6 Ways to Boost Your Immunity with Diabetes

Diabetes is often considered an autoimmune disease, especially type 1. In type 1, the body is unable to produce any insulin. In type 2, the body either does not produce enough insulin or does not use it correctly. Either kind of diabetes can lower the actions of the immune system. People with diabetes are more prone to acute sickness, chronic illness and infection due to the reduced action of white blood cells. Discover ways to boost your immunity with either type of diabetes and combat attacks from invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and fungi.

Portion Size and Carbohydrates Do Make a Difference

The foods we eat can boost our immune system and may help people with diabetes control their blood sugar levels. Eat lots of fresh or frozen vegetables, all varieties of fruit in proper portion size and drink plenty of fresh water for proper hydration. Choose foods high in anti-oxidants such as berries which supply flavonoids and anthocyanins. Add turmeric to your cooking which can reduce oxidative damage and inflammation. A piece of dark chocolate with over 70% cocoa will also give a boost to your immune system offering flavonoids. Conversely, the wrong foods can be unhealthy and cause our blood sugar levels to rise which ends up decreasing our immunity. Avoid foods with added sugar, processed foods and eating the typical Western diet which is high in refined carbohydrates. Portion control is crucial as weight gain can harm the immune system by increasing inflammation and make it more difficult to control blood sugar levels. Consider using portion plates to determine the proper amount of protein, carbohydrates and cooked vegetables/salads, to serve during each meal. Never skip meals and always test your blood sugars as suggested. A glucose meter can warn you when blood sugars elevate due to poor food choices or acute illness. Testing blood sugars routinely can also warn you about low numbers if you choose to skip meals. If snacks are recommended, and depending on your medication regimen, eat them only when scheduled. Consider taking Omega-3 supplements which can help lower systemic inflammation, decrease heart disease and may even decrease stress and anxiety levels.

It may also be helpful to count calories. Too many calories can lead to weight gain which causes the immune system to slack. Obesity leads to insulin resistance which automatically raises blood sugars. Instead of counting calories, use a small kitchen scale or cup measurements to help you visualize portion size. After a while you will understand what a true portion is. You can use your body parts or common objects such as a fist, thumb, tennis ball or deck of cards to recognize what a reasonable portion really looks like. Counting carbohydrates is critical to keeping blood sugars controlled and immune systems working properly. Schedule an appointment with a diabetes educator or dietitian who specializes in diabetes to learn about “counting carbohydrates”. Make wise choices by selecting leafy greens, rolled oats, and whole grains over packaged cakes, chips, bars, cookies, and cereals. Choose whole grains over white processed ones. Skip the white bread, white noodles and white rice.

Nutrients Can Make a Difference

Certain nutrients can help enhance your immune system. Vitamin C helps combat colds and is found in broccoli, citrus fruit and tomatoes. Vitamin E boosts the immune system and is found in whole grains and nuts. Nuts are high in calories so even though they are healthful, watch your portion. Food sources of omega-3 fatty acids, if you are not interested in taking supplements, are heart-healthy and can be found in flaxseed oil, mackerel, anchovies, tuna, and salmon. Antioxidants help eliminate toxins to improve your immune system. Bioflavonoids are found in vegetables and fruit. Foods that are rich in immune-boosting zinc include beans and lean turkey. Eat red, black, navy, cannellini, and garbanzo beans to boost your immunity. Add selenium to your diet with sunflower seeds, brown rice, and chicken. Try immune-boosting herbs and flavorings such as garlic, mushrooms, ginger, and onions. Cook them in a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil for the biggest benefits and best absorption.

Blueberry Yogurt filled with immunity boosting probiotics in a GlassProbiotics are healthy bacteria that can stimulate the immune system. Yogurt has probiotics which are live and have active cultures that are beneficial. Consider taking a probiotic capsule or tablet if you do not eat yogurt or foods containing probiotics. Hot tea has flavonoids, catechins, and polyphenols to destroy damaging free radicals and improve your body’s immune response. Drink a variety of white, black, oolong and green tea for different benefits. Herbal tea is delicious but may not have all the benefits for our immune system. Talk to your doctor about taking supplements to ensure you get enough vitamins and minerals if you do not eat properly. Consider taking a nutrition class to help support your immune system. Ask your health care provider about adding a liquid vitamin D supplement especially during the dark and colder months. Vitamin D deficiency is now known to increase risk of certain diseases.

Keep on Moving and Don’t Stop

A regular exercise program can help reduce your incidence of getting sick. Exercise does build immunity and reduce your chances of developing a cold or virus. Exercise may also help you maintain a healthier weight which is a key factor for people with diabetes. It can reduce stress or anxiety and produces endorphins which make you feel happier. Aerobic activity improves your cardiovascular health which reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. The goal is to keep moving every day and don’t stop your routine. Start with a small to moderate exercise regimen based on the advice of your doctor. Strenuous activity and overdoing it may have the opposite effect and make you more susceptible to illness especially when your resistance is low. Avoid exercise when you have a chest cold or bronchitis, since it may make your condition worse.

Your goal is to exercise a little longer and more frequently each week. It is a building process which is why it is important to exercise every day. If you miss a day, don’t get discouraged. Start again the next day and keep working on your routine. If you have a busy schedule, try exercising in 10 or 15-minute intervals, 3 times a day. For example, you can take a short, brisk walk after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try mixing up your routine to keep it fun. Use resistance bands or free weights to improve your strength and muscle tone and boost your immune system. Consider working with a personal fitness trainer if you have physical limitations or need motivation. Some insurance policies cover these costs and may even pay for you to join a gym that has existing fitness programs such as Silver Sneakers. Contact your insurance provider to learn more. The “Y” is also an excellent, low cost option for exercise venues.

Boost Your Immunity with Less Stress in Your Life

Some stress in your life is inevitable. The important thing is to develop good strategies to cope with the existing stress. Stress wears us down, blunting our immune system. Look for stress factors that can be easily eliminated such as a negative friend, multi-tasking, or trying to rush through too many things at one time. Anger or avoiding problems can increase your stress levels, leading to heightened blood sugar and blood pressure levels. Hormones associated with stress, such as adrenalin and cortisol can increase your risk of heart disease, insulin resistance, obesity, cancer, and other health issues. “Stress hormones” can make your immune system hyperactive and reduce white blood cells, making you susceptible to blood sugar irregularities and illness.

Since some stress is inevitable, it is essential to find ways to unwind. Dealing with stress becomes more difficult as we age. Exercising can help minimize stress and also help you manage your weight. Include classes such as yoga and Tai-Chi which are focused on positions that help lower your stress levels and boost your immunity. Deep breathing, mindfulness, living in the present, and meditation can all minimize stress and lower your blood pressure. These are often added to yoga classes. Socialization with positive people can help you to de-stress. Call a friend or volunteer for a cause you support. Pray. It can help to have a pet to care for. Engage in hobbies you enjoy, such as reading, hiking, swimming, knitting, sewing, music or arts and crafts. Meet with a therapist if you cannot figure out ways to lower your stress response. You may require talk therapy or medications. Anything you can do to lower stress will boost your immune system.

Get to Sleep Each Night

Your body needs sleep every night to stimulate your immune system. The average adult should get 7 to 8 hours of daily sleep. A lack of sleep, insomnia and sleep deprivation can have a negative effect on how your immune system functions. Research has shown a connection between insomnia and the development of type 2 diabetes. A recent study showed that a lack of sleep can elevate the fatty acids and cortisol levels in your blood. This means getting enough sleep could reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes. Esra Tasali, MD., a senior author of the study and assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, said, “At the population level, multiple studies have reported connections between restricted sleep, weight gain, and type 2 diabetes”.

Deep sleep can energize your immune system, which is why it is important to sleep for several hours each night. Try to avoid stimulants, caffeine, decongestants, tobacco, and alcohol before bed. While drinking alcohol might make some people fall into a light sleep, it interferes with the restorative REM stages of sleep. Regular exercise can also make you feel tired and improve your sleep. Make sure you do not exercise within 3 hours of sleep time since it may backfire and make you more hyped up. Do not expose yourself to blue light from computers, tablets, or smartphones for at least 2 hours prior to bed. Even better, keep this technology, out of the bedroom. Consider a cup of warm herbal tea or low-fat milk to help you get to sleep. Add a small bedtime snack with a protein and carbohydrate, like 2 crackers and a slice of low fat cheese. Ask your health care team about melatonin, a hormone that is produced in your body that helps regulate your sleep and wake cycles. They may recommend other supplements but be aware of reactions between the supplement and your prescription medications. Keep the room dark and cool and make sure bedding is comfortable. Check simple things including your pillow and mattress firmness as these things may be preventing you from getting a good night’s sleep. If your sleeplessness persists, your doctor may recommend going to a sleep clinic to determine the cause. People with diabetes are more likely to develop certain conditions that interrupt their sleeping patterns, including sleep apnea.

Quit Bad Habits and amp up your cleaning routine

Bad habits such as smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can have a negative impact on your immune system. Smoking can lead to an array of health problems including heart disease, stroke, and respiratory conditions. People with diabetes already have an increased risk of developing these problems and smoking can further increase these risks. E-cigarettes have been studied and found to make it difficult to get off tobacco completely as opposed to not using them. Women with diabetes should limit themselves to one drink per day, and two for men. Alcohol abuse is linked to an increased risk of communicable disease, bacterial pneumonia, and more as it can suppress the response of your immune system.

Quit smoking and limit your intake of alcohol to give your immune system a boost. Talk to your health care team about ways to quit, such as going “cold turkey”, smoking cessation programs, hypnosis, counseling, or joining a support group for people who are trying to quit smoking and/or drinking alcohol. Consult with your doctor about getting a flu shot to help protect your body against the flu while you are working to quit bad habits. Ask about pneumonia and shingle shots as well. Check your feet daily for sores, bruises, cuts, and other irregularities that could make you more susceptible to infection. Clean your cell phone and TV remote daily, change towels after 3-4 uses, dust ceiling fans, vacuum carpets and wash bed linens at least weekly, clean kitchen sponges in the dishwasher at least weekly, change razor blades after 1-2 weeks, change air filters in your AC or heating unit monthly, change toothbrush heads every 3 months or after your dental visit or being sick. These tips may help keep you well.

As you get older, your immune system naturally weakens. Take steps now to boost your immune system by following your diabetes management plan, eating a balanced diet, sleeping each night, exercising daily, reducing stress, and quitting bad habits. These healthy choices can help you maintain better blood sugar control, combat illnesses, and lead a longer and healthier life.

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NOTE: Consult your Doctor first to make sure my recommendations fit your special health needs.

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About the Author:

Roberta Kleinman, RN, M. Ed., CDE, is a registered nurse and certified diabetes educator. She grew up in Long Island, NY. Her nursing training was done at the University of Vermont where she received a B.S. R.N. Robbie obtained her Master of Education degree, with a specialty in exercise physiology, from Georgia State University in Atlanta, Georgia. She is a member of the American Diabetes Association as well as the South Florida Association of Diabetes Educators. She worked with the education department of NBMC to help educate the hospital's in-patient nurses about diabetes. She practices a healthy lifestyle and has worked as a personal fitness trainer in the past. She was one of the initiators of the North Broward Diabetes Center (NBMC) which started in 1990 and was one of the first American Diabetes Association (ADA) certified programs in Broward County, Florida for nearly two decades. Robbie has educated patients to care for themselves and has counseled them on healthy eating, heart disease, high lipids, use of glucometers, insulin and many other aspects of diabetes care. The NBMC Diabetes Center received the Valor Award from the American Diabetes Center for excellent care to their patients. Robbie has volunteered over the years as leader of many diabetes support groups.

3 Comments

  1. Melissa April 29, 2018 at 5:07 pm - Reply

    I’d just like to ask the best ways a type 1 diabetic can become insulin resistant?

  2. Roberta Kleinman May 3, 2018 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Hi Melissa,

    I’m a bit confused by your question since no one want to become insulin resistant. Insulin resistance comes from lack of quality sleep, no physical exercise, being obese or overweight or being stressed. Insulin resistance applies more to people with type 2 diabetes who have insulin that is not being used properly. Type 1 diabetes is complete lack of insulin, therefore you need to take daily insulin. I hope this helps.

    Best of luck,
    Nurse Robbie

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