Join me on the journey to wellness! I am not a healthcare professional. I am just an ordinary person who decided to take control of her health and wellness.
When I was a child, I would get sick almost every other month with a cold or the flu. I think part of the reason was the amount of attention I would get when I was sick. With a large family in a stressful home, there was only so much attention to go around and when I would get sick, all the sympathy and care would flow toward me. I also got to stay home from school, which was a stressful environment for me. I wasn’t trying to get sick. It just happened. Or so it seemed.
In my late twenties, I started to notice that whenever I worked six days straight or worked way too hard, I would get sick. In thinking back, I noticed a pattern of not taking care of my own energy and then getting sick. It dawned on me that if I was subconsciously influencing my immune system to get sick, I could also consciously improve it. So, I set about learning all I could about protecting my health and immunity. I even got a degree in biochemistry because I was so fascinated with the inner workings of the body. Now, I almost never get sick. Here’s what I learned.
The immune system is an intricate system made up of several subsystems, which all contribute to protecting the human body from negative outside impacts. The first question we need to ask when thinking about the immune system is who is invading whom?
We think of ourselves as individuals versus invading armies of microbes. However, we are far more than that. Pound per pound, the human body is actually made up of 90% bacteria and 10% human cells (Ursell, 2013). These microbes make up the “microbiome,” and what we consider our body is actually a complex ecosystem, made up mostly of foreign bacteria. (I know, shocking!)
The human gut contains about 38 trillion microbes, many of which are bacteria. Over time, the human body developed a mutually beneficial relationship with our microbes. Under normal conditions, the immune system promotes the growth of beneficial bacteria and helps maintain a stable microbial community, while in return, healthy gut microbes support the development of immune cells and contribute to the immune response. Crosstalk between the gut microbes and the immune system provides protective responses against invaders. (Adaes, 2019)
In one sense, the immune system is like a Russian doll, with distinct layers of protection, each of which provides a progressively more specific response to invasion. The first layer of defense is the nervous system which can detect changes in the immediate environment, like temperature and sound. The second layer of protection is the skin, which helps prevent infection.
When the skin is intact, its seven layers provide a physical barrier to invasion. Further inside the body, special organs, cells and chemicals work together to fight infection. White blood cells, antibodies, the lymphatic system, the spleen, the thymus, and the bone marrow all work to protect the body. (Immune System Explained, 2020) The main functions are to target and neutralize invading microbes, to clear damaged tissues, and to provide constant surveillance of malignant cells that grow within the body.
Much of the immune system is dedicated to detecting invading organisms, which sets off alarm bells. The moment an invader is recognized by the immune system, a series of sequential events take place. Both specific and non-specific responses occur.
The lymphatic system is a network of delicate tubes that carry lymph, a colorless fluid that contains infection-fighting white blood cells. Pressure in the lymphatic system is lower than other body systems and lymph flows somewhat passively. Compression of surrounding tissues forces the lymph throughout the body, removing invading germs. Because of this, exercise and physical activity help increase the flow of lymph fluid through the body.
Various organs play important roles in the immune response. For example, the spleen and thymus both filter the blood and make antibodies. The liver is the largest solid organ and the largest gland in the human body and carries out over 500 essential tasks. The liver’s main job is to filter the blood coming from the digestive tract, before passing it to the rest of the body. It’s responsible for the production of bile, the metabolism of fat, and the metabolism of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. In terms of immunity, the liver contains “kupher’ cells, which destroy any disease-causing agents which enter the body through the gut. The gut also plays an important role as we will see shortly.
The immune system depends on adequate nutrients to function properly. (Dayong Wu, 2020) My overall health improved greatly when I focused on eating better. The foundation for health begins with what you put into your body. By eating high-quality foods, we are able to supply our body with the nutrients it needs to keep the immune system in top shape. Nutrients are needed to create white blood cells, enzymes, and stomach acid. Nutrient-dense foods are fruits and vegetables, (especially leafy-green vegetables) whole grains, seafood, legumes, lean meats, eggs, peas, beans, and nuts.
The liver is also greatly affected by nutrition. I try to eat a mostly (85%) organic diet. Organic food has less toxins from the pesticides used in agriculture. Overloading the body with toxins makes the liver work harder and means that the body has less energy available for tasks like fighting off foreign invaders.
I also reduced the amount of fried foods and fast foods. These foods are high in fat and sugar and are extremely harmful for liver health. In addition, I cut down on highly salty foods, which can lead to fluid-buildup and swelling in the liver. In case of severe liver damage, the organ cannot digest proteins properly, which subsequently causes accumulation of toxic waste products in the blood, further straining the immune system. (Newman, 2018)
Vitamins are an important part of your foundation for health. By themselves, vitamins do not prevent infection and they don’t kill invading germs. However, they are important because they provide the body with the nutrients it needs to do things like make the white blood cells necessary to fight infection. Because much of the produce in the United States is low in vitamins due to over-farming and depletion of the soils, supplementation with vitamins is usually necessary for optimum health. (Hopkinson, 2017) But, it’s not necessary to take a million vitamins. I find a good multivitamin can supply most of what I need. I look for one that is high in these vitamins or I purchase them separately.
Vitamin E – Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant. Similar to preventing rust from forming on a car, Vitamin E protects cells from oxidative stress. Vitamin E also helps repair damaged cells. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin and can build up in the body if taken in excess. (The Benefits of Vitamin E, 2020)
Vitamin B – There are eight types of B vitamin, each with their own function. Often, a good multi vitamin will contain all eight, but I’d like to focus on vitamin B12 in relation to the immune system. Vitamin B12 plays a big role in energy production. In order to have the energy necessary to fight off infection, the body needs sufficient quantities of B12. B12 deficiency has also been linked to depression and mental illness. So, I take a separate B12 supplement to help strengthen my immune system. Also, B complex supplements are often very poor quality. So, I try to look for high quality brands ad activated forms, such as methylated Vitamin B12.
Staying hydrated is an easy way to improve the immune system. Every cell in the human body needs Oxygen to survive and water supplies that Oxygen. In addition, water flushes out pathogens and toxins. Water is necessary for eliminating waste throughout the entire body – the blood, the intestines, liver, and kidneys. Keeping the system flowing is necessary because if waste backs up, the body will have to divert energy to managing toxins and will have less resistance to invaders. Additionally, water is necessary for the functioning of the lymphatic system, through the production of lymph. Lymph fluid runs throughout the human body with a very simple job – to collect bacteria from the body and transport it to the lymph nodes, where that bacteria is destroyed. When we are dehydrated, the lymph cannot do its job.
To ensure a healthy gut microbiome, three things can be done: 1) Make sure you ingest sufficient dietary fiber to keep the intestines moving regularly. Constipation will negatively impact the gut microbes. Keep it moving to keep the gut flora flourishing. 2) Supplementing with probiotics helps can replenish the supply of good bacteria in the gut. “Probiotics,” or healthy bacteria, come in capsules and can be taken with meals to ensure they are re-introduced directly into the gut with digestion. There is a bit of controversy over whether they need to be taken on a long-term basis. After replenishing my gut bacteria, I no longer take probiotics daily. Now, I just take them once a month. 3) Gut bacteria are fussy eaters. They prefer specific kinds of fiber. To make sure they are properly fed, I take a “prebiotic” supplement occasionally. (Lewis, 2017)
In order to understand sugar’s role in the immune system, we need to understand phagocytes. Phagocytes are cells that protect the body by engulfing bacteria and small foreign particles. After ingesting sugar and simple carbohydrates, the activity of phagocytes is significantly reduced, meaning that sugar suppresses immune function. (Biotics Research Corp, 2020) That doesn’t mean I never eat sugar, but I am mindful and make sugar a very small part of my overall diet. In addition, some bacterial infections are exacerbated by eating sugar, and some aren’t affected. To be on the safe side, I minimize the amount of sugar I eat and never eat sugar if I’m starting to feel sick.
Limit or Eliminate Alcohol
Alcohol compromises the immune system in a variety of ways. In the lungs, alcohol damages the immune cells and fine hairs that have the important job of clearing invaders from our airways. Alcohol intake can kill normal healthy gut bacteria. This is because your body prioritizes breaking down alcohol over several other bodily functions and the body doesn’t have a way to store alcohol like it does with carbohydrates and fats. So, it has to immediately send the alcohol to the liver, where it’s metabolized. That means the liver is not processing other toxins or doing all the jobs the liver is responsible for. (Ries, 2020) In addition, alcohol is known to impair sleep quality. Because the immune system is most active cleaning and repairing the body while asleep – the poorer the sleep, the higher the risk of getting sick.
Caffeine can inhibit immune function in several ways. First, caffeine causes an inflammatory response which can lead to liver damage. (Akio Ohta, 2007) Again, the liver is one of the most important organs in the immune system, as it filters toxins from the body. Additionally, caffeine suppresses white blood cells, suppresses lymphocyte function, and suppresses antibody production. If that wasn’t enough, caffeine leads to the release of cortisol, increasing stress. And, as we’ll see below, stress greatly impacts the immune system. Finally, caffeine can cause insomnia putting a damper on the entire immune system. For more information on sleep and how to improve it read my article on The Purpose of Sleep. I gave up caffeine 25 years ago and never looked back. Getting eight hours of sleep and having a glass of water first thing in the morning helps me get going.
Moderate exercise can provide a temporary boost or kickstart to the immune system. However, vigorous exercise of a long duration, like 90 minutes or more, starts to over-stress your immune system, which can temporarily impair its ability to do its job and leave you more vulnerable to infection. (Sgobba, 2020) So, to improve the immune system, rather than having a long, intense workout once a week, it’s better to spread workout time out over the week. Again, exercise helps increase the flow of lymph throughout the body and supports a healthy immune system.
When we’re stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off invaders is reduced. This is a big one for me. I continually battle stress and my tendency to work too much. Stress affects the nervous system, the digestive system, the cardiovascular system, and pretty much every system in the body! Most importantly, the stress hormone cortisol can suppress the immune system and lower the number of white blood cells. The first step in combating stress is being aware of its presence. Because I grew up in a stressful household, I was often unaware of the steadily increasing level of stress in my life. Just being aware of stress can be helpful. We can then begin to take steps to either lower the stress or manage it differently.
One Final Note
It took a little bit of time, but eventually I was able to create a very strong immune system. By making the changes above, I now hardly ever get sick – perhaps once every five years. And what I love most about having a strong immune system is how much more confident I feel interacting in the world. I think having a strong immune system is well worth the investment of time and attention. As a matter of fact, it might be the best investment you ever make, because as Hippocrates stated “Health is the greatest of human blessings.”
Adaes, S. (2019, July 8). How the Gut Micribiota influences our immune system . Retrieved from Neurohacker: https://neurohacker.com/how-the-gut-microbiota-influences-our-immune-system
Akio Ohta, e. a. (2007). 1,3,7-Trimethylxanthine (Caffeine) May Exacerbate Acute Inflammatory Liver Injury by Weakening the Physiological Immunosuppressive Mechanism. Journal of Immunology.
Baron, F. D. (1996). Chapter 49Nonspecific Defenses. In S. Baron, Medical Microbiology. 4th edition. Galveston, TX: University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK8348/
Biotics Research Corp. (2020, May 20). Retrieved from Biotics Research Corp: https://blog.bioticsresearch.com/does-sugar-weaken-the-immune-system
Dayong Wu, e. a. (2020, May 16). Nutritional Modulation of Immune Function. Retrieved from Frontiers in Immunology: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2018.03160/full
Hopkinson, J. (2017, September 13). Can American Soil Be Brought Back to Life? Retrieved from Politico: https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/soil-health-agriculture-trend-usda-000513/
Immune System Explained. (2020, May 15). Retrieved from BetterHealthChannel: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/immune-system
Lewis, S. (2017, June 3). Probiotics and Prebiotics. Retrieved from Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/probiotics-and-prebiotics
Newman, T. (2018). What Does the Liver Do? Medical News Today.
Overview of the Immune System. (2020, May 15). Retrieved from LibreTexts: https://bio.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Microbiology/Book%3A_Microbiology_(Boundless)/11%3A_Immunology/11.01%3A_Overview_of_Immunity/11.1C%3A_Overview_of_the_Immune_System
Ries, A. (2020, April 22). How Alcohol Can Affect Your Immune System. Retrieved from Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health-news/can-alcohol-hurt-your-immune-system-during-covid-19-outbreak
Sgobba, C. (2020, April 15). Does Exercise Actually Help or Hurt Your Immune System. Retrieved from Self: https://www.self.com/story/exercise-and-immune-system
The Benefits of Vitamin E. (2020, May 16). Retrieved from Healthline: https://www.healthline.com/health/all-about-vitamin-e#extra-vitamin-e
Ursell. (2013). Defining the Human Microbiome. National Institute of Health.