After the last few years, we have all become keenly aware of the importance of staying healthy. As more of us begin to add plans to our calendars it becomes increasingly important to take steps to build immunity and fortify our internal defenses by cultivating a healthy immune system.
Immune System Basics
The immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins that defends the body against infection. It has two types of response: Innate & Adaptive.
Innate Immune Response:
The first line of defense and the one you are born with, the innate immune response includes chemical and physical barriers that mount a general, localized response to a “foreign” invader. The blood cells involved release chemicals that cause inflammation, and set the stage for the Adaptive Immune Response.
- Bloodborne (e.g. granulocytes like macrophages, natural killer cells),
- Physical (e.g. skin, mucus, stomach acid)
Adaptive Immune Response:
The next line of defense, the one shaped by our environment and often called acquired, is the adaptive immune response. These defenses mount a more specific and systemic response, informed by the specific pathogen that has invaded.
- Cell-mediated adaptive response: T Cells
- Antibody/humoral response: B Cells
A common analogy is to think of the Innate Immune System as a cop patrolling the neighborhood. The officer sees a high-profile bank heist going on and calls for backup, then cordons off the area with other officers, setting up a perimeter. The Adaptive Immune System would be the specialist called in to deal with the specific threat, like a SWAT team. T Cells are the actual SWAT unit that is ready to breach the bank and get the bad guys. B Cells are the intel & surveillance unit, flagging the bad guys for T Cells to eliminate.
So, keep reading for some practical steps you can take to keep these two response mechanisms in tip-top shape.
Ways to Support A Healthy Immune System
This is paramount: get enough sleep. Immune cells, like cytokines and antibodies, are produced when you sleep. Too few hours or poor sleep quality may compromise your ability to produce these immune cells.
Consider your sleep “hygiene”, or the environment and routines you keep to promote good sleep. Limit screen time at night, and aim for 7-9 hours of continuous sleep. Sleep with an eye mask to block light and optimize melatonin production, which even low light from clocks and phones can disrupt. Melatonin is a potent antioxidant and also hormone that promotes sleep and a healthy circadian rhythm.
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Drinking lots of water is essential for immune health, especially during winter months. Not only does it help the body eliminate toxins, but it helps keep lymph fluid flowing. The lymph system is a network of organs and vessels that move immune cells throughout the body.
Eat a Clean, Anti-Inflammatory Diet
A “clean” diet means choosing whole, unprocessed foods (think, quinoa instead of pasta), rich in vitamins and minerals (i.e., veggies, herbs, spices), as often as possible. Your body has a natural inflammatory response foods high in sugar, alcohol, preservatives, artificial flavors and many other common ingredients. Avoiding these foods helps to reduce the background, systemic inflammation our body tries to manage daily.
Focus on foods that are high in antioxidants, vitamin C, vitamin D, and zinc, which have all been shown to support immune health. Include nutrient-dense mushrooms, berries, seeds & nuts in your recipes, and limit animal fats and sweeteners.
If you can’t get all of the support you need from your meals, consider adding dietary supplements that support daily immune health. In addition to the vitamins listed above, botanical supplements can deliver a concentrated shot right when you need it.
Look for products that blend a variety of botanicals with complementary support functions. “Support functions” refer to the manner in which they affect the immune system. Some such functions include:
- Immunomodulator: upregulates or downregulates immune response according to what’s needed.
- Antioxidant: improve immune response, prevents damage to immune cells
- T Helper Cell production: most critical to adaptive immunity, stimulates cytotoxic T cells to attack infection
- Lymphocyte production: supports white blood cells (including T Cell, B Cell and natural killer cells), critical
- Immunopotentiating: enhances one or more specific immune functions
- Cytokine Production: cytokines are the messenger from one immune cell to another, telling the team what news to be done. Some stimulate and some slow down the immune system.
Keep Stress in Check
Mental and emotional stress have real impacts on our physical health. You’ve probably heard of cortisol, or the “stress hormone”, which is released as part of the fight-or-flight response. Chronic stress keeps this response turned on, keeps us in a state of high-alert, and keeps cortisol levels elevated. Over time this becomes problematic because cortisol suppresses the immune system.
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Exercise, even low-impact, has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, and regular exercise helps regulate immune health. As we all spend more time at home than usual, it is even more important to be mindful of how much you’re sitting vs. how much moving we do. Aim for at least 30-45 minutes of exercise per day. Nature walks, dog romps, and toddler-wrestling all count!