these invading organisms is the key to maintaining health.

However, Pasteur’s academic rival, physiologist Dr. Claude Bernard, felt that whether infection actually would occur was determined not by the presence of microbes, but by the health of the body’s tissues. The classic duel between them was Pasteur claiming the supremacy of invisible bacterial assailants, while Bernard championed the resistance of the body tissues in saying “the terrain is all.”

Much of modern medicine’s campaign against disease has focused on developing antibiotics to thwart bacteria-caused infections. However, the truth of Dr. Bernard’s assertion of the primacy of the body’s natural resistance to infection has become clearly evident.

As my professor of internal medicine told me, “People don’t ‘get’ diseases – they ‘earn’ them.”

Getting sick is easy. The recipe for depressing your body’s resistance to disease and thus inviting illness to set up housekeeping in your system is well known:

  1. Short-change yourself on sleep (averaging 4 or 5 hours per night, for several nights in a row, usually does it for me)
  2. Diminish your intake of fresh fruits and vegetables
  3. Increase the intake of sugary or fatty junk foods
  4. Spend too much time breathing in smoke-filled meeting rooms, exhaust-choked traffic jams, or other chemical ambushes
  5. Add a layer of life stresses (assignment deadlines, financial worries, relationship difficulties, traffic tie-ups, etc.) and – voila!

Your throat gets scratchy, your nose begins to run, every muscle in your body begins to ache, and the readings on the fever thermometer begin to creep up. The next thing you know, you feel terrible, and you know you’re in for at least a few days of bodily miseries.

(How to banish bronchitis once it has begun is the subject of another article. If the feeling of being too ill to work or function normally in your daily life lasts more than 48 hours and/or does not respond to fluids, rest, and pain relievers, you should contact your physician.)

The old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is certainly true, and since this article is about not getting sick in the first place, here are some tips:

  1. Get enough sleep! Babies grow while they sleep and adults heal and restore their immunity while they “get their Z’s.” Consistently short-changing yourself of needed sleep is a great way to lower your immunity and open the door for infections – and worse… Often, you can help abort an infection in the early stages by going to bed early, taking an afternoon nap (snooze at lunch instead of eating or put your head down on the desk for ten minutes during a “coffee break,” etc.), or otherwise increasing your sleep. Sleep around the clock if you need to…
  2. Drink enough pure water! When we don’t keep up with our water needs – while losing hydration with every breath, through our perspiration, each time we urinate or defecate, etc. – the normal mucus secretions of the lungs, throat, intestinal tract, etc. become thickened. Antibodies in these viscous secretions do not protect us as well, and thus we lay out the “microbial welcome mat.” To stay more hydrated and healthy, drink a glass of water, fresh vegetable juice, or something else healthful every few hours.
  3. Keep your diet clean! Plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables (preferably organically grown) have antioxidants, bioflavonoids, and other phytochemicals that strengthen our immunity. Vegetarians are often at an advantage here because of their generally higher intake of high-quality produce. Refined sugars, hydrogenated oils, and other chemicals in processed food weaken our immunity and here, “junk food vegetarians” lose their healthy diet advantage. In addition, specific foods in a vegetarian diet, especially dairy products and wheat, have been associated with increased allergic reactions and mucus flow – possibly factors that facilitate infection. A trial without these foods for a few weeks or months during your “sickness season” – and especially at the first sign of illness – may be quite beneficial.
  4. If necessary, assure vitamin and trace mineral adequacy by taking a high-potency multivitamin/mineral tablet each day. Vegetarians take note: a healthy immune system requires sufficient zinc, vitamin B12, and omega-3 fats, nutrients that can be scarce on a completely plant-based diet. Be sure your diet supplies enough of these (zinc in whole grains, fortified cereals, etc.; omega-3 fats in walnuts, freshly ground flaxseeds, etc.; B12 in fortified soy milk, rice milk, and other B12-enriched foods.) If you are not consuming enough of these nutrients in your diet, consider taking them in the appropriate supplement form.
  5. Walk every day! – “Rev up the engine” through gentle exercise. (Even walking back and forth in your living room, taking some deep breaths, helps.) Gentle exercise increases the heart rate which forces more blood through the liver and kidneys, resulting in more rapid removal from the blood of bacterially-derived proteins and other waste products of infection that keep you feeling ill.
  6. Consider herbal immune support. Preparations made from plants such as echinacea are reported to strengthen the immune system in general, and herbs like lemon balm are reported to have anti-viral properties. Consuming tea or juice from the elderberry plant has been shown to shorten the duration of influenza attacks. Consider using these herbal preparations, alone or in combination, at the earliest signs of infection. Of course, the old standby of Vitamin C, 250-1000 mg., 2 to 4 times per day, is still probably a good idea.
  7. Finally, don’t worry – be happy! It is well known that when we are under stress (it could be anger, worry, jealousy, depression, etc.) our entire body reflects the dysfunction. Stress makes us more prone to infections, cancers, autoimmune diseases, and other health problems. Fix what you can fix and release the rest with blessings and a smile.

If you are a drummer in a rock band, like the writer of our question, late nights, sleep deprivation, fast foods, smoke-filled rooms, and other immune-depressing factors common to your lifestyle are probably part of the assault on your immune system. You need to compensate for them with afternoon naps, a produce-rich diet (with increased fresh fruits and vegetables on the nights you play), frequent walks outside (between musical sets) for fresh air, and probably taking extra antioxidant vitamins (e.g., vitamin C). (For all you non-rock-drummer-readers, if your lifestyle inflicts upon you any of the similar stresses that our drummer-writer describes, the same strategies described for him could benefit you.)

Louis Pasteur finally realized the truth in Dr. Bernard’s assertion. Pasteur’s last words are reported to have been, “The terrain is all…” His lesson to us is that if we keep our mind, spirit, and body’s tissues healthy, the bacteria will be far less likely to gain a toehold (or tentacle-hold, or flagellum-hold, or whatever microbes hold on with). Take care of your precious terrain. Salud!

Thank you for visiting my website and for considering my professional services when you need reliable medical information in understandable terms. Contact me for a private consultation.

To your good health and happiness,

Dr. Michael Klaper