Our immune system has ‘game’ as long as we provide the best possible playing field for it to execute its game plan on. To tell you the truth, we can be doing a cruddy job of taking care of ourselves and our immune system will still go to bat for us! Lucky us! But will its effort still be 100% is the question?
Immune Function 101
This is by far not a complete overview, but it’s enough to understand what’s going on and who’s doing what.
We have 2 basic ‘sides’ to our immune system: innate and acquired.
Innate (natural) immunity is so named because it is present at birth and does not have to be learned through exposure to an invader. It thus provides an immediate response to foreign invaders.(1) Some of our innate immunity is passed from mom to baby during the first 3 months of nursing – making those first 3 months critical for immune health establishment in a baby.
Acquired immunity, is just that. Once you’ve been exposed to an invader for the first time (think chicken pox), your body creates a defense against it and then has the capability to ‘remember’ chicken pox (acquires a memory) or that invader so that if exposed again, your chance of falling to infection/illness because of that invader is greatly reduced or even eliminated.
The white blood cells involved in innate immunity (all with different functions) are: (1)
- Monocytes (which develop into macrophages)
- T Cells (mature in thymus gland)
- B Cells (mature in bone marrow)
- Natural Killer Cells (also called NK or K cells)
- There are also dendritic cells and the complement system – that’s a big army!
I’m going to highlight a few:
NK Cells – This we should know. These are our cancer fighters. NK cells are also critical for the control of certain infections, particularly viral infections.
T Cells – Remember/recognize germs (by their surface antigens) from the past and attack them if exposed again, help with identity, produce cytokines (inflammatory markers) to alert rest of system or takes out invader all together.
B Cells – Produce antibodies which attach to outside (antigen) part of invader and call attention from other parts of the immune system.
Phagocytes/Macrophages – Engulf (surround and dissolve) foreign invaders.
Could You be Doing Something to Diminish the Effect of Your Immune System?
Let’s take a role call of habits or conditions which could be effecting your immune system negatively:
* Lack of Restful, Complete Sleep
* Food Sensitivities (An immune system stressor itself within the digestive track)
* Exposure to Daily Toxins (Especially in work place/home)
* Inflammation from Fat Cells and Other Chronic Conditions
* Chronic Stress
Uh-oh, now what? Install the…
7 Step Immune Game Plan
1) EAT: The following foods should be eaten regularly for the specific compounds within them: Fresh raw garlic, spices like turmeric and cinnamon, veggies (all and rotate through the colors), high color fruits like berries, high Vit C foods (organic bell peppers, citrus fruits…), clean lean protein, kale (worth singling out), coconut oil (MCTs and lauric acid), mushrooms (betaglucans within may help support NK cells), non-farmed raised fish, raw nuts and seeds, healthy high fiber carbs as they keep glucose in check and help fuel immune cells (esp for those who train/exrcise often and for kids/teens). Limit simple sugar intake – some research shows that simple sugar intake (sodas, juices, crackers, breads, deserts, candy) reduces phagocyte activity 30min-5 hours after ingestion.
2) REDUCE STRESS: Chronic stress can have a negative impact on immunity, according to a 2004 review of 293 studies with a total of 18,941 participants. The review suggests that while short-term exposure to stressors can rev up your immune defense, prolonged stress may wear down the immune system and increase your vulnerability to illness.(3)
3) DRINK: Water (Dehydration has many negative effects on the body including fatigue and overeating), unsweetened green tea and tulsi tea (holy basil, great to help combat stress), green juice (with little to no fruits and lite on the carrots).
4) SLEEP: You may have noticed that you’re more likely to catch a cold or other infection when you’re not getting enough sleep. A lab experiment bears this out: When students at the University of Chicago were limited to only 4 hours of sleep a night for 6 nights and then given a flu vaccine, their immune systems made only half the normal number of antibodies. Not getting enough sleep can lead to higher levels of a stress hormone (which by itself is bad for fat loss, athletic performance, heart health and brain power). Although researchers aren’t exactly sure how sleep boosts the immune system (it’s most likely from the connection to cortisol), it’s clear that getting enough – usually 7 to 9 hours for an adult (and 9-12 for children and teens) – is key for good health.
5) EXERCISE: Moderate exercise benefits the immune system(4) whereas overtraining can reduce immune cell function. Overtraining generally only occurs in those training for more then 90 minutes per day and/or in combination with incomplete, interrupted sleep; if you train at higher intensity and duration, be aware of the signs and symptoms of overtraining one of which is illness/repeated illness.
6) PREPARE: What’s that saying…if you fail to plan you plan to fail? Be proactive in putting a few things in your home, set up your natural medicine cabinet backup plan. These items either nourish particular cells or aspects of the body that help with immune function OR have been show to when taken at first sign of illness to reduce both severity and or duration of that infection.
Dr. Linus Pauling discovered that Vitamin C is needed by white blood cells to engulf and absorb viruses and bacteria. In fact, a white blood cell has to contain 50 times the concentration of vitamin C as would normally be found in the blood around it.(2)
* Vitamin D3: If you haven’t had your level checked by your health care practitioner, it’s time! Vitamin D3 deficiency is problematic for many areas of health, immune health being just one. Most people need a minimum of 2000-3000IU per day, many need much more than that. While fighting infection you can increase your dose (try doubling) until you are better.
* Probiotic: Because much of your immune health is either strengthened, taxed or diminished by your digestive health, keeping digestive function in tip-top shape is important. Look for dairy free, shelf stable multi strain versions of probiotics (but not too many strains as we don’t always know what all of those strains are actually doing!) You can find the probiotic I use, Probiotic Complex, here www.JillLane.com/Network or by clicking the ThorneFX banner on this page.
* Zinc: You should be getting between 15-20mg in your daily multivitamin. You can take an additional 15-30mg while you are ill or healing. You can find the multi I use here www.JillLane.com/network
* Echinacea/Astragalus: At first sign of ‘the crud’, get these two bad boys down the hatch, if it’s from a good quality product you should notice that you don’t get the ‘crud’ as bad as your friends or colleagues. I use a product called Phytogen by Thorne Research.
* Panax or Siberian Ginseng: These herbs possibly have some positive effect on NK cells, but more importantly help the body handle chronic stress. If you think you’re too busy to take it, then you most likely need it!
7. HYGIENE: Goes without saying right? Wash hands, wash hands, wash hands. Go easy on the hand sanitizer, use it only when hand washing is not available and only use brands that do not have triclosan in them! When someone is sick, and after they are better, thoroughly wash all their belongings. Trash their tooth brush and replace with a new one. If toys can’t be washed, double bag in Ziploc freezer bag and freeze for 1-2 days.
Honorable Mention: Laugh often! Chiropractic! (find a good chiropractor and go at first sign of feeling bad), elderberry (for coughs), real local honey (in tea to sooth sore throat and raspy cough), olive leaf (to combat infection), Saccharomyces Boulardii (a probiotic brilliant for battling ‘tummy bugs’), oil of oregano (also great for ‘tummy bugs’ and food poisoning), berberine (wards of infection of all kinds), glutamine (for those who seem to always be getting sick, this can help to start to build up the ecosystem from the digestive track out).
Kid Specific: If you have a child that can not swallow vitamins, here are my favorite products: Thorne Research Vit D/K2 liquid, Designs for Health ImmunoBerry liquid, Thorne Research Sacro B (open cap and mix in faux milk or applesauce for tummy bugs).
Lastly our immune system fights cancer cells on a daily basis, how does it eventually evade the system and proliferate? There are many schools of thought to why this happens: Perfect storm of bad diet, toxin exposure, inflammation, stress, genetics, lack of spiritual connection? Could be any combination, and/or others not listed. One way cancer cells evade our immune system is by putting a ‘protective’ coating around themselves to prevent either identification from our immune system (NK cells) or attachment of our immune cells (T cells in particular) which then signal attack. Tricky, very, very tricky. There is one compound that has been researched to potentially reduce this effect; it’s called fermented wheat germ extract.
If you or someone in your family seems to ‘always be sick’ or always catch something if around a sick person, take inventory of the above items. Sometimes it’s an underlying digestive health issue, sometimes it’s malnutrition, and others it’s just plain stress and lack of sleep, all of which we can correct for making this cold and flu season victorious for you and or your family!
Worth Mentioning: There is such a thing as having an overactive immune system. Auto-Immune diseases are just that. Our immune system starts attacking us in some way shape or form (our thyroid, nerve tissue, joints and other tissues or glands). Almost all of the above game plan is ‘do-able’ for someone with auto-immunity. There are some additions and subtractions, like gluten and dairy and curcumin and other nutrients. See a functional medicine trained practitioner for guidance if you have or suspect an auto-immune condition.
- Suzanne C. Segerstrom and Gregory E. Miller. “Psychological Stress and the Human Immune System: A Meta-Analytic Study of 30 Years of Inquiry.” Psychological Bulletin 2004 130(4): 601–630
- Chubak J, McTiernan A, Sorensen B, Wener MH, Yasui Y, Velasquez M, Wood B, Rajan KB, Wetmore CM, Potter JD, Ulrich CM. “Moderate-intensity exercise reduces the incidence of colds among postmenopausal women.” American Journal of Medicine 2006 119(11):937-42.