How can I bolster my terrible immune system?
May 28, 2012 8:09 PM   Subscribe

How can I bolster my terrible immune system?

I catch every single bug or germ that comes around...usually 10x worse than most people my age. I am just getting over a debilitating case of "hand foot & mouth disease," that had me unable to walk or touch anything up for a few days.

Background info: I am 40. I had a baby last year. She is 13 months old. I am still breastfeeding. I work full time. The baby goes to daycare where there are lots of germs. I've basically been extremely sick without stop for the past 13 months: I have had: 3 intestinal bugs, including one that put me in the emergency room at 3 am; 4 sinus infections and a lingering cough that comes and goes. I've been on antibiotics twice. I've had various tests done by my Dr who says "this is just the way life is for moms of toddlers who go to daycare." I feel like this is what life is like for someone with a compromised immune system. My life was not like this until I had a baby.

My toddler has been mostly healthy thankfully, my husband is usually unscathed or will get very mild cases or what I get. If a stomach bug goes through the house, he will be ill for part of a day and then go for a 3 mile jog that night. I will be dramatically and violently ill for 3 days and will feel weak for days after.

I am completely wrecked by each of these illnesses and it seems like with each one, I get a little weaker and more vulnerable to catching stuff. I am missing out on so many events, family gatherings and fun things because I am sick all the damn time.

I eat pretty well. I don't eat red meat or most fish. I don't fast food and try to avoid high fructose corn syrup. We cook all our own meals. I eat lots of veggies and fruit. I am not overweight. I don't exercise as much as I should but sometimes I ride my bike to work and I always take the stairs. I take a multi-vitamin and vitamin c supplements. I drink a bunch of water and "green juice." I don't smoke. I get as decent of sleep as you can get with a teething toddler in the house. I am just at a loss for what I can do to be healthier and less susceptible to catching every single bug that passes through the daycare.

Have you been through this? How did you survive? How can I keep myself from becoming catastrophically ill with every little germ I am exposed to?
posted by pluckysparrow to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This seems like a fairly common story (though I've never heard of anyone here getting HFMD), my friends with little kids all seem much sicker now than before they had them, kids are germ factories. My only suggestion is to make sure you wash your hands more, and don't touch your face after touching your filthy kid.
posted by The Monkey at 8:25 PM on May 28, 2012

My immune system got a lot better when I:

1) Dealt with my unbeknownst-to-me-sinus-infection-causing allergies through nasal steroid spray, daily generic Claritin, and allergy shots;

2) Started exercising 3x/week with >20min cardio and >40min weights/push-ups/etc.
posted by vegartanipla at 8:28 PM on May 28, 2012

My immune system improved when I started taking very high doses of Vitami D. I rarely get colds now. (I did, however, catch Hand, Foot and Mouth from my 10 month old daughter...first time I was sick since I had her, really)
posted by The Toad at 8:28 PM on May 28, 2012

Vitamins for you. Lots of water.
Make sure daycare and home are really good about handwashing.

My kid was in daycare at that point and I wasn't like you're describing.
posted by k8t at 8:32 PM on May 28, 2012

Vitamin D and fish oil supplementation seemed to help me.
posted by telegraph at 8:33 PM on May 28, 2012

It's worth repeating: wash your hands CONSTANTLY!
posted by crunchtopmuffin at 8:49 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

How much protein are you getting? The diet you describe didn't sound super high in protein and you're breast feeding on top of that. Much of the business end of the immune system is proteins so, if one or more amino acids is always in short supply, you're going to mount a lackluster immune response at best.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:49 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would talk with your doctor again, and see if s/he can recognize an immunologist. Parents of toddlers at daycares DO get sick more often - but this is ridiculous, especially the hospitalization.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 9:03 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh this sounds so familiar, but I didn't have it as bad (though I did end up with mono at the low point, sigh). It is a rough adjustment to being a new parent plus working full time on top of that (and I got germs from co-workers too). Things got better for me over time as my body built itself back up but during the first few years I felt like a different person, one of those people who gets sick a lot, and I rarely got sick before. Wash your hands a lot. Rest rest rest whenever you can, even when you're not sick. Especially if you're taking and have taken antibiotics, eat a high quality yogurt or take probiotics. You need to colonize your gut bacteria again to help your body function properly. My son got a perfect attendance award for kindergarten and I'm back to my old self now, but it did take time. Pat yourself on the back for doing so much as a new parent. Good luck!
posted by girlhacker at 9:03 PM on May 28, 2012

crunchtopmuffin: "It's worth repeating: wash your hands CONSTANTLY!"

This is really the only good advice you've gotten so far. The more you wash your hands the less you will get sick.

Also, be aware of your hands and how often you touch your face then work to reduce it. If you spend a day really paying attention to where your hands go you will be amazed.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:24 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

IANAD. But, have some yogurt. If not meat, how about peanut butter for protein?

If you've been using "anti-bacterial" soap and stuff, stop. Get some common house bacterias and develop resistance to those. I would say stop washing your hands so much. You're eating so healthy and so clean that your built-in resistance, developed from exposure to common bacterias, is low. Stay clean, of course, but plain bar soap is actually better to ultimately resolve the situation for you than ultra-anti-bacteria products.

The baby is picking up the germs and bringing them to you, and each bout you have is building up your resistance. Unless something else is going on, your bouts should get more infrequent. As rotten as you feel each time, the better you are getting, oddly!

Go have have some fast food. Have a beer at a dive. Order a pizza from the local independent pizza shop. Get something from the Chinese carry-out. Get dirty, sortof.

Not kidding. Expect some more bouts from that, but they will build up your immune functions.

The first few times I ever went to a Subway sub shop - in different cities - I got light food poisonings. They keep their meats out and stuff grows on them. After you have it 3 or 4 times you get immune to the "Subway bugs". Now I can eat at any Subway without a problem. Yay. OK, maybe not yay.

Note this is only one way to look at it and IANAD. This could be something more serious - but I don't think so. IANAD!
posted by caclwmr4 at 9:25 PM on May 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you don't eat red meat and fish, you are probably not getting much zinc, and as mentioned above, your diet sounds low in protein. Both are crucial for immune function. Also you are probably low on omega-3 fatty acids, which fish oil can help with. You may also be low on iron.

Try recording your diet on a site like fitday. It will tell you what you are deficient in.

You might want to look into the benefits of eating grass-fed beef.

I support the recommendation for vitamin D above (the safest thing is to find a nutritionist who will monitor your levels over time, so you don't overdo.) I looked into the research on multivitamins and there are some meta studies that show they actually slightly increase mortality. I don't recommend them.

Read about hypothyroidism and if you think you might have it, get a test. Also, there is debate over whether it's a real condition, but you might want to read about adrenal fatigue. Adaptogenic herbs (like ginseng) can stabilize adrenal function and that may help immune function for some people.

I have dealt with this a lot and despite what your doctor says, I think there is a lot you can do.

This site has good articles about omega-3 fatty acids, protein, thyroid, and vitamin D.
posted by Surprised By Bees at 10:20 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you live somewhere within reach of a decent acupuncturist, I strongly suggest giving it a try. The concepts of Chinese medicine are certainly different than Western concepts, but "strengthening the immune system" is a major focus (they use different words, of course). I have a chronic condition that makes me way more vulnerable to random virii and virulent bacteria; acupuncture has been the difference between living my life and barely getting through the day.

I wish you the best of luck struggling through this!
posted by kestralwing at 10:20 PM on May 28, 2012

"The baby is picking up the germs and bringing them to you, and each bout you have is building up your resistance. Unless something else is going on, your bouts should get more infrequent. As rotten as you feel each time, the better you are getting, oddly!"

Note that the forms of disease that this strategy is a particularly effective strategy against have already been beaten back with vaccinations. The only really effective strategy for not getting sick, is fortunately as simple as not getting sick.
posted by Blasdelb at 10:24 PM on May 28, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding the vitamin D. If you don't want to go with capsules, then make sure you get at least fifteen minutes of direct sun in the middle of the day. Also seconding the protein. Good quality red meat at minimum once a week. Twice a week would be better.

I'm also going to chime in with wash your hands more and don't use antibacterial soaps.

If this keeps up through the summer, you need to see an immunologist. Being run-down and catching all the bugs after childbirth happens, and it can drag on through toddlerhood for some moms. But you're a good bit more than just run-down!
posted by BlueHorse at 11:04 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding caclwmr4 - if your immunologist does not cite a serious reason for your compromised immune system, overwashing your hands can actually lead to MORE disease. If you use antibacterial soaps, more and more "bad" bacteria are showing resistance to the antiseptics and surviving the washing, while the "good" bacteria (which help against "bad" bacteria and fungus) are killed off. Furthermore washing your hands even sans antibacterial agents can lead to dryness, which can cause cracking, and more infection.

I'm not saying never wash your hands, but be judicious in hand-washing. When your child gets home from daycare, maybe that's the best time to give them a bath, or wipe down everything that wasn't covered by clothes and to change them into some night clothes. But if you're touching the doorknob of your home - which only other people in your home touch - you probably don't need to wash your hands....again, provided no one has a compromised immune system.
posted by Lt. Bunny Wigglesworth at 11:20 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I guarantee you that you can fix your sinus issues with a saline spray from you local pharmacy. $5 will get you a little pressurized bottle of gentle saline mist. Put it in a nostril and spray while inhaling through that luck orifice. Do that several times until it comes out the back of your throat, then do the other one.

It may sound a little scary...but its really really gentle.

I used to get sinus infections that would give me nosebleeds, now, nothing, provided I rinse periodically. It's handwashing for your nose!
posted by Chekhovian at 11:49 PM on May 28, 2012

And I'd wager good money that lingering cough is a byproduct of your sinus issue. Is it worse in the morning, before getting better throughout the day? If so, its sinus drippage down your throat into your lungs. Fix the problem at the source!
posted by Chekhovian at 11:52 PM on May 28, 2012

This was me last year... I seemed to catch every little bug going around and then Sconbie Jr (now 2.5) and Mr Sconbie would catch them too and give them back to me and the whole thing started again. I started to feel better when I stopped breastfeeding at 18 months. Is reducing the number/frequency of feeds an option? Are your vitamins the breastfeeding kind? Breastfeeding for as long as you have (and congratulations btw!) takes a real toll on your body and regular vitamins might not give you all the extra nutrients you need while feeding.

My other thought is about your mental health and well being... I know its hard to be cheery when you feel like crap all the time, but I found my physical health improved when I acknowledged (and got treatment for) my post natal depression. I think the bugs, flu's and coughs made it easy for me to ignore what was the real problem. If you are coping fine please ignore this but it might be something to consider.

*hugs* it does get easier I promise!
posted by sconbie at 11:57 PM on May 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree that breastfeeding could be related. I normally do not get sick often, and when I do it is usually mild. But during the 6 months I was breastfeeding....ugh. I was sick every 2 weeks, and I got each bug MUCH worse than my husband!

I had to stop breastfeeding for other reasons, but it was amazing how much better I felt almost immediately. More energy, and milder illnesses so far.

Perhaps you just need to pay more attention to your nutrition while breastfeeding?
posted by barnoley at 6:49 AM on May 29, 2012

probiotics can help, at least with gut infections, by increasing the ratio of helpful bacteria that can fight off some of the crummy ones. good yogurt is a start with that, and good for breastfeeding too.

but yes, probably a "richer" diet is what you need -- breastfeeding takes almost as much additional energy as pregnancy, and your 13-month-old could be pulling as much as 1000 calories per day (extra heavy on the protein, fat, and minerals) out of your body! keep it topped off!
posted by acm at 6:58 AM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]

I don't know if you can get one while breastfeeding, but I got my first-ever flu shot last fall and managed to dodge my boyfriend's never-ending illnesses this past winter. I used to catch everything he had but this winter was the first I can ever remember where I didn't even get a cold. I just got my flu shot at a local pharmacy.
posted by jabes at 8:52 AM on May 29, 2012

My kids are in part time daycare and we are sick at least 1X a month. I try to keep it down by washington hands and the kids hands as soon as we get home. I also change their clothes - more laundry, less germs. It seems to have helped as we used to be sick 2X a month.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 9:36 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd suggest vitamin C, vitamin B, and cod liver oil.
posted by Ms. Moonlight at 9:45 AM on May 29, 2012

I came back because it occurred to me, has your doctor taken a look up your nose? A deviated septum can contribute significantly to exactly the issues that you are experiencing. It is also entirely addressable with a reasonably simple outpatient procedure.

There is nothing like the human immune system to bring out the crazy, we've all got one and so we're all experts. Now, IAMAMicrobiologist, IANYMicrobiologist, and this does not constitute microbiological or medical advice, but I teach the science of hand washing to nursing students and this is what I tell them.

A mild ivory soap is way more than enough for most purposes, the idea isn't to kill microbes, but to wash transient microbiota off of you and into the sink. Done correctly, the kind of hand washing that is appropriate for the home will leave your hands with more bacteria on them than before. This is usually when student look at me funny before I explain that when you wash off the often virulent transient microbes off of the outer layer of your skin with the dead cells and oils there, the glands in the inner layers of your skin then kick into gear and secrete fresh oils with the normal microbiota that commensally lives there. I demonstrate this to them every quarter by getting them to make thumbprints onto petri dishes before and after different forms of hand washing, and the growth is always more abundant afterwards. Here is how to do it,

. -Wet your hands with clean, running water (warm or cold) and apply soap.
. -Rub your hands together to make a lather and scrub them well; be sure to scrub the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and under your nails.
. -Continue rubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds. Need a timer? Hum the "Happy Birthday" song from beginning to end twice.
. -Rinse your hands well under running water.
. -Dry your hands using a clean towel or air dry them.

I know this should be obvious but just in case here is when you should wash your hands,

. -Before, during, and after preparing food
. -Before eating food
. -Before and after caring for someone who is sick
. -Before and after treating a cut or wound
. -After using the toilet
. -After changing diapers or cleaning up a child who has used the toilet
. -After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
. -After touching an animal, animal feed, or animal waste
. -After touching garbage

Hand washing that becomes excessive, or uses excessively hard detergents, will cause your skin to dry out and crack by removing oil faster than you can replace it. This is not effective at preventing disease, but if you start approaching this sort of point you'll know it. Every one has different levels of sensitivity to soaps, and if you are for whatever reason extraordinarily sensitive then washing with only water is still significantly effective. Antibacterial agents in soap are generally unnecessary, but also not significantly harmful, I avoid them but it doesn't really matter much.

PorcineWithMe: "My kids are in part time daycare and we are sick at least 1X a month. I try to keep it down by washington hands and the kids hands as soon as we get home. I also change their clothes - more laundry, less germs. It seems to have helped as we used to be sick 2X a month."

This strategy seems like an excellent idea as part of a plan for hand washing, make it part of a coming home ritual.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:29 AM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]

I don't have kids, but my immune system was shot and I felt not only sick all the time, but drained and exhausted to boot. I went for a blood test and was placed on a bunch of supplements - a good multi, vitamin D (that I had almost none of), plenty of omega 3's, probiotics, greens.

That, coupled with lots of sleep and heavy exercise slowly turned my life around. It was not a quick fix, it took about three + months before I really noticed a difference. I cannot imagine the nutritional requirements of breast feeding on top of feeling low and sick. I'd suggest increasing your nutritional support to the max (via doctor) and getting as much sleep as you can.
posted by tatiana131 at 11:53 AM on May 29, 2012

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