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How to Help Your Immune System Perform at its Best

The body is indeed your castle – and your immune system is the army of warriors that is here to protect you from invaders.  The word “immune” derives from the Latin word immunis, which means “free” or “untouched”, and the immune system attempts to do just that – keep the body free from harmful influences, bacteria, viruses, and from the body’s own predators – cancer cells.

According to the National Institute of Health, the 3 main tasks of the immune system are to:

  • “Neutralize pathogens like bacteria, viruses, parasites or fungi that have entered the body, and remove them from the body
  • Recognize and neutralize harmful substances from the environment
  • Fight against the body’s own cells that have changed due to an illness, for example cancerous cells”1

This may seem like a simple task – recognize invaders and eliminate them. But doing so requires an intricate set of interactions, so many that the immune system has been called the most complex organ in the body.

The proper functioning of the system is essential to every organ system.  At each step along the way, there is the potential for the process to go awry and for the body to either not mount an adequate response, or to mount too much of one.  There is also the situation where cells either go inappropriately on high alert and begin to attack for unusual reasons, or to attack self. This can lead to autoimmunity – the mistaken recognition of self as non-self.

As health care professionals, we are continually learning more about the intricacies of how the immune system works, why it works, and how best to keep it running properly.  Here’s a simple version of it:

A “non-self” substance comes into contact with the body. These substances are called antigens. Some of the proteins on the surfaces of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and foods for example, serve as antigens. These antigens bind to special receptors on the body’s defense cells, and a series of cell processes begin.

The older part of the immune system (aka innate) makes a choice – is this a friend or a foe?

If it’s thought of as a friend, there are signals that allow the antigen to pass through and not be attacked – as in foods that you are NOT allergic to. If the antigen is perceived as a foe, as in the flu virus, there is a different set of signals that the body utilizes to call in cells to attack and contain the threat.

Ultimately, once that decision is made and executed, the newer or “adaptive” immune system stores information about the enemy. This stored information allows for faster decision-making the next time such an enemy presents. Thus defenses can be mobilized more swiftly.

As long as our body’s immune system is running smoothly, we do not notice it. And yet, it is constantly performing its surveillance. Illness can occur if the system is compromised, if the pathogen is especially aggressive, or sometimes if the body is confronted with a pathogen it has not come into contact with before.

The signals we send the immune system, the way we treat it daily, nurture it when we are sick, and even the amount of stress we experience, all impact its functioning.

Often patients come in and tell me that “their immune system is weak.” They believe this because they have frequent infections, lots of allergies, or simply because when they do become ill, they are not instantly better with an antibiotic.

But, the immune system does not have to run full throttle all the time. It is the balance in the immune system that is most important – for it to be robust when necessary and to stand down when it is not. There is an inherent intelligence to the immune system that knows what to do. Our job, as its caretaker, is to provide the environment in which it can do just that.                      

The Immune System Best Practices

So what are best practices that we should institute on a regular basis to keep immunity functioning best?

Many of them are as simple as a good diet, adequate rest and having healthy resources for keeping stress at bay. The same adages of less sugar, eating an array of fruits and vegetables, and establishing a daily time to be in contemplation, hold true here as they do for every organ in the body. Some interventions specifically directed at the immune system that have proven benefits are:

4 Additional Ways To Support Your Immune System

Vitamins: D, A, B6 (pyridoxine), B9 (folic acid) and C – have been shown to have a beneficial immune impact in studies both in animals and humans. The same is true for the micronutrients: zinc, selenium, iron, copper. Adequate amounts of these in the diet are important for warding off infections and keeping immune function in balance. Vitamin D levels, in particular, contribute to fewer infections in winter months. A large study performed on nursing home residents showed that even low normal levels of D were associated with higher rates of infection. I recommend either monitoring your blood levels of D, or routinely supplementing during the cooler months of the year

Probiotics – our latest superhero of the immune system, good bacteria are helpful in so many of the processes that keep the body running well.  In the gut, where the majority of the immune system resides, these bacteria present antigens to the innate immune system – signaling whether they are friend or foe. Specific strains, such as lactobacillus rhamnosis and reuteri have been shown to lower the frequency of recurrent upper respiratory tract infections in children. Here’s the Probiotic we use at the Blum Center.

Adequate sleep – The body counts on 7-8 hours of sleep nightly, and while you rest, many active processes are going on to restore resources depleted during the day. Studies have shown that less than this amount of sleep reduces the number of natural killer cells – a part of the immune system that is critical for eliminating invaders

Stress – it is a well-known fact that stressful lifestyles can contribute to an imbalanced immune system. Caregivers of the chronically ill, for example have higher rates of cancer and other illnesses.

 

Live in the Neighborhood?  Dive deeper into the immune system with Dr. Gereau at her free community talk, “How Does the Immune System Work?” on May 18th at 7pm.  Sign up here.  

Can’t come to Dr. Gereau’s talk? Check out Dr. Blum’s bestselling book, The Immune System Recovery Plan. It features her 4-step program that includes using food as medicine, understanding the stress connection, healing the gut and optimizing liver function. Learn More

Meet Dr. Gereau: Sezelle Gereau, MD, is an integrative ENT/Allergist with more than 20 years of experience. She uses an integrative and functional medicine approach to conditions such as sleep apnea, headaches, allergies and chronic sinusitis.  

Resources
  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072548/
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