The immune system
When faced with the various pathogens (invading micro-organisms) that can attack the body’s systems, we have two choices: a) try to conquer the invading organism, or b) strengthen the body.
We normally employ a combination of these two methods, relying on medications (such as antibiotics, antivirals etc). However, drugs are, by their very nature, poisonous to the body, and while they may rid the body of an infection, in the long term they could cause more harm than good, when over-used or relied on. The harm may not just be to the body itself; they can result in drug-resistant strains of bacteria.
As most people know, prevention is always better than cure. What this means is an encouragement to turn our attention inwards, looking to strengthen immunity as a first line of defence.
The immune system is one of the most extraordinary and complex systems in the body and its abilities should not be underestimated. Consider, for example, that it is able to produce a million specific ‘fighters’ (called antibodies) within as little as a minute, and to recognise and disarm a billion different invaders (called antigens). With this in mind, boosting the immune system during vulnerable times, such as the winter ‘flu season, is a logical step.
The ability of the immune system to react quickly and effectively to a new invader can make the difference between a relatively minor affliction (that lasts, say, 24 hours) and a debilitating stomach bug that goes on for a week or more.
How to boost your immune system
When it comes to boosting your immune system, there are 4 key elements:
1. Well-balanced diet which can include supplements.
2. Healthy digestive system.
3. Good exercise
4. Positive state of mind.
Immune boosting diet
Your immune system is completely dependent on the fuel you give it to function. Without the correct intake of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to do its job, it will not function optimally.
Some of the most critical vitamins for immune system function are vitamins A, B1, B2, B6, B12, folic acid, C and E. Deficiencies in these vitamins will suppress the immune system.
Similarly, deficiencies in minerals like iron, zinc, magnesium and selenium will also suppress immunity.
The production of antibodies – so critical in fighting any infection – and T-cell function, is dependent on the availability of vitamin B6.
B6, zinc and folic acid are all needed for the rapid production of new immune cells to fight invaders.
Most invaders produce the dangerous oxidising chemicals known as free radicals to fight off the “goodies” of your immune system. Antioxidant nutrients, such as vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E, as well as zinc and selenium, disarm these harmful chemicals, thereby weakening the “baddies”.
Vitamin A also supports the integrity of the digestive tract, lungs and all cell membranes, helping to prevent foreign agents from entering the body and viruses from entering cells.
Pathogens are all around us and are unavoidable, but whether or not you succumb to them is determined (not only by exposure) but also by your internal balance of bacteria. The reason for this is that beneficial bacteria (friendly bacteria), both consume nutrients that would otherwise feed the bad guys, and also block receptor sites that harmful bacteria have to latch on to to cause an infection. However, one of the main ways that probiotics protect you is that they produce substances (such as lactic acid and hydrogen peroxide) which stop harmful bacteria from growing. Probiotics don’t just give pathogenic bacteria a hard time, they also actively boost your immune system by improving its fighting ability.
One of the main entry points into the body for invaders (such as bacteria and viruses) is the digestive tract. Inside the digestive tract is the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), one of the most important parts of the immune system. This tissue is programmed to allow completely digested food particles to pass through the gut wall into the body (as nutrients), but prevent antigens from passing through. If the gut wall lining becomes compromised, as a result (for example) of an underlying health issue such as ‘leaky gut’ or food intolerance, these antigens can start to get through. In contrast, ensuring that you have healthy, strong mucous membranes in the gut, is your first line of defence against invaders.
Exercise can be an effective tool in strengthening your immune system, but it is important not to over-train. Vigorous exercise can actually have the effect of suppressing the immune system. As such, if you are feeling under the weather or at a vulnerable time, it may be better to opt for a form of exercise that is calming, rather than stressful on the body. Good examples are yoga, or t’ai chi. The latter has been shown to increase the count of T-cells (one of the body’s types of immune cell) by 38%*.
Exercise is also a great way to promote lymphatic drainage. When an invader is identified in the body, new ‘troops’ are produced in the bone marrow and thymus and sent to the lymph nodes (and elsewhere, such as the digestive tract). Lymphatic vessels drain into the nodes, bringing invaders to be destroyed. This is why lymph nodes become swollen during an infection – it actually shows they are working correctly! However, since the lymphatic system does not have a pump, it relies on muscle movement (such as during exercise) to move the lymphatic fluid along.
State of mind
While calming exercise can boost the immune system and strengthen the body and mind, numerous studies have found that low psychological states (such as stress, depression and grief) have the opposite effect and actively depress the immune system. Learning how to better manage and cope with stress, and relaxing, are effective methods in boosting the immune system. Meditation, for example, has been shown to increase T-cell counts*.