Every day, our immune system works hard to protect us, like an army, fighting off harmful organisms, bacteria, and viruses to keep us healthy and well. We are continually exposed to these organisms which are either inhaled, swallowed, or inhabit the skin and mucous membranes. Whether or not they lead to disease depends on the integrity of our body’s mechanism of defense: the immune system.
The immune system is a system of multiple interconnected parts, not a single entity. It’s made up of antibodies, white blood cells, and other chemicals and proteins that attack and destroy substances like bacteria and viruses that are recognized as foreign and different from the body’s normal, healthy tissues.
The immune system also includes:
- the tonsils and the thymus gland, which make antibodies. (Interesting note: the reason why babies put everything in their mouths is so that when they swallow, the tonsils can become exposed to external organisms and thereby develop antibodies to them.)
- the lymph nodes and vessels, comprising the lymphatic system. This network carries lymphatic fluid, nutrients, and waste materials between the body tissues and the bloodstream, and is an important part of the immune system. Lymph nodes filter lymphatic fluid as it flows through them, trapping bacteria, viruses, and other foreign substances, which are they destroyed by special white blood cells called lymphocytes. (Bra-wearers, keep in mind that tight elastic around the ribcage can inhibit the proper flow of lymphatic fluid through the numerous lymph nodes found there, adversely affecting your immunity.)
- bone marrow, the soft tissue inside the bones, where both red and white blood cells are produced.
- the spleen, which filters the blood by removing old or damaged blood cells and platelets, and helps the immune system by destroying bacteria and other foreign substances.
- white blood cells, made in the bone marrow, which protect the body against infection. If an infection develops, white blood cells attack and destroy the bacteria, virus, or other organism causing it.
One amazing thing about the immune system is that it’s constantly adapting and learning what’s in the environment, so the body can fight against bacteria or viruses that change over time. For example, part of the immunity breast milk imparts is determined by what’s in baby’s saliva, which flows back upstream as the baby nurses. Depending on what is in this “baby backwash,” the mother’s body will create made-to-order immune factors that are delivered back to the baby in the milk. Incredible!
When our immune system is working properly, we tend to not even notice. But when we have an under- or over-active immune system, we are at greater risk of developing infections and other health conditions.
Allergies and asthma involve an immune-mediated inflammatory response to normally harmless environmental substances called allergens. When the body overreacts to an allergen, like dust or pollen, it causes an immune reaction that leads to allergy symptoms.
Immune deficiency is when the immune system is missing one or more of its parts, and reacts too slowly to a threat. Human immunodeficiency virus/acquired immune deficient syndrome (HIV/AIDS) is one example here. Another is graft versus host syndrome, where the white blood cells of an organ donor’s immune system which remain in the donated tissue (the graft) recognize the receipient (the host) as foreign, which leads to a white blood cell attack. In the opposite case, transplant reaction, the host’s body rejects the donated tissue as foreign.
Autoimmune diseases cause your immune system to attack your own body’s cells and tissues in response to an unknown trigger. There has been an alarming increase in autoimmune diseases worldwide since WWII, with more than 80 now identified. Some autoimmune diseases include rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, and type 1 diabetes.
With any autoimmune disease, the first line of defense would be to address leaky gut syndrome, also known as intestinal permeability, which is associated with several autoimmune diseases. Normally, a strong gut lining controls what gets into the bloodstream from the intestines, but when the gut lining is compromised (from poor diet, pharmaceutical medicines, stress, excessive sugar or alcohol intake, and more), it allows partially digested food, toxins, and baceteria to penetrate.
Research is booming with studies showing an association between leaky gut and several common chronic diseases, even depression.
So what can we do to support our immune system? While we can’t control everything in our environment, choosing a healthier lifestyle overall will have the greatest, most lasting effects.
Here are some simple steps and strategies we can take to help our fighters do their job even better:
- Drink lemon water for hydration, vitamin C, antioxidants, and minerals. Added bonus: this also helps to gently detoxify your liver
- Vitamin C has wonderful immune boosting benefits. You can also eat more citrus fruits or take a vitamin C supplement.
- Elderberries have been used as medicine for thousands of years. Elderberry tincture makes a great flu remedy as well, decreasing the intensity and duration of your illness. (Click over to my products page on this site to read about and purchase some of my own homemade elderberry syrup!).
- Fresh garlic contains sulfur-based compounds that boost immunity, lower blood pressure, and slow the hardening of arteries. Fresh only, as the powdered stuff is delicious but doesn’t have the same effect.
- Green tea is rich in antioxidants that enhance immune function, plus the amino acid L-theanine which supports T-cells, your cancer-fighters.
- Limit sugar intake. Refined sugar creates inflammation in the body and drastically lowers your natural immune response, making you more susceptible to illness and prolonging it.
- Get at least 7 hours of sleep per night for proper cellular regeneration.
- Eat fresh ginger, a powerful antioxidant that boosts immune function, rids the body of toxins, cleanses the colon, and fights inflammation and infection. Buy some fresh ginger root and either cook with food or brew into a tea.
- Sip some bone broth, an excellent source of minerals and amino acids that bolster the immune response, fight infection and inflammation, and support gut healing. You can drink it by itself in a mug, make a soup, or use instead of water to cook rice. Visit my old blog for a recipe.
- Raw honey builds immunity to allergens like local pollen. It is an antioxidant superfood that is antibacterial and protects against cancer. I know someone who even healed an eye infection by putting honey in her eye! Take a spoon a day, but not much more to keep your sugar intake low. Note: Raw honey is not for children under 1 year of age.
- Vitamin D enhances immunity and protects against numerous diseases, including cancer. The best vitamin D is produced in your body from sun exposure. Spend 20-30 minutes in the sun every day, with as much skin exposed as possible. If it’s winter or you live up north, you can take a vitamin D supplement. I personally find vitamin D drops the easiest way to supplement, packing a punch of 1,000 mg per drop.
- Regular exercise reduces stress, lowers inflammation, and improves your body’s ability to fight disease. “Regular” is considered about 30 minutes a day, and it doesn’t have to be high-intensity … even a brisk walk will suffice.
- Eliminate processed foods (or drastically reduce them), as they are filled with additives that compromise your immune function. Eat a rainbow of colorful plants rich in antioxidants and fiber, and avoid highly refined vegetable oils. Instead, choose avocado, coconut, or olive oil.
- Eat turmeric root, and benefit from its active compound curcumin, which reduces inflammation, heals the gut, boosts brain function, and bolsters the immune system. Fresh root or powder is fine, and my favorite way to consume it is in a tasty hot beverage you can make at home called golden milk. (To make it, combine coconut or plant milk of choice, turmeric, a pinch of black pepper, cinnamon, ginger, and cardamom in a pot on the stove, simmer for ten minutes, strain, and add sweetener of choice).
- Eat more spinach and broccoli, both of which are high in vitamin C, antioxidants, and fiber, and support the immune system. Cook only lightly; don’t overcook.
- Zinc is an essential mineral that promotes healthy immune function and healing. It has similar antioxidant properties to vitamin C.
- Echinacea is an herb that is a powerful immune system stimulant, particularly effective with recurring infections. It’s also a great preventive and remedy for the common cold, especially when taken right at the onset of symptoms.
- Essential oil of oregano fights infection naturally due to its antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, and antiparasitic compounds. When I feel like I need an immunity boost, I put several drops into an empty capsule and swallow, because taken straight, the flavor is very strong and can burn on the way down.
- Astragalus root has a long history as an immune booster and disease fighter in traditional Chinese medicine.
From this long list of action steps you can take to boost your immunity, choose what works best for you, and stay healthy!