Given the mild weather and continental infectious drift, our environment is prone to brewing bad bugs that can make you sick. With some simple techniques, supporting your immune system is easy. Read on to learn some small tweaks to help you fight and prevent disease.
1. The Immune System
Many of you remember learning about the immune system in health class. The immune system is made up of cells, lymphatic channels and nodes, organs, and barriers.
White Blood Cells
White blood cells (WBCs) travel through the blood to seek and destroy infection. Essentially, WBCs act like little law enforcement officers. When an infection enters the body, WBCs hone in to bust the bad bugs.
There are several types of WBCs with varying functions:
● Lymphocytes = traditional white cells
● Neutrophils = the attack squad on the scene first
● Macrophages = big cells that eat bad stuff
● Natural Killer Cells = attack infection and cancers
● Eosinophils and Basophils = react to allergens
● Mastocytes = react to allergens
Lymphatic Channels and Nodes
WBCs patrol the circulation and the lymphatic system. Lymphatic channels follow your arteries and veins providing an easy entrance/exit for WBCs.
When not hard at work, WBCs live in lymph nodes and in other immune organs. When in lymph nodes, the WBCs grow, mature and prepare to react quickly in times of need.
Immune organs include:
● Spleen (organ on the left upper belly)
● Liver (organ on the right upper belly)
● Thymus (an organ behind the breastbone)
● Bone marrow
The skin, gut, and eyes all house good bacteria (microbiome) and act as barriers to block entry of bad bugs. Using these natural barriers, surface areas like the skin serve an important role in immunity.
How do the WBCs know where to find the bad bugs?
WBCs use molecules called antigens to determine if a bug is good or bad. Antigens are foreign markers that exist on bacteria, viruses, and allergens to inform the immune system of bad guys.
Once the body is aware of the bad bug it uses various means to destroy it. Antigen-presenting cells notify the WBCs and they go to work! In addition to WBCs, there are specialized complement cells that can independently seek and destroy infection. Fever is another method the body has to fight infection. While a fever can make you feel crummy, it is an effective way that the body works to kill bad bugs.
One of the most remarkable things about the infection fighting process is that the body is able to remember bad bugs that it has encountered in the past. When the body fights an infection, it produces an antibody which is a memory of that infection. Antibodies allow a very quick response in the case that the same bug comes into the system again. This ability to remember and produce antibodies makes the immune system remarkable and it is what makes vaccines effective!
2. Efficiency and Deficiency
Vaccinations work by introducing small amounts of antigens which the body uses to produce antibodies. The immune system is efficient and as a result, we do not have to experience awful diseases like polio.
Medications like antibiotics can lend a hand in fighting illness as well. Antibiotics give the immune system special weapons to help fight infection. There are negative effects of antibiotics, in addition to wiping out bad bugs they also can damage the microbiome (see our related discussion: Boost your Biome).
Just like antibiotics, WBCs can produce negative effects. Leukemia is a result of the growth of abnormal WBCs. Autoimmune conditions like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis are the result of abnormal immune function as well. In lymphoma, the problem lies in the lymph nodes where the WBCs are learning to do their job. The result is an immune system that rebels against the body.
WBCs can be corrupted by infection. Conditions such as HIV disrupt the immune system and limit the ability to recognize the good from the bad. Other immunodeficiency syndromes work this way to erode defenses and limit the ability to fight infection.
Infants and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to infection. Due to their young age, infants don’t have many antibodies to provide protection. In the elderly, WBCs may not work as efficiently.
How can we work to optimize the immune system?
3. Get Your Protection!
To maximize your immune system use these simple techniques:
1. Get adequate sleep
2. Reduce stress
3. Exercise regularly
4. Get proper nutrition (polyunsaturated fatty acids, vitamins)
5. Use supplements (vitamin D, E, zinc, probiotics)
Immunity, sleep, and stress hormones are interrelated. When you have a night of too little/no sleep, cortisol (stress hormone) levels will increase. Elevation in cortisol also occurs during physiologic and emotional stress. Cortisol has many roles in the body, including providing support in truly stressful times when survival is questioned. However, these effects can be harmful when you aren’t trying to outrun a predator!
Effects of cortisol:
1. Energy preservation (increased fat around the waist)
2. Increased hunger to drive caloric intake (upregulation of ghrelin which increases appetite)
3. Decreased satiety (downregulation of leptin which causes satiety)
The end results of cortisol’s effect are bloating, weight gain (especially around the belly), constant hunger and unusual cravings.
The combined result of these factors is a distracted immune system that is inefficient at fighting infection and inflammation.
Therefore, in times of stress, it is important to take action to nurture and support the immune system with stress-reduction strategies. Mindfulness, meditation, Tai-Chi, Qi Gong and yoga all reduce stress. A meta-analysis of these methods for at least 4-weeks demonstrated reduced inflammation and suggested improved responses to antibody production after vaccination.
4. Work on Your Strength Inside and Out
Exercise is a stress-state. Your heart is pounding, blood is pumping, and you are sweating. Yes, you do use your sympathetic nervous system during training, however, the effect on cortisol levels is not linear. A review of the literature on the relationship between cortisol suppression and exercise shows mixed results.
Some evidence suggests that mucosal levels of barrier immunity decrease immediately after exercise: Other studies suggest that mucosal barrier immunity rebounds very quickly and that exercise benefits our response to vaccines. Exercise also may have benefits in the immune reaction to cancer (NK cells). Stress-reducing work-outs (Tai Chi and Qi Gong) are shown to support immune function.
My takeaways from this data: Exercise improves your ability to regulate stress hormones. You can relieve stress with exercise. Furthermore, pairing exercise with proper nutrition may assist immune function. Exercise improves sleep and we have discussed the impact of sleep on stress hormones. All of these factors are related to immune system function and their effects are likely additive.
5. YUM! Natural Immune Boosters
What about nutrition and supplements? Again, these relationships are interconnected. Eating nutritious food generates less inflammation and generates less immune-distracting inflammation. SEE Our Post on How to Eat REAL Food.
More specifically, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) may improve inflammation.
Natural sources of PUFAs include: fish, walnuts, sunflowers, and flax.
Vitamins D and E
Fat-stored vitamins like D and E may benefit the inflammatory response (D) and immunity (D and E). What is the best way to get vitamin D? Sunlight! 10-20 minutes of uninhibited sun exposure can yield up to 10,000 units of vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is common and supplementation is a way of alleviating many wellness-related conditions.
Natural sources of vitamin D include: dairy, soy, eggs, liver, citrus, and mushrooms.
Natural sources of vitamin E include: fish, shrimp, sunflower, almonds, olives, avocado, spinach, broccoli, butternut squash, and kiwi.
The benefit of Vitamin C in immunity shows decreased rate of upper respiratory tract infections.
Vitamin C can be supplemented; natural sources include: citrus, kiwi, guava, papaya, strawberry, tomato, broccoli, leafy greens (spinach, kale), peas, bell peppers and chilis.
Zinc plays a role in many cellular processes. Zinc deficiency induces inflammation, imbalances immune cells and limits the production of white blood cells. Additionally, thymus atrophy can occur with low levels of zinc.
Zinc is found in natural sources and small amounts can lead to benefits: meat, poultry, shrimp, oysters, nuts, seeds, green veggies, mushrooms, and cocoa.
Data support the use of probiotics in boosting immunity. The literature supports use of proper nutrition, natural probiotics, and use of blended probiotics with Saccharomyces, Bifidobacterium, and Lactobacillus species.
Sources of natural probiotics: kvass, kefir, raw ferments (relish, chutney, miso, tempeh, amasi, pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi), yogurt (Be careful of high sugar content yogurts. Try to choose yogurt with full or reduced fat as the fat in yogurt is healthy!)
Follow this link to our post on HOW TO MAKE Kombucha.
The immune system is complex and remarkable. Support it with adequate sleep, stress reduction, good nutrition, vitamin supplementation, and natural probiotics.