The past two years have made us all aware of how important immune function is. We’ve all been doing our best to avoid getting sick. If you really want to boost your immunity naturally, keep reading because I’m going to give you the exact list of things you need to do to avoid getting sick.
In this post, I’m going to chat about
The different lines of defense that are used by the immune system
What happens when you have an overactive or an underactive immune system
Steps You Can Take to Strengthen Your Immune System
The importance of stress management
Want to listen to this information instead of reading it? Listen to my podcast episode all about immunity.
How Your Immune System Works
I’m going to get into the science of how your immune system works. How different things affect it and all the things you can do to keep your immune system working its best and keep yourself healthy!
Our immune system is a complex network of cells and organs that defend the body against infection. The main parts of our immune system are the white blood cells, antibodies, complement system, lymphatic system, spleen, bone marrow, and thymus. You can hear and feel the beating of your heart, right, so you know it’s working. But the immune system is usually silent, you don’t really know it’s working. Even though we’re much less aware of our immune system, it is working 24/7 to protect us from 1000s of potentially deadly attacks every day like Covid-19.
If You Want to Boost Your Immunity Naturally, it Helps to Know the Players Involved
Let’s examine the different lines of defense used by the immune system. The first defense is known as innate immunity. This is a range of protective mechanisms we are born with. The innate immune system provides protection against various pathogens, such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and worms. The innate system includes physical barriers, like your skin, chemical barriers, like antimicrobial proteins that harm or destroy those invaders that try to get into our system, and then cells that attack foreign cells and body cells that are harboring infectious agents.
Your Skin is Your Immune System’s First Line of Defense
The skin is an external barrier made from layers of cells serving as a protective barrier to infection. Not only does your skin provide a protective barrier to keep invaders out, but it secretes fatty acids and enzymes like acid oleic acid which can kill certain bacteria while the enzyme lysosome can break down the outer wall of certain bacteria. Internally, mucous membranes in your respiratory tract, GI tract, genital/urinary tract, provide a barrier of cells that are constantly being renewed or regenerated. These membranes trap small particles to prevent them from attaching to the cells. A good example of where this innate immunity starts to break down is after menopause. A women’s vaginal tissue is no longer releasing those enzymes. This means that it doesn’t have the nice cell turnover all the time to protect it which makes post-menopausal women more prone to getting bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections.
Chemical Processes Within Your Body Help to Defend Against Invaders That Make it Past the Skin
When microbes penetrate the body’s protective barriers and enter into our tissues, then they encounter a variety of chemical substances that attempt to prevent their growth. There are many mechanisms and cells by which chemicals work to harm or destroy invaders. These processes go beyond the scope of what we’re going to discuss, just know that they are continually looking out for foreign invaders and ready to strike at any time.
Inflammation is Another Defense Mechanism
Early induced responses are the final process of your innate immunity. That’s inflammation. Inflammation can eliminate infection or hold it in check until specific acquired immune responses have time to develop. Infection often results in tissue damage, which may trigger an inflammatory response. The triggers of inflammation include pain, swelling, redness, and fever. These are induced by chemicals released by macrophages, which are white blood cells. Inflammation is a healthy protective immune response. However, when chronic inflammation exists in the body, then chronic disease develops.
The second line of defense is called acquired immunity. Acquired means that you’re not born with this form of immunity, you acquire it through exposure to pathogens throughout your life. It’s acquired from exposure to infection or disease or another person’s antibodies like mama to baby. It’s well established that persons who contact certain diseases and survive generally do not catch those illnesses. Again, this is made possible through the mechanisms of acquired immunity.
How Acquired Immunity Works
When your immune system is exposed to a pathogen, it learns to recognize it this can make your immune system better equipped to fight off that type of germ the next time you’re exposed to it. Acquired immunity is dependent on the specialized white blood cells known as lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are the cells responsible for the body’s ability to distinguish and react to an almost infinite number of different foreign substances. Lymphocytes originate from stem cells in the bone marrow and they travel and multiply in response to the appropriate stimulation.
Lymphocytes Have the Ability to Recognize Foreign Molecules
Lymphocytes are distinguished from other cells by their capacity to recognize foreign molecules by means of receptor molecules. A receptor molecule is a special protein whose shape is designed to fit foreign molecules. Think of these molecules as a key that fits into a lock. Any foreign material that binds specifically to a receptor molecule is called an antigen.
Antigens include molecules found on invading microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi, as well as the molecules located on the surface of foreign substances such as pollen dust and transplanted tissue. Certain antigens can induce an immune response when they bind to a receptor molecule.
One of the many incredible abilities of the immune system is that it keeps a record of every microbe it’s ever defeated. This enables the immune system to recognize and destroy the microbe quickly if it enters the body again before it can multiply and make you sick.
Why Do I Keep Getting the Flu or a Cold?
Some infections like the flu, the common cold, or coronaviruses have to be fought many times because so many different viruses and strains of the same type of virus can cause these illnesses and the same symptoms. Especially something like the Coronavirus, which has reverse transcriptase RNA which means that it can replicate itself and mutate into a different strain of virus so that your immune system doesn’t recognize it. That means that catching a cold or flu from one virus does not give you immunity against the others. It just gives you immunity against the strain that you had.
Vaccinations Take Advantage of The Body’s Record-Keeping Ability
When we get vaccinations, the immune system is triggered by the small amount of the illness that is in the vaccine. It begins to produce antibodies. This enables the body to quickly launch an immune attack to kill off the virus when it actually is exposed to it again.
Your Acquired Immunity is Dependent on the Things That You Are Exposed to in Your Environment
Our acquired immunity is totally dependent on what we are exposed to. For example, things in our environment, vaccinations, or exposure to different environmental conditions all impact our ability to fight off various diseases. If you’ve ever experienced allergies when visiting someplace for the first time, this is due to exposure to something your immune system is not already familiar with. The next time you visit, you may not have that same reaction because of acquired immunity.
We’re all exposed to different pathogens and we all have unique immune systems. In fact, recent studies have found that our history and environment like where and who we live with are responsible for about 60 to 80% of the differences between individual immune systems while genetics account for the rest.
What Happens if You Have an Overactive Immune System?
An overactive immune system, (which I deal with all the time in the office) can result in a number of conditions including autoimmune disease and allergies. Allergic diseases can include allergies to foods, medications, things in nature, and stinging insects. We can get anaphylaxis, hay fever, sinus infections, asthma, hives, dermatitis, and eczema. These conditions result when the immune system makes an overly strong response to the allergens. Autoimmune disease includes autoimmune thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, systemic lupus, rheumatoid sathritis, systemic vasculitis, and the list goes on.
When the immune system mounts a response against normal components of your body, autoimmune disease is to blame. I often work with women trying to calm their immune system down to get their disease in check to keep it manageable. Oftentimes, this goes back to healing the gut. Eighty percent of our immune system is actually in our GI tract. That’s where a lot of our inflammation starts. If you are ever in doubt, heal your gut first.
What Happens When You Have an Underactive Immune System?
An underactive immune system, also known as immunodeficiency happens when your immune system doesn’t function correctly and makes you more vulnerable to infections. This can be life-threatening. In some cases, immunodeficiency can be inherited through conditions like common variable immunodeficiency, excellent severe combined immunodeficiency, and some complement deficiencies. They can also arise from taking medications.
A lot of autoimmune diseases are treated by conventional medicine doctors with immunosuppressants, like Plaquenil, and Remicade. These shut down your immune system so your body quits attacking itself. Because you’re shutting down your immune system, it makes you susceptible to infections that you should normally be able to fight off. Those can be dangerous medications to be on. Immunodeficiency can also arise in diseases like HIV and AIDS where your immune system gets wiped out.
Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Now that you know how the immune system works and how it protects us, let’s look at ways to strengthen your immune system. Your best defense is to live a healthy lifestyle. Not only will your immune system benefit, but every part of your body, mind, and spirit will function better. These are the things to focus on for immunity.
1. Eat a Diet With Lots of Fruits and Vegetables.
They’re full of phytonutrients, vitamins, antioxidants, and minerals. These are all necessary for all the chemical reactions to create and support your immune system. They also help feed the good bacteria in your gut. As I mentioned before, much of your immune system is in your gut.
2. Get Plenty of Sunshine or Take a Quality Supplement
Vitamin D and sunshine directly affect your immune system. So get out there and get your sunshine. If you live in the north as I do, you’re gonna need to supplement with vitamin D. If you’d like a quality supplement, send me an email. I’d be happy to recommend one.
That being said, it’s a good idea to have your Vitamin D levels checked. We want to see those levels at least 50 to 70. Vitamin D has actually been used unknowingly to treat infections like tuberculosis before we discovered antibiotics. Tuberculosis patients were put in sanitariums. Back then, treatment included exposure to sunlight, which they thought killed the TB bacteria, but it was actually the vitamin D that was doing it because the patients were given time in the sun. Cod Liver Oil is also a rich source of vitamin D.
3. Get Regular Exercise
Exercising regularly is super important. A moderate amount of daily exercise enhances the recirculation of immunoglobulins, anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, natural killer cells, cytotoxic, T cells, and immature B cells. These all play a critical role in your immune defense activity and your metabolic health.
4. If You Consume Alcohol, Drink in Moderation
If you drink alcohol, you definitely only want to drink in moderation. For us women, that means one drink a day because excessive alcohol reduces the number and function of macrophages, T cells, and B cells. You don’t want to limit macrophages because they go around destroying everything that’s not supposed to be in your system. Fewer macrophages, T cells, and B cells means fewer fighters to search and destroy invaders.
5. Get Adequate Sleep
Sleep is super important. This is when your body actually restores and regenerates. Macrophages go around your body and find all the cellular debris, broken DNA and infected cells and destroy them. So if you’re not sleeping, your circadian rhythm will be out of balance, and it won’t signal those cells to go out and do their jobs. Think of it like a cleaning lady that only comes if you are sleeping. She cleans your house and takes out the trash when she’s done. If you don’t go to sleep, she never shows up to do her job. So make sleep a priority. It will boost your immune system. I had to learn that the hard way as an obstetrician, I didn’t sleep and I was more prone to being sick. So get your sleep.
6. Don’t Smoke and if you are Quit Smoking
I hope none of you are struggling with this one, but if you are, now is the time to quit. Don’t smoke, vape or chew. Smoking actually suppresses your innate and acquired immune systems. Smoking kills tumor necrosis factor-alpha cells, many different types of T cells, macrophages, natural killer cells, and antibodies in our bloodstream that are trying to fight off infection. It destroys antioxidants, such as vitamin C. We need vitamin C to destroy the free radicals that go on to cause cancer.
7. The Most Important Recommendation of All is Manage Your Stress
Here’s the most important recommendation of all, for a strong immune system. Actively manage your stress. I’m going to explain why.
The Importance of Stress Management
When we’re stressed physically, emotionally, or mentally, we produce too much cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones suppress our immune cell function, and they cause the production and release of pro-inflammatory cytokines and increase oxidative stress, which all weaken our immune system. More specifically, we see a decrease in lymphocytes and these are actually the cells needed to fight off the infection COVID-19. Pro-inflammatory cytokines are responsible for the cytokine storm that is so concerning with COVID-19. Some patients get an overwhelming cytokine release which causes respiratory distress and failure. That’s why people end up on ventilators in the ICU.
Why Does Being Stressed Suppress Immune Response?
The stress response is there to save us in the event of an attack (or perceived attack.) It puts all of our bodies’ resources into getting ready to get away from the attacker. It stops things like digestion, sex hormones, and immune function, and sends that energy toward getting muscles ready to run and our heart beating faster to supply oxygen and nutrients to those muscles so we can escape danger.
If You Do Everything Else Right, But You Don’t Manage Your Stress, It Negates Everything Else
Even if you do all of the other things right, but you don’t manage your stress, it negates all of your efforts and puts you at risk. So keep that cortisol in check. It’s huge for your immune system.
My Favorite Ways to Reduce Stress
deep breathing exercises
getting out into nature.
These may be difficult to do (if you’re stuck at home with your kids, especially). I encourage you to use this time to teach your kids how to become resilient little humans themselves. Check out Cosmic Kids Yoga on YouTube. It’s totally awesome. My kids love yoga now because of cosmic kids. I recommend that you take time out to do yoga with them. It gets them moving, gets you moving, you’re doing it together, you’re laughing and having fun. It’s a huge immune booster. Another app is called 10%. Happier. It’s an app that I have downloaded on all our devices, our phones, and iPads. It has tons of guided meditations. I use it myself, but my kids actually love using the ones for sleep, it helps calm them down when they’re trying to go to bed and helps them listen to their bodies.
To Wrap it all Up
You have control over your immune system. There is so much you can do to help your immune system function at its best. The most important thing you can do is manage your stress. However, it’s important to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, get exercise, get plenty of sleep, stay hydrated and don’t smoke. If you do smoke, vape or chew, I highly recommend that you stop. If you take the steps that we talked about in this post, you will have a strong immune system that is prepared to defend your body against any invaders.
Which of these tips are you going to take today? I’d love to hear from you in the comments. If you are ready to take action to live your optimal healthiest life, send me an email or book an appointment with me.