New thinking on the best ways to avoid chronic illness

Scientists still haven’t figured out exactly what causes aging. Is it due to oxidation (a natural process that damages the body’s cells)? Genetics? Wear and tear from daily living and environmental assaults? Or perhaps the gradual weakening of the immune system?

New thinking: Aging is caused by an overactive immune system.

Sound far-fetched? This belief stems, in part, from exciting new research on biological factors that influence disease and the aging process. Consider these facts…


A healthy adult’s immune system is comprised of 30 billion to 50 billion white blood cells that are equipped with powerful molecular weapons to destroy disease-causing bacteria, viruses and fungi. But if that army of white blood cells becomes overactive due to exposure to an excess of those germs, it can cause “collateral” damage that produces aging.

According to this theory, overactive white blood cells chew up neurons in the brain (Alzheimer’s disease)… eat through the lining of arteries (heart disease)… and attack cartilage in the joints (arthritis).

An overactive immune system also produces an overabundance of antibodies (proteins in the body that help fight infection). Instead of fighting microbial enemies, these antibodies attack one or more of the body’s organs.


Until the last decade, there were few medical tests available to check the overall health of a person’s immune system.

Now: Adults can receive a blood test for C-reactive protein (CRP). This protein, which is most commonly associated with heart disease, becomes elevated when a person’s immune system is overactive. Scientific studies published in major medical journals show that CRP is among the best predictors of health ever identified — in part because the immune overactivity precedes disease.

High levels of CRP can predict the development of high blood pressure, stroke, sudden cardiac death, a ruptured blood vessel, atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeat, which can trigger a heart attack), macular degeneration (a leading cause of blindness), type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and colon, prostate and other cancers.

Most doctors are aware of the CRP test but don’t order it — probably because the test does not identify any particular disease.

My advice: Ask your doctor for a high-sensitivity CRP (hs-CRP) blood test at your next annual physical exam, and yearly thereafter. If your hs-CRP levels areelevated (above 0.7 milligrams per liter of blood), your doctor may prescribe medication, such as a daily aspirin or statin drug, that has been shown to lower CRP levels.


Dozens of studies have shown that the following steps can help prevent the immune system from becoming overactive…

1. Breathe deeply. Diseases that interfere with normal breathing, such as asthma, bronchitis and sleep apnea (temporary cessation of breathing during sleep), cause an increase in immune activity.

But breathing also is impeded even in people without respiratory disease. It’s common to breathe shallowly whenever you’re preoccupied — while driving the car, for example, or balancing your checkbook.

Simple step: Become aware of and deepen your breathing. What to do: Fold your arms across your belly while you’re sitting. With each breath in, your arms should rise. That means your abdomen is expanding and you’re performing “abdominal breathing” — relaxed, deep breathing that calms your immune system. If your arms don’t move up, or they move inward, you need to focus on relaxing and expanding your belly with each breath.

Practice this breathing technique for 15 minutes, once a day. Eventually, you will become more mindful of your breathing during everyday activities.

2. Eat small meals. Eating is stressful for the immune system because it has to filter every substance swallowed to check for potentially harmful bacteria, viruses and other germs, then gear up to defend against them. The bigger the meal, the greater the stress.

Simple step: Instead of eating three large meals, eat small meals every few hours — breakfast, a mid-morning snack, lunch, a midday snack and dinner. Have a half cup of soup, not a whole cup. Eat half a sandwich. Snack on a handful of nuts. For small meals, high-fiber foods (such as whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds) work best — they’re quickly filling and digest slowly, which delays hunger.

3. Get high-quality sleep. Studies of people who have voluntarily stayed awake for up to 80 hours have shown that sleep deprivation can increase CRP levels fivefold. But sleep quality — deep, restful sleep — is as important as the amount of time you spend in bed.

How do you know that you’re getting quality sleep? Ask yourself these questions…

Do I often fall asleep when I’m reading or watching TV?

Do I have to catch up on sleep during weekends?

Do I wake up most mornings feeling tired?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you may not be getting enough quality sleep.

Simple step:Try a “sleep mantra” — an image, thought or feeling on which to focus — to help clear your mind of disturbing thoughts so that you can peacefully drift off into deep, restful sleep.

Examples: Repeat a phrase, such as “I am so happy to be in bed”… focus on a happy memory from the past… or think about someone you love. Even if you suffer from serious insomnia, this technique can be part of your treatment plan.

4. Try dancing (or other “rhythmic” activities). People who exercise rhythmically — such as by dancing, swimming, rowing or walking to music — have lower levels of immune activation than people who do not exercise this way, such as golfers or tennis players. No one knows why, but perhaps rhythmic exercise synchronizes with the natural rhythms of the body, such as the heartbeat and breathing.

Simple step: For beginners (people who have not been active), try walking at a steady pace while listening to music… swimming… ballroom dancing… or basic aerobics. Intermediates may want to try biking…rowing… jumping rope… or tap, hip-hop or square dancing. For those who are advanced, good choices include rhythmic martial arts (such as karate, tae kwon do, jujitsu and tai chi)… hiking… or strenuous dance forms, such as jitterbug, African dance or polka.

5. Forge strong emotional connections. When you experience deep emotional bonds, such as love for your spouse, children, friends or pets, you are less likely to feel the negative emotions of anxiety, hostility or depression — all of which researchers have linked to an overactive immune system.

Simple step: Keep a daily diary of incidents that reflect your emotional connections.

Examples: Write about an enjoyable phone conversation with a friend… special time spent with your children… or playing Frisbee with your dog in the park. Whenever you feel anxious, angry or sad, open the journal, read it — and remind yourself about the love in your life.

6. Create a soothing environment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the immune system doesn’t like a noisy, chaotic or stressful environment. It prefers an “outside world” that’s nurturing and calm.

Simple step: Play music that relaxes you. Display artwork that you enjoy looking at. Bring wonderful smells, such as fresh flowers or mulled apple cider, into your home.

7. Get your nutrients. Nutritional supplements can help calm an overactive immune system. See a nutritionist for advice on the supplements that are right for you.

Simple step: Take your multivitamin about an hour before your biggest meal of the day. This helps reduce the immune activity that is triggered after you eat.