Stress can weaken your immune system, especially when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA), making you more prone to colds and flus. So how can you protect yourself besides washing your hands and getting a flu shot? Read on for some clever ways to pump up your immunity, fight off illness and fend off stress.
Bask in the light! Taking in more bright light—whether outdoors or indoors—can boost your sense of well-being and your immune system. Shoot for getting 20 minutes of sunlight on most days of the week. If you can’t get outside much, consider using an indoor light box that provides full-spectrum light, which mimics the effects of sunshine (find one online by doing a web search using the term light box therapy). Mood bonus: Morning bright light exposure can help ward off the winter blues, too.
Why it works: “There are two ways light can help,” says rheumatologist/immunologist Esther M. Sternberg, MD, a researcher at the National Institutes of Health and author of Healing Spaces: The Science of Place and Well-Being. “Being in sunlight or full-spectrum light boosts mood and lowers stress. And anything you can do to reduce the stress response will enhance the strength of the immune system.” Additionally, when sunlight hits the skin, the body produces vitamin D, a nutrient that helps the immune system tame inflammation and speed healing.
Get out and mingle! Spend some time with people you enjoy or in activities with others that you find rewarding. Studies show that the more positive social interactions you have, the healthier you are, says Dr. Sternberg. You can also get the same benefit by volunteering (try volunteermatch.org  for ideas). The key, says Dr. Sternberg, is to balance time alone and time spent with others. You’ll know you’ve had enough “me time” if you start feeling bored or lonely.
Why it works: The good feelings you enjoy from being with others cause a flood of nerve chemicals and brain hormones that stimulate the immune system to speed healing. Feeling isolated, on the other hand, can hamper your immunity by increasing levels of the stress hormone cortisol, says Dr. Sternberg. She also notes that showing compassion toward others triggers a release of hormones that fight infection.
Go “offline.” Dr. Sternberg recommends taking daily “mini-vacations” to reboot the immune system and de-stress. “Find a place of peace where you can stop, look and listen—and try to go there every day,” she says. That doesn’t mean you have to go outside, either. Take a mental getaway by visualizing a favorite place, like the mountains, and immersing yourself in the details such as the smell of fresh pine or the feeling of sun on your skin.
Why it works: Meditating on anything you find peaceful can help reduce stress hormones that weaken the immune system’s ability to fight infection. “Chronic stress has been shown to prolong wound healing, decrease response to vaccines,” says Dr. Sternberg, “and increase the frequency and severity of upper respiratory infections.