WHAT IS IMMUNITY?
Everyone has experienced what it feels like to get sick: You might have a sore throat or a cough, you feel tired and run down. Maybe you even have a fever.
Here's what happens when you get sick. Your immune system is made up of the white blood cells, lymph nodes, tonsils, adenoids, spleen, thymus gland and bone marrow. These play a vital role in protecting your body from infection or disease by making germ-fighting proteins called antibodies that destroy any bacteria or viruses found inside your body. When you come into contact with germs like this (for instance, through exposure to infected people or animals), your immune system works with other defense systems like skin and mucous membranes to protect you against them.
As soon as you start coming into contact with these pathogens, macrophages recognize them and bind to them; then they alert T-lymphocytes, which then release cytokines that signal helper T-cells to activate. Helper T-cells then produce more cytokines, some of which promote B-cell growth and differentiation into plasma cells ; these plasma cells secrete antibodies that target the pathogen. Other cytokines produced by helper T-cells promote cytotoxic activity of killer T-cells against cell bearing foreign antigens.
Once activated, the immune system will tirelessly search for the invader and destroy it before it can infect a cell or reproduce itself. But sometimes, our immune systems miss a little bit of an infection here and there because we're exposed to so many germs every day—and sometimes those germs are just too powerful for us to fight off. This is why we still get sick when we're exposed to colds and flus. It's our immune systems' way of getting rid of the germ so it doesn't make us really ill.
Why do we need it?
The immune system works best when your body is healthy, but there are many things that can weaken your immunity . Without a properly functioning immune system, you're more vulnerable to illness because germs and viruses move in unopposed. Depending on how sensitive or allergic you are to certain microbes, it can take just one exposure for your immune system to launch an attack against invaders that might cause minor problems for people with average resistance. But if you have a very weak immune system due to disease, drugs (like chemotherapy), stress, malnutrition, advanced age, or immune-suppressing conditions like AIDS, it can take your body much longer to fight off diseases.
How do I know if I have a weak immune system?
There are many signs of an ineffective immune system, such as developing frequent infections (e.g., colds and the flu), repeated yeast infections, severe allergies, skin problems (e.g., rashes and acne), frequent fatigue or chronic fatigue syndrome, mood swings and irritability, hyperactivity or attention deficit disorder among children, autoimmune diseases, and many more.
Another sign may be an above-normal number of white blood cells (e.g., lymphocytes ) in the blood, which can cause fatigue or lethargy. However, this is not always true; many people with autoimmune disorders have normal amounts of white blood cells in their bloodstreams.
An accurate way to assess immune function is by measuring your response when exposed to an antigen (e.g., a foreign substance that triggers an immune reaction in the body) such as tetanus or tuberculosis. The lymphocyte transformation test measures how well you respond when exposed to certain antigens. Your doctor may also recommend other tests if he/she suspects autoimmune problems, chronic infections, cancer, nutritional deficiencies, etc.
Your immune system's activity can be tested by taking the following tests:
- Complete Blood Count (CBC)
- Comprehensive Metabolic Panel (CMP)
- Urinalysis with Microscopic Examination and Culture
- Food Allergy Testing
An above average level of eosinophils in the blood can indicate a parasitic infestation, while an above average number of lymphocytes in the blood may indicate an autoimmune disorder.
So what weakens our immune system?
It's no fun when your immune system fails you, but sometimes that will happen. The most common causes of low immunity are stress, toxins in the environment, lack of sleep, poor diet and exercise habits, age (immune function starts to decline starting around age 40), illness or medications that suppress the immune system, certain diseases, or imbalances in gut flora.
Stress can make us more vulnerable to infection because it suppresses the immune system . But there are many ways to manage stress without resorting to prescription drugs. We'll discuss ways later in this guide.
Toxins in the environment also pose a serious threat to immune function. When our bodies are overloaded by toxins, we store some of them in fat cells and the rest in places like the kidneys, liver, skin, brain and other organs where they can accumulate over time. Numerous studies have linked exposure to environmental toxins such as pesticides with compromised immune function.
HOW TO BUILD YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
The best way to strengthen immunity is by eating a healthy diet that includes foods high in antioxidants and phytonutrients, avoiding toxins and pollutants as much as possible, and exercising regularly. However, there are other ways you can complement with food to get your immune system in tip top condition. Let’s explore the various ways.
Foods that weaken immunity
White processed sugar weakens immunity because it causes a rapid rise of blood sugar levels followed by a surge of insulin which suppresses the immune system. In addition, sugar disrupts gut flora by feeding harmful bacteria which further compromises immunity. Sugar is added to most processed foods so it's important to read labels carefully. It can also be found naturally in fruit, vegetables and grains, so limit these foods if you are trying to improve your immune function.
Several studies have linked food allergies with impaired immunity. The most common allergens to which people are sensitive are wheat, eggs, milk and shellfish. Food allergies can also result in joint pain, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, skin problems such as acne or eczema.
An overabundance of harmful bacteria in the gut can also compromise immunity. People with bad gut flora often have difficulty digesting food and absorbing necessary nutrients, so they may benefit from taking a probiotic supplement.
Bad gut flora is quickly becoming one of the most common causes of poor immunity due to increased use of prescription antibiotics and birth control medications, as well as exposure to pesticides and toxic chemicals.
People who take antibiotics often become deficient in B vitamins, which can further undermine immunity since these vitamins are necessary for optimal immune function.
Fish and flax oil contain omega-3 fatty acids, but people with bad gut flora may not be able to produce the enzymes needed to convert these healthy fats into a form that the body can use. In this case, it may be necessary to take an enzyme supplement so these important fatty acids are absorbed properly by the gut.
In short, it's essential to heal and repopulate the intestinal tract with beneficial bacteria so you can absorb nutrients from food efficiently and avoid harmful microbes that damage immunity.
Foods that build immunity
When you eat highly processed foods and sugars, your immune system is taxed because it needs to work extra hard to eliminate these junk foods. On the other hand, whole and mostly plant based foods contain phytochemicals which help strengthen immunity.
Foods rich in vitamins A, C and E are powerful antioxidants which help neutralize free radicals. Consuming enough vegetables is the best way to obtain these nutrients naturally.
Fermented foods contain healthy bacteria or probiotics which promote immunity by strengthening the immune system. Fermented foods include sauerkraut, kimchi, fermented milk and yogurt.
There are certain foods out there that contain strong immunity boosters. Here's a list of our top 15 favorites:
1. Garlic – The strong smell of garlic isn't just because it's delicious; it also benefits the immune system because it contains allicin, which activates immune cells called macrophages. Allicin also helps our bodies fight off germs better than they would on their own. Garlic also contains selenium, which can help prevent viruses from multiplying.
2. Onions – The allicin in garlic is also found in onions, giving them the same immune-boosting ability.
3. Mushrooms – Shiitake mushrooms are one of the few food sources that have even more immunity-boosting power than garlic or onions. They contain lentinan, a powerful antioxidant that helps our bodies fight off infection and increases T-cell levels.
4. Watercress – This leafy green is an excellent source of immunity-building nutrients like beta carotene, vitamin C, calcium and iron, as well as luteolin, a flavon that has been shown to boost immune function.
5. Blueberries – These berries are chock full of immunity-boosting antioxidants, including anthocyanins. Just half a cup of blueberries contains nearly twice the daily intake recommended for antioxidant benefits.
6. Broccoli – This veggie is rich in beta carotene and vitamin C, both potent immune system boosters, as well as lutein. Lutein also promotes healthy eyesight while protecting against cataracts and macular degeneration.
7. Strawberries – Packed with immune-boosting vitamin C, this sweet treat is low in calories but high in flavor. Strawberries also contain ellagic acid, which helps fight off viral infections while strengthening our immune defenses against environmental toxins like cigarette smoke.
8. Kiwi – This fruit contains immune-boosting vitamins A and C, as well as folate and potassium. Folate deficiencies can lead to reduced immunity and higher levels of cancer and heart disease risk, so stock up on some kiwi!
9. Dark chocolate – Who says you shouldn't indulge every now and then? Chocolate has been found to have anti-inflammatory properties, which can help reduce the symptoms of infections. In fact, dark chocolate contains more beneficial flavonoids than most fruits or vegetables do. The key is to limit your intake to very small amounts since chocolate is high in calories and sugar content.
10. Red grapes – These sweet treats have a variety of nutrients that support immunity , including flavonoids, which have been shown to prevent flu-causing viruses from attaching to our cells.
11. Apples – These juicy fruits are a great way to boost immunity because they contain immune-boosting vitamin C. Another reason why apples may keep the doctor away is that the chromium in them helps insulin function normally, according to one study. Insulin resistance has been linked with autoimmune diseases like diabetes and lupus as well as heart disease, cancer and obesity—all of which can lower immunity.
12. Carrots – These orange veggies are rich in immune-boosting carotenoids, including beta carotene and zeaxanthin . They also help maintain healthy eyesight.
13. Spinach – Spinach is a great source of immune-boosting vitamin A. In addition, it's packed with iron and calcium, which can help fight infections.
14. Tomatoes – Lycopene, the antioxidant found in tomatoes, boosts immunity by inhibiting tumor growth. It also helps prevent age-related macular degeneration—the leading cause of blindness in older people—by protecting the eye from both UV rays and oxidative stress caused by free radicals.
15. Pumpkin seeds – Pumpkin seeds are a good plant-based source of zinc, which has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of colds. They're also loaded with immunity-boosting vitamin A and omega-3 fatty acids.
16. Sweet potatoes – These orange tubers are a good source of immune-boosting vitamin C, as well as beta carotene, which is converted to vitamin A in the body. This potent antioxidant helps fight free radicals that play a role in aging and disease.
17. Grapefruit – Packed with immunity-boosting vitamins C and A, grapefruit has been found to reduce the risk for certain types of cancer, including lung cancer. So if you're looking to decrease your chances of getting sick this winter season, keep some fresh grapefruit on hand!
18. Eggplant – Loaded with immunity-boosting nutrients like potassium, beta carotene and vitamin C, you can reap the benefits of this purple veggie simply by cooking it with olive oil and garlic.
19. Artichoke – Packed with immune-boosting phytochemicals like silymarin, artichokes also contain immunity-boosting chromium. One cup of cooked artichoke provides almost half your daily recommended intake for this mineral that plays a key role in regulating blood sugar levels and energy production. Plus, they have amino acids that can calm inflammation.
20. Green tea – This beverage is rich in antioxidants called catechins which have been shown to strengthen immunity as well as fight against viruses such as those responsible for respiratory infections. In addition, green tea contains L-theanine, an amino acid that can reduce stress and improve sleep in a single serving.
21. Broccoli – This cruciferous veggie contains immunity-boosting vitamin C, beta carotene and flavonoids. The high volume of antioxidants in broccoli helps fight damage from free radicals that can lead to chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
22. Beets – One cup of sliced beets contains about half your magnesium for the day, which is essential for producing energy at the cellular level. In addition, this immunity-boosting nutrient also helps you better absorb food nutrients like iron. What's more? It relaxes blood vessels.
23. Onions – These pungent plants are loaded with nutrients that help boost immunity. In fact, one onion provides over half your daily recommended intake of immune-boosting vitamin C! They also contain chromium, another mineral shown to improve insulin function.
24. Carrots – This root vegetable is a great source of immune-boosting vitamin A and potassium, which can lower blood pressure levels. Plus, the omega-3 fatty acids in carrots can reduce inflammation throughout the body.
25. Pili nuts – Loaded with immune-boosting vitamin E and magnesium, pili nuts are a tasty way to support your immunity. One ounce (28.3g) contains 19 percent of your daily recommended intake for magnesium. Magnesium plays a role in more than 300 enzymatic reactions including those needed for energy production, muscle function and even bone formation.
26. Wild-caught salmon – This well-known heart-healthy fish is also one of the best sources of omega-3 fatty acids, which have anti-inflammatory properties that can help relieve pain. It's also an amazing source for immunity boosting vitamin D, which is essential for protecting you from colds and flu. Wild caught salmon has more nutrients than farm raised!
27. Stingless bee honey - Stingless bee honey is very healthy as it has a much lower sugar content compared to regular honey or even manuka honey. Stingless bee honey from the Philippines also contains high amounts of propolis which helps to boost one's immunity.
28. Herbal teas are recommended over caffeinated beverages because caffeine can interfere with the immune system's ability to fight disease. Make sure that any herbal tea you drink is decaffeinated.
29. Fresh or frozen fruit juices, including citrus juice, provide your body with immunity-boosting vitamin C, especially if you eat the pulp and membranes where most of the vitamins are located. Plus, eating whole fruits as opposed to drinking their juices will help fill you up so that you eat less during other times of the day when unhealthy snacks might be tempting.
30. Healthy fats found in nuts like almonds, macadamia, pecans and walnuts have been shown to boost immunity. Nuts also contain cancer fighting selenium. When choosing nuts, go for raw or dry roasted. Avoid sugar-coated varieties which are higher in calories and lower in immune system benefits.
31. Spices are a great way to give any food dish an immunity-boosting kick. Look for fresh spices rather than dried because dried spices have lost some of their nutrients during processing. Some studies show that cooking these foods decreases the amount of nutrients. Use ginger, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, cayenne pepper, turmeric, thyme and paprika to season just about anything!'
Tips for managing stress, which can weaken the immune system
Stress is a killer. It not only weakens the immune system, but also creates free radicals that can lead to cancer. Stress can increase cortisol levels which suppresses immunity. You can avoid these harmful side effects by doing the following:
- Meditate. Put away your phones, dim the lights and just sit there for 20 to 30 minutes a day. Get quiet and calm yourself down with breathing exercises or other meditation techniques that will help you relax. This is one of the most potent immune system boosters you'll find!
- Exercise regularly because it boosts immune function. You don't have to run marathons or lift heavy weights; walking for 20 minutes, three times a week is enough. This will not only help you sleep better at night (and get rid of belly fat which is linked with decreased immune system function), but also reduce your stress levels. As a bonus, exercising gives you more energy throughout the day.
- Get enough sleep at night. Lack of sleep contributes to hormonal imbalance, weight gain, increased inflammation and low immunity. Aim for about 7 ½ hours each night if possible.
- Keep a journal of things that make you feel good and read it when you need to boost your mood.
- Reach out to friends and family – spend time with those who support and care for you!
- Practice deep breathing exercises . This will not only reduce your stress levels, but also improve your immunity.
- Do yoga – this activity can relieve stress and help promote a healthy immune system.
Why do toxins affect our immune system?
Toxins in our environment affect the immune system by depleting or disturbing glands (e.g., thymus, thyroid, adrenals) that are responsible for immunity. Toxins also increase free radical damage in our cells which can lead to various chronic illnesses. Some of the toxins that have the biggest negative effect on immunity include fluoride, mercury, aluminum, bisphenol A (BPA) and other chemicals found in food containers, personal care products, cleaning supplies, plastics and canned goods.
Toxic chemicals are being found to be linked to many diseases that have become more prevalent over the past few decades . A New York Times article says "Hundreds of industrial compounds are now found in the bodies of typical Americans - including newborns - according to an analysis of blood and urine samples from volunteers tested by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."
Air Pollution due to pollution from cars and industry as well as smog from fires burning in forests or agricultural fields is another factor affecting our immunity. The World Health Organization has warned that air pollution now ranks alongside smoking as the leading cause of cancer worldwide, with lung cancer rates in cities much higher than in rural areas.
How to reduce exposure to toxins
It's nearly impossible to avoid exposure to all of these toxins, but you can reduce your exposure and protect yourself by doing the following:
1. Reduce your use of plastics. A 2005 study shows that BPA is linked with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erythematosus. Avoid plastic containers and replace them with glass ones.
2. Buy organic or avoid the " Dirty Dozen ". Try to buy organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible because they contain less pesticides. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), which is a research organization in the US, identified twelve types of produce most contaminated by pesticides: apples, celery, sweet bell peppers, peaches, strawberries, nectarines (imported), grapes, spinach, lettuce, cucumbers, blueberries (domestic) and potatoes. These are the ones you want to buy organic. Also try to avoid canola oil because more than 90% of this type of oil comes from seeds that have been genetically modified (GM). Ingesting GM foods can cause leaky gut syndrome which increases your vulnerability to toxins and other health problems.
3. Go for green cleaning supplies – these are ones that have less chemical ingredients.
4. Filter water with a reverse osmosis filter, or buy distilled water. Tap water contains many chemicals such as chlorine, fluoride, aluminum and mercury, which can all deplete or disturb the immune system.
5. Reduce your exposure to mercury through seafood. Mercury toxicity is known to suppress immunity. Eating large amounts of fish contaminated with mercury can also lead to high levels of mercury toxicity and illness.
6. Avoid perfume and cologne, air fresheners, scented candles, etc. because they contain many chemicals that can damage immunity if inhaled or absorbed through the skin (for example: phthalates, parabens and terpenes). You may want to wear these things less often, replace them with unscented ones, or buy hormone-free cosmetics.
7. Reduce the use of antibacterial soap, toothpaste and hand sanitizers because they contain triclosan which can destroy beneficial bacteria in your gut that are responsible for immunity. This is especially important if you have SIBO.
8. Avoid fluoride – this chemical additive is found in tap water, toothpaste, mouthwash, etc. It can damage the thymus gland which is responsible for immunity. In fact, fluoride toxicity can cause a decrease in immunity and an increase in cancer, cardiovascular disease and other chronic illnesses.
9. Take vitamin C daily. It is antioxidant that protects the immune system from toxins such as heavy metals, chemicals, etc. Vitamin C also boosts immunity by increasing white blood cells and antibodies.
10. Take vitamin D daily. This vitamin also boosts immunity by increasing white blood cells. Vitamin D deficiency is linked with autoimmune disease, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative disorders, etc.
11. Take zinc to reduce your chances of getting sick because this nutrient is needed for the body's immune system to function properly.
What are some lifestyle changes I can make to strengthen my immune system?
There are a few other lifestyle changes you can make to improve your immunity. For example:
- Get sufficient sleep – lack of sleep has been linked with decreased immunity as well as increased risk for cancer, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other illnesses. In addition, children who do not get sufficient sleep are at greater risk for infectious diseases.
- Avoid sugar and other refined carbohydrates. Sugar creates inflammation in your body which decreases immunity. Keep those blood sugar levels as stable as possible. Also limit alcohol consumption because it increases free radical damage to cells which can lead to cancer and chronic illness such as heart disease and diabetes.
- Drink plenty of fresh water every day because dehydration also weakens your immune system. Keep a bottle of water at your desk and one by your bed so you remember to drink it during the day.
- Maintain a healthy weight – overweight and obese people produce more inflammatory chemicals in the body which triggers a chronic inflammatory response leading to immune dysfunction.
With such an array of immune boosting suggestions, you can be sure to keep your immune system strong and healthy all year round. You can also be confident that by making these changes, you are helping yourself as well as the planet to become healthier. Share this with someone so they too can benefit from an essential human need for survival.