Most of us want to support our immune system but we don’t understand how it works well enough to know how best to support our unique system. It is empowering to learn a bit of the physiology so we can better understand why the choices we make with diet and lifestyle impact our body the way it does. It drives me nuts to be told what to do with out understanding why. I find most people I work with agree.
The Immune System is a complex and dynamic system, which changes with our environment and diet.
Here are the basics to help you start thinking around what might impacting your immune system. Add what you need to boost its various functions and layers and consider what you might need to remove that might be reducing its effectiveness and barrier functions.
IMMUNE SYSTEM 101
According to the National Institute of Health the purpose of the Immune system is to have a network of cells, tissues and organs working together to protect the body against foreign invaders. The immune system has three very distinct jobs that need to be executed as intended for the whole system to work properly.
These jobs are
- Identify an invader. This includes properly identifying self from non self and harmful from friend.
- Communicate with other immune cells. So, the watch guards start talking and informing other immune cells about what is happening. They may call in back up cells or alter the biochemistry to set the stage for defense (aka inflammation).
- Attack the invader. The immune cells need to launch an appropriate attack to kill the invader without doing excessive damage to the host, aka you. This includes shutting off the attack when appropriate.
We need each of these jobs functioning effectively.
Our body is constantly exposed to invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and it is our immune systems job to keep us safe. That is when it is functioning properly, anyway. When it is over working we may experience allergies, autoimmunity, or chronic inflammation and eventually the downstream diseases that come from chronic inflammation (Heart Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Crohn’s and many more). When it is under functioning we may get sick often or cancer cells may grow. So again, we want our immune system to function how Goldilocks likes things, juuuuust right.
We have 2 distinct parts of our immune system
- The Innate Immune System– This is the part of our immune system that we are born with. There is no specificity or memory. It is all about identifying all invaders and killing. The components of the innate immune system include
- Our Physical barriers such as our outside skin and the internal ‘skin’ of our respiratory tract, digestive tract, and urogenital tract. This also includes the acidity in our stomach, the mucous membranes on all our internal ‘skins’, our microbiome or the good bacteria that covers our skins. Around 70% of our immune system is in our digestive system alone. Anything that reinforces these barriers will boost our immune system, and vice versa.
- The cells of the innate immune system- This first layer of immune defense also includes several white blood cells- monocytes, neutrophils, basophils, eosinophils, and natural killer cells. All of which play key roles in keeping us safe from invaders.
- The Adaptive (Specific) Immune System– This is the part of our immune system that develops over time and involves a great deal of specificity. These are the more highly trained cells of the immune system and include our B cells (immunoglobulins come from B cells) and T cells. B stands for Bone Marrow and T stands for Thymus, which is simply where they each get their advanced training. The adaptive immune system is how we more easily fight off invaders after being exposed previously, it is why vaccinations work, and it is these immune cells, IgG or IgA or IgE antibodies, that we look to for certain foods or body parts that the immune system may be overreacting to.
Whew. Okay. We did it. That is the basics and it is from there that we can identify what food and lifestyle choices increase or decrease our specific immune functions and layers. The specific jobs of the immune system can be impacted as can the various layers by the outside world. Our immune function is dynamic and the food and lifestyle choices we make directly impact it. Some things decrease its effectiveness making them important to remove. Other things enhance how they function making them important to add.
You can skip below to the lovely infographics if you want the lists. Otherwise keep reading if you want the why.
10 THINGS THAT MAY NEGATIVELY IMPACTING YOUR IMMUNE FUNCTION
- Sugar- Sugar suppresses white blood cells and how responsive they are. Also, white sugar depletes our body of key immune nutrients
- Eating foods you are sensitive to or allergic to or foods that are hard to digest– These foods can decrease immune function in different ways. Hard to digest foods can damage the intestinal tract (damage the barrier function aka leaky gut), cause inflammation, and can distract the immune system. Foods you are sensitive or allergic to activate antibodies and again can cause the immune system to be on chronic attack, using up valuable resources and attention. (Foods that are often hard to digest include anything not chewed well, foods eaten while stressed, trans fats, dairy, gluten, soy, processed foods, beans that are not soaked prior to cooking, and more depending on a persons unique physiology).
- Alcohol- Alcohol reduces white blood cell count like sugar does and impacts the flow of oxygen at a cellular level preventing the body from functioning optimally
- Nutrient Deficiency- Nutrients such as vitamins A, D, C, zinc, selenium are critical building blocks for immune cells. From either lack of consuming them but also from lack of digesting and absorbing them a person can be depleted. Make sure digestion/absorption is functioning optimally so you can get the nutrients from your food as well as ensuring you are eating foods high in these nutrients.
- Toxins such as heavy metals, pesticides, pollution, smoking, chemicals, etc- can inhibit antibody formation, depress T cell and B cell function and Natural Killer cells. Pollution can Damage protective mucus membranes (line of defense) as well.
- Chronic stress – Psychoneuroimmunology (big new area of study on immune system and nervous system interaction). Natural Killer cells are impacted by high chronic cortisol and this is a critical and aggressive cell for fighting viruses as well as cancer.
- Lack of sleep- During sleep your body releases immune cells that fight inflammation and infection. Lack of sleep reduces immune cells and hinders the protective response of the immune system. Melatonin (sleep hormone) helps protect our lungs as well as activates natural killer cells.
- Trauma from surgery or accident including over exercising- Inflammation may be tying up the immune response
- Frequent Antibiotic use or other medications- antibiotics can damages important bacterial balance in the gut which is a line of defense while certain medications like ibuprofen and aspirin can damage the epithelium or inner skin of our digestive tract.
- Exposure to chronic infections from the inside or outside- Epstein Barr, candida, lyme disease, etc, or with people working around kids all the time or on airplanes may be exposed chronically to bacteria and viruses, depleting immune function.
Helpful For Proper Immune Function
- A healthy lymphatic system, which houses many immune cells – Using your skeletal muscles helps move lymph as does deep breathing and bouncing.
- Appropriate nutrients- we make 2000 immune cells every minute, the better nutrition the better we are able to make those cells. Specific foods listed in infograph below but think colorful vegetables and fruit, nuts and seeds.
- Vitamin A- supports mucus membranes throughout the body, is needed for white blood cell production as well as thymus and spleen health.
- Vitamin D- The sunshine vitamin, Vitamin D, aids monocytes and T cells. Vit D triggers and arms the body’s T cells, the cells in the body that seek out and destroy any invading bacteria and viruses. It also reduces inflammation
- Vitamin C- protects white blood cells from the enzymes they release to kill microbes, it’s an antiviral, it makes interferon, is antibacterial, and is an antihistamine. Supports innate and adaptive immune function.
- Vitamin E- strong antioxidant protecting cells from oxidative damage. Boosts immune cells and enhances immune response
- Zinc- Zinc is part of a wide range of immune functions. Needed to activate immune cells
- Selenium- Antioxidant, boosts immune response and decreases inflammation
- Quercetin- antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and aids in immune cell communication
- Supporting digestive system- Tools to help include fiber, microbiome support, hcl, mucus membranes, chew (releases growth factor which helps improve barrier)
- Sleep- See above. Sleep is hugely beneficial to our immune system and we need between 7-9 hours a night for our immune system to function optimally.
- Decreased stress and anxiety- Excessive cortisol (stress hormone) depresses immune function by decreasing Natural Killer Cells and diverting energy towards fighting a pressing or perceived ‘danger’ instead of fighting an immune invader.
- Appropriate exercise increases NK cells and other infectious fighting immune cells, it also decreases stress and increases circulation.
- Sauna or hot/cold therapy- This has been shown to increase both T cells and Natural Killer cells impacting both innate and adaptive immune function
- Microbiome- Important in barrier function and immune activity. Some bacteria in your gut spend their lives making antibodies! Look for a blog post dedicated to this important topic coming soon.
- Proper Hydration and herbs that sooth and nourish the mucous membranes such as aloe, licorice, slippery elm, and marshmallow root.
So what can you add? What can you remove?
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- Fields, Helen. (2015) The Gut: Where Bacteria and Immune System Meet. John Hopkins Medicine. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/research/advancements-in-research/fundamentals/in-depth/the-gut-where-bacteria-and-immune-system-meet
- The Institute For Functional Medicine. (2020) Top 6 Strategies For Reducing Stress Around Infectious Disease. https://www.ifm.org/news-insights/top-6-strategies-managing-stress-around-infectious-disease/?hsCtaTracking=f1f18e9e-14da-43db-94d2-9dbab2012b1f%7Cafd033e5-45a2-401c-99c7-2daee12c91b9
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