My immune system is a little faulty because I have endometriosis, an inflammatory condition where tissue similar to what lines the uterus grows elsewhere, often on pelvic organs. Because of that, I’m almost always guaranteed a sick day if I crowd on a plane or get a hug from a coughing kid or a sneezing co-worker (especially when you factor in the added stress of PMS).
“There are a tremendous amount of studies that show that women with endometriosis have an altered immune system,” says Kaylon Bruner-Tran, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. The immune system of a woman with endometriosis is “not as effective and it can be hyper-responsive but in the wrong way.” Put plainly, if four people walk in a room with someone who has a cold, the woman with endometriosis is probably going to be the one who walks out sick, she says.
Part of the problem is that endometriosis creates an inflammatory environment, says Bruner-Tran. Acute inflammation is important for healing wounds and fighting infections, but constant inflammation is taxing on the body and can lead to chronic disease and a dysfunctional immune system. For women with endometriosis, that also includes increased reports of allergies, chronic fatigue syndrome, and bowel disorders.
Another problem is that around 70 percent of women with endometriosis show some reduction in their response to progesterone, says Bruner-Tran. This hormone rises after ovulation and readies the uterus for a fertilized egg. Even healthy women experience a suppressed immune system as progesterone starts to increase — which occurs during pregnancy as well as before menstruation — but progesterone “resistance” means those women don’t get the anti-inflammatory benefits of progesterone.
While women with endometriosis might be more prone to illness, we don’t have to walk around in a bubble. Here are some ways to give your body a boost.
Research shows that stress weakens the immune system. Keeping calm is easier said than done, but exercise, mindfulness, and even taking a few calming breaths can help. If you can take a walk in nature, even better.
Moderate exercise can lessen anxiety and depression levels, and can help regulate your immune system. But don’t overdo it — intense exercise can do the opposite.
Without enough sleep, the brain and body both suffer. Getting less than seven hours of sleep is associated with a variety of adverse health effects including heart disease and depression. But the body also suppresses the immune system when it is sleep-deprived.
Wash your hands
Research shows keeping your hands clean is an effective way to prevent the spread of upper respiratory infections like cold and flu. When I travel, especially by plane, I bring hand sanitizer and a pack of anti-bacterial wipes to clean my tray and armrests. Packing a cleaning kit might seem overly cautious, but then again, I didn’t get the flu this year.
And finally, don’t eat garbage
To reduce inflammation and give your immune system a fighting chance, opt for foods high in Omega-3 fatty acids, like fish, walnuts, or flax seeds. Avoid processed foods like refined carbohydrates and red meat. And like your mom always told you, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.