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Stop Blaming Your Cold: Turns Out, Your Immune System Doesn't Work Quite the Way You Think

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Courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net and Yaron Jeroen van Oostrom

Prepare to have your mind blown: A stronger immune system may not protect you from cold symptoms. In fact, it may make it worse.

I know.

It's like we're cruising down the highway of health and wellness and I just threw it into reverse.

Jennifer Ackerman, author of the new book Ah-Choo! The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, writes in an op-ed piece for the New York Times ("How Not to Fight Colds") that while we've believed all along that it's the cold virus itself that kicks up all kinds of mischief in the body (sniffles, sneezing, and so on), turns out it may not be the bug doing that, but our own immune response.

She writes:

"Here was a new insight in cold science: the symptoms are caused not by the virus but by its host — by the body’s inflammatory response. Chemical agents manufactured by our immune system inflame our cells and tissues, causing our nose to run and our throat to swell. The enemy is us."

Needless to say, this calls for a bit of perspective-shifting.

The Common Cold, Your Immune System, and the Karate Kid

I used to think of my immunity like a mini-Ralph Macchio, a scrappy little guy with his leg in the air, ready to karate-kick whatever busted into my bloodstream uninvited. So I did what I could to keep it strong--wax on, wax off, the whole bit.

But maybe I've had it wrong. Maybe working your immunity into a lather is akin to having it pump iron, pound beers, and then imply that that little cold bug over there said something about its mother.

Not that I'd in any way advocate doing things to wreck your immune system--of course, we love it and need it desperately to do its job. But let's just say it has me eyeing "immune-boosting" claims splashed across bottles a bit suspiciously.

I think I'd prefer my immune system to be more like Mr. Miyagi; wise, calm, slow to react, and yet when the bug gets a little too close, he can nail it with one swift snap of his chopsticks.

I, for one, done one thing when I feel a bad cold coming on: Give in. I sleep, I mope, I drink tea, I think nostalgic thoughts about being able to lie down and breathe at the same time. And I heartily recommend doing this yourself, because it allows you to do what you often need most when you catch a cold: Rest.

So rather than beating up our immune systems for letting us down, for playing us for a fool ("What was all that vitamin C for, huh? You tell me!"), we should really look at it as, well, a kid that got all worked up over nothing.

We may, after all, only have ourselves to blame.

Terri Trespicio is senior features editor at Whole Living magazine and the host of "Whole Living" on Martha Stewart Living Radio, which airs every day at 10a East / 7a West on Sirius 112 / XM 157. Follow her on twitter @TerriT.

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Comments (3)

  • The other side of the coin isn't much fun either. My immune system is suppressed to keep it from attacking everything, therefore - when a cold virus sneaks up on me (thanks to someone who didn't cover their mouth when they coughed) my immune system reacts much like a lazy teenage boy. It sort of lays back, eyes the cold a bit & let's out a "duuuuuuude what are YOU doing here" - then slowly strolls over to take a look. That whole time, I think "am I coming down with something???" Then I spend weeks dealing with a simple cold that now has the time to turn into a raging monster.

    Take care of your body & nurture your healthy immune system. Rest assured that your misery is a sure sign that things are working.

  • [...] The Common Cold, Your Immune System and the Karate Kid [...]

  • I've got my Mom's overreactive immune system. Get a simple cold and my nose starts running so hard and fast that I can't get the kleenex to the nose in time.
    But the colds are extremely short; my immune system is healthy and knocks the tar out of the cold very quickly.

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