While we may be constantly challenged by disease causing micro-organisms, our bodies do a great job fighting pathogens and fending off invaders. Most of the time, that is. Are you one of those fortunate people who rarely comes down with a cold, stomach bug or other viral related illness? You may wonder why some people are less susceptible than others when both are exposed to the same illness. It may all come down to a balanced immune system. An out of balance immune system not only fails to protect the body, it may cause the body to attack itself, as evidenced by the development of autoimmune diseases. Your immune system can only function at its best when general good health guidelines are followed. Immune system strength is influenced by lifestyle factors, which can either boost or deplete the body’s reserves.
We are all born with innate immunity. Innate immunity involves barriers such as the skin and the cough reflex, which prevent antigens from entering the body. As we are exposed to various pathogens along the way, we develop acquired immunity, as our immune systems build a defense against specific antigens. Young people and the elderly are most vulnerable to illness. Children’s immature immune systems make them more susceptible to sickness. Many researchers believe that aging leads to a reduced immune response, leaving the elderly far more likely to contract infectious diseases.
An immune system that functions efficiently protects against disease, while a poorly functioning immune system allows disease to develop. Certain lifestyle factors can weaken immune function including poor diet, smoking, chronic stress, inefficient sleep, lack of vitamin D and excessive alcohol consumption. Conversely, a healthy lifestyle can strengthen and support your immune system and lead to better overall health.
Your diet plays a major role in immune health. Poor diet or malnutrition can lead to immune deficiency. Fried foods and oils that contain disproportionate amounts of omega-6 fatty acids can cause inflammation, which over time can lead to a host of chronic diseases. Refined sugar can suppress the immune system’s white blood cells and reduce their ability to destroy pathogens. A diet devoid of whole foods does not provide the nutrients and antioxidants the immune system relies on to fight against free radical cell damage. A diet rich in whole fresh foods, including vegetables, fruits, lean meats, fish and healthy fats, will provide the body with the nutrients it requires for healthy immune and overall function.
Nicotine and the chronic inhalation of cigarette smoke is believed to trigger inflammation and suppress immune system function, putting smokers more at risk of developing bacterial, viral or fungal infections. The toxins in cigarette smoke also overstress the liver, leaving it more vulnerable to disease. The good news is that within 30 days of quitting smoking, immune activity begins to improve. After about 3 months, immune system efficiency is greatly improved.
Over time, stress puts your health at risk by overexposing the body to cortisol and other stress hormones, which can disrupt other bodily functions. Chronic stress can result in an increased susceptibility to colds or infections and can slow the recovery process. Studies show a stress-related imbalance in the immune system can lead to chronic inflammation, a known contributor to many chronic age-related diseases. Learning to reduce or at least manage stress can get our stress hormone levels down to more normal, healthier responses. Getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy balanced meals and maintaining social relationships all help to alleviate stress and support a well functioning immune system.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation is believed to compromise the immune system by activating the stress response and elevating inflammatory chemicals. A University of Helsinki study showed that insufficient sleep affects the immune system by altering gene pathways related to immune function, triggering an inflammatory response and increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Other studies have shown an association between sleep deprivation and obesity and hypertension. In short, sufficient sleep appears to support immune system function while sleep loss is a risk factor for impairment.
Vitamin D insufficiency has wide ranging health consequences and plays a critical role in our immune response, influencing both the innate and acquired immunity. Lacking sufficient vitamin D, killer cells known as T-cells are unable to activate to fight off serious infections. T- cells are also part of our adaptive immune system, helping the immune system to recognize a pathogen at the next encounter. Without sufficient vitamin D, T-cells remain dormant and don’t even begin to mobilize. To get sufficient vitamin D, spend 10 minutes each day in the sunshine without sunscreen or take a good quality supplement containing 2,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily, especially in winter.
Excess alcohol consumption can lead to immunodeficiency and increased risk of illness and liver disease. Overindulging appears to deprive the body of immune boosting nutrients necessary for white blood cell production, such as vitamin A, impeding the body’s ability to fight infection and disease. Studies also suggest that excessive alcohol consumption suppresses the immune system by impairing the function of natural killer cells and decreasing the release of pro- inflammatory cytokines, necessary to combat foreign invaders. Conversely, a small amount of red wine each day, which contains of high levels of antioxidants, is believed to support immune functions.
To enhance overall health and support immune function, eat a healthy diet with lots of antioxidant fruits and vegetables, get sufficient sleep, de-stress your life, exercise regularly, spend a little time outdoors in the sunshine, don’t smoke and enjoy that small glass of red wine with friends!
Supplements to support immune health include:Vitamin A 25,000 IU (A97) by Thorne Research provides pure vitamin A for enhanced immunity, healthy vision, and cellular development. Essential for a healthy immune system, vitamin A supports the normal function of white blood cells and natural killer T-cells. Non-GMO, gluten, soy and lactose free. Vitamin D3 2,000 IU by Innate Response Formulas provides an effective whole food form of vitamin D, complete with amino acids and sterols for enhanced utilization. This formula contains an immune blend, bioactive enzymes, proteins, and probiotics. Non-GMO, gluten and soy free. ImmuCore by Metagenics provides advanced immune support with antioxidants, vitamins D and C, and ingredients that enhance the function of natural killer cells and protect a stressed immune system. Non-GMO and gluten free. Phyto Immune by BioGenesis Nutraceuticals contains a comprehensive blend of vitamins and standardized herbal extracts to support a healthy immune system especially during stressful times.