While it may not be possible to prevent yourself from ever getting sick again you can dramatically reduce your risk for infections and help ensure mild symptoms and quick recovery if you do fall ill from a cold, flu, or other infectious disease. To achieve this you need to understand the immune system and its supportive players, and implement diet and lifestyle practices that help to optimize its function. Below is a comprehensive, yet easy to follow guide to help you do just that.
Viruses Do Not Cause Disease, a Poorly Functioning Immune System Does
Before working to optimize the immune system, it’s important to first understand that viruses and bacteria are not the enemies, nor are they foreign to the body. We are constantly exposed to viruses, bacteria, and other microbes. In fact, it's estimated that humans breathe in between100,000 and 1 million bugs a day and many of these microbes play an important role in building the immune system. So the goal isn't to avoid all microbes, the goal is to build a well functioning immune system that will mount a powerful and immediate attack against any microbes that are pathogenic (disease-causing). When we do this, infectious diseases no longer stand a chance.
The Innate and Adaptive Immune System
The immune system is composed of two branches. The innate immune system is what you were born with, and it includes physical barriers such as the skin, chemicals in the blood, and immune system helper cells which are our first line of defense against all foreign invaders. The adaptive, or acquired immune system is slower to respond but in a way, it is more intelligent. It creates memories of past infectious invaders so that it can protect us from them if they try to invade our systems again in the future.
The adaptive immune system is why the recovery time from a cold, flu, or other infection you’ve had before is typically shorter and the symptoms less severe. This is also why COVID-19 is more contagious - because it is new, the adaptive immune system hasn't created any memory antibodies, T cells, or B cells to protect us against it. It is these ‘memories’ that are tested for in the COVID-19 antibody test, which is used to identify if you previously had COVID-19 and have therefore acquired some level of protection against it.
Supportive Players of the Immune System
The immune system does not operate on its own. It’s a large and intricate system, and it operates similar to a symphony, relying on many other organs and systems to do its job. The lymphatic system, the spleen, bone marrow, and white blood cells all play an integral role in immunity. The thymus is also important as it is where T cells mature which are critical to the adaptive immune system. Additional supporting players include the heart and blood vessels which are required to pump the blood carrying the immune system helper cells to where they are needed. And finally, your adrenal glands because they release secretory products (particularly glucocorticoids and catecholamines) that regulate immune cell activation and bacterial proliferation.
Don’t Increase Immune Function, Optimize It
When most people think of protecting themselves from infectious diseases, ‘boosting’ the immune system is often what comes to mind. But the immune system needs to be kept in balance and an overactive immune system can be just as dangerous as an underactive one; it can lead to a bevy of autoimmune diseases and cause the immune system to attack the body's own cells and tissues. An overactive immune system can also lead to the cytokine storm, which is a runaway immune response that irreparably injures tissues and can lead to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is one of the major lung complications of viruses like COVID-19.
Optimizing the Immune System with Lifestyle Medicine
There are several lifestyle factors that harm our bodies and impinge on the immune system's ability to do its job. Some of the most critical factors include lack of exercise, poor quality sleep, chronic stress, vitamin D deficiency, toxins in our homes, water, air, food, and personal care products; smoking, alcohol, over-the-counter and prescription drugs; depression, loneliness, and an unhealthy diet. Even just one of the above factors is enough to throw the whole orchestra off-key, and many people have several that apply to them. And the more factors that apply to you, the more compromised your immune function is likely to be.
“When you take something that functions well and put all of this weight on it, you impair a normally robust immune system,” explains Matthew Lederman, MD, coauthor of The Forks Over Knives Plan. “We have to remove the weight so that the immune system can slingshot back into this amazing, powerful thing,” he adds. If several of the above immune system sabotagers apply to you, I recommend addressing just 1 or 2 at a time, so as to avoid getting overwhelmed and quitting altogether. After 3 weeks (the amount of time it takes to create a new habit) add in more factors, until you have eventually addressed them all.
*Never stop prescription drugs on your own, work alongside a Naturopathic doctor or other qualified practitioner.
Your Gut Plays a Critical Role In Your Immunity
A massive 70 percent of your immune system resides in your gut and the immune system is separated from the gut microbiome by a single layer of cells. The two are in constant communication and an unhealthy diet leads to both immediate and cumulative damaging effects. Unfortunately, many of the staples of the American diet - sugar, animal products, processed foods, artificial sweeteners, and alcohol, destroy the healthy gut bacteria required for optimal immunity. Other things that compromise gut health include the use of antibiotics, birth control pills, pesticides, and stress.
The Best Diet for Gut Health and Immune Function
Research shows a wholefoods, plant-based diet is the best diet for cultivating a healthy gut microbiome, losing weight and optimizing immune function. Animal-based proteins and fats feed the bad bacteria and reduce the good bacteria, and they should ideally be eliminated from the diet. Eat a diverse diet with a wide range of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. The fiber in these foods will nourish the healthy bacteria, and the diversity will ensure you get all the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants your body and immune system need to function optimally.
To replenish healthy gut bacteria consume foods that contain probiotics such as sauerkraut, pickled vegetables, coconut water kefir, kimchi, kombucha tea, and organic, fermented soy products. For added support, you may also want to take a high-quality probiotic supplement. You may want to also include cucumbers and cabbage in your daily diet. A recent study found that cucumbers and cabbage (whether raw, pickled in sauerkraut or mixed into coleslaw) could help people build up resistance to the coronavirus, by reducing the levels of a compound that helps the virus infect the body.
Optimize Vitamin D Levels
Vitamin D is also critical for optimum immune function and it is estimated that at least half of all Americans are deficient in it. We have created a special formula that combines vitamin D in it's most bioavailable form (D3) with the freshest source of probiotics. These two work together synergistically to support gut health and the immune system. Call our office @ 949-720-1554 if you would like to order this specialty supplement.