Are you constantly fatigued? When cold and flu season comes around, do you find that you almost always get sick? How about allergies? If you experience chronic aches, pains, sniffles, and illnesses, you may be suffering from a weakened immune system. This can be an extremely frustrating state of being and can have a significant impact on virtually every area of your life, including energy, mood, stress management, physical vitality, sleep quality, body composition, and even your longevity and overall risk of developing chronic disease.
Read on to learn about how the immune system works, what happens when it doesn’t work well, and how we can maximize our body’s intricate ability to protect itself against the many stresses we face in our modern world.
Immune System Function and How it Works
The word “immune” has its roots in the Latin word “immunis,” which means “free” or “untouched.” Think about it like your body’s natural defense mechanism. It’s main purpose is to protect your body against parasites, bacteria, fungi, viruses, allergens, and other potentially harmful toxins that are found in abundance within the surrounding environment. If any of these pathogens do find their way into your body, then the immune system is responsible for getting these harmful substances back out.
The immune system is also responsible for identifying when any of your own body’s cells go haywire and begin to grow abnormally, such as in the case of cancer. This is only possible because your immune system is able to tell the difference between your own cells and other foreign substances that may enter your body. It’s an extremely important job, because as a general rule, we do not want our own defense system to be fighting against us!
How it works and parts of the immune system
Immune cells circulate throughout your body via the bloodstream all the time. When a potentially harmful invader enters the body–like a bacteria or fungus–these immune cells will know about it right away because they’ll notice foreign proteins (called “antigens”) on the surface of the invading pathogen. These alerted immune cells then trigger a response using different kinds of proteins and white blood cells to target, destroy, and eliminate the pathogen. Your immune system can “remember” what certain pathogens look like by creating “antibodies” against them during an initial attack. Antibodies stay in your body and function like “tags” that quickly alert your body if the same pathogen returns in the future. This way, your immune response is faster and stronger.
The immune system itself involves several organs and tissues, including the lymph nodes, lymph fluid, thymus, spleen, bone marrow, and tonsils. Other parts of your body, including your skin and your digestive system, are also indirectly involved in your immunity.
Weak Immune System
If you sleep well, feel good, have lots of energy, rarely get sick, don’t have any allergies, and maintain a healthy lifestyle, then it’s safe to say that you probably have a properly functioning immune system. But how do we know if our immune system isn’t working well? The funny thing is, sneezing, coughing, a runny nose, a sore throat, and other common “cold-like symptoms” are actually signs of your immune system doing it’s job. Though unpleasant, these signs are just your body’s way of trying to rid you of whatever pathogens are inside.
Signs of a weak immune system
- Chronic fatigue – you feel constantly tired and no energy to do sports, work actively or household.
- Severe and/or numerous allergies, including food and seasonal allergies
- Frequent and/or more severe colds and infections. A strong immune system is able to fight off mild colds easily,while individuals with a weakened immune system catch colds more easily.
- Other infections such as sinus infections, yeast infections, pink eye, inflamed gums or digestive problems.
- Delayed healing of colds (more than 2-3 weeks) but also other injuries such as a cut or wound. A more serious example are non healing or chronic wounds, 3-6 million individuals in the US suffer from this condition.
In some cases, a person may have a poorly functioning immune system because they were born with a specific immunodeficiency disorder, like alymphocytosis (the “boy in a bubble” disease). These people are at an extremely high risk of becoming sick or getting cancer. A person can also acquire immunodeficiency if they develop certain diseases, such as HIV/AIDS, leukemia, multiple myeloma, and viral hepatitis.
However, even people with typical immune systems can still get sick sometimes, especially if certain life factors–such as injury or a period of high stress–temporarily hinder the strength of their immunity. That is, you may not have been born with or acquired an immunodeficiency disease, but for various reasons your body’s natural defense mechanisms may not be working as well as they should or could be.
Weakened immune system causes
The following 10 things are some of the top factors which can lower your immune system and put you at an increased risk for falling ill, getting cancer, and/or developing an immunodeficiency disorder:
- Excessive alcohol
- Excessive body fat
- Excessive sugar consumption (also read: how to end your sugar addiction)
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Severe burns (including sunburns)
- Chemotherapy and radiation
- Malnutrition/eating unhealthy
- Poor sleep quality
This list is not all-inclusive, and researchers are constantly studying other factors that can damage your immunity. Your doctor can determine the strength of your immune system by running various blood tests and by examining your family and past medical history. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to boost your weakened immune system and experience a meaningful improvement in your quality of living. After all, you deserve to look, feel, and live well–so why not empower yourself by taking matters into your own hands (and maybe the assisting hands of your doctor) and start developing some immune-boosting habits?
Foods That Boost Your Immune System
Let thy food be thy medicine! Prescription drugs have their place, but you should always make an effort to eat things that will naturally enhance your health and well-being. Of course, a diet rich in minerals, vitamins, antioxidants, essential fatty acids, and other crucial nutrients will improve the function of every major system in your body–cardiovascular, metabolic, neurological, musculoskeletal, and hormonal–in addition to boosting your immune system.
Eating healthy for a healthy immune system
In general, the more you gravitate toward a whole, clean, minimally-processed diet, the healthier your immune system will be. Strive to eat organic, local, and ethically raised or grown plants and animals. Stick to lean protein, lots of vegetables and fruits, plenty of healthy fats (including ghee/clarified butter, olive oil, and avocados), and some starches (like sweet potatoes, parsnips, and pumpkin). You should also significantly reduce your consumption of refined carbohydrates like bread, pasta, and sugar, as these promote inflammation in your body. Lastly, make sure you’re drinking plenty of water, and consider adding in some immune-boosting beverages like black or green tea.
Top 5 immune-boosting foods
Of course, not all foods were created equal–even health foods! Research indicates that the following five items are some of the best immune-bolstering foods around. So, whether you know or suspect that you have a weakened immune system, or if you’re simply looking to boost your body’s natural defenses, be sure to keep your kitchen well-stocked with these foods:
- Garlic: mince up some fresh garlic and add it to your meat or vegetables for a healthy dose of antiviral, antibacterial, and anti-fungal goodness. It also contains a natural sulfur-compound called allicin which has medicinal and anti-carcinogenic properties. Plus, garlic is full of important nutrients including Vitamin B6 and Vitamin C. Studies have even showed that daily consumption of garlic can reduce the severity and duration of a common cold. Other immune-boosting herbs and spices which deserve honorable mentions include turmeric, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, and oregano.
- Coconut Oil: use this delicious and mild oil to cook, stir-fry, or even eat with a spoon. Among its many other benefits, coconut oil contains a fatty acid called lauric acid, which your body converts into a compound called monolaurin that has been shown to strengthen the immune system. Some research even suggests that the lauric acid found in coconut oil actually helps destroy invading pathogens by disrupting their lipid membranes. For best results, look for organic and unrefined.
- Yogurt and Kefir:
both yogurt and kefir are fermented dairy products that contain immune-stimulating probiotics, which are micro-organisms that aid in digestion and gut health, among other things. Studies even indicate that these probiotics are anti-bacterial and anti-carcinogenic, and may actually inhibit cancer cell growth. Kefir may be preferable for people who are lactose intolerant, however both products are also full of other health-boosting nutrients including Vitamin B12, riboflavin, magnesium, enzymes, and protein. When selecting dairy products, lean toward organic full-fat variety (as these have less sugar) made from grass-fed cows.
- Mushrooms: it’s no small surprise that hearty, earthy mushrooms are good for your immunity, since compared to many other plants they contain higher amounts of B vitamins, protein, and minerals. Mushrooms (which taste delicious sautéed in coconut oil with fresh garlic!) also contain a compound known as beta-glucan which can boost your immune system by enhancing the anti-infection ability of white blood cells.
- Blueberries And Raspberries: these berries are preferable to many other fruits because they contain far less sugar, plus they are delicious and versatile. Try some topped on your salad, sprinkled over yogurt, or mixed in a smoothie made with kefir or coconut milk for an extra immune kick. These berries are full of healthy phytochemicals, like anthocyanin, which contain powerful antioxidizing and immune-boosting effects.
Which Supplements Are Effective?
Even the best and most diversified diet full of healthy protein, fats, and carbohydrates is often lacking in the necessary vitamins and minerals needed to maintain healthy immune systems. Sticking with organic, local, and fresh produce and grass-fed or wild caught animals can maximize your food’s mineral and vitamin profiles, but it’s not always practical or affordable to go for these types of foods all the time.
To enhance your healthy diet, consider adding some of these immune-boosting supplements:
- Zinc: research strongly supports the notion that people who don’t have enough zinc in their bodies are more likely to get sick. A supplement containing zinc can help boost your immune system by improving the function of white blood cells, enhancing the health of your skin, and providing powerful antioxidant benefits.
- Probiotics: fermented dairy (yogurt and kefir) and fermented vegetables (like sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha) are known to contain high amounts of probiotics, which are “friendly” bacteria such as Lactobacillus acidophilus and Bifidobacterium bifidum. But for people who don’t like these foods, adding a probiotic supplement may be key. Probiotic supplements are thought to improve your body’s immunity not only by aiding your digestive system and supporting the healthy bacteria naturally present in your intestines, but also by helping to ward off infection elsewhere in the body.
- Vitamins: the vitamins we obtain from our food enhance almost every aspect of our health, from vision to brain function. When it comes to boosting your immunity, look for Vitamin A (also known as beta-carotene), Vitamin C, Vitamin E, all of which have powerful antioxidant properties. By “antioxidant,” this means that these vitamins can neutralize and help your body rid harmful oxidizing “free radicals” which can damage your cells. B vitamins, including B12 and B6, are known to be immune boosting. Quality is important when choosing the right vitamin supplement, so you should be willing to invest a little more money in exchange for a product that will be processed better by your digestive system.
- Essential Fatty Acids (EFA): certain fatty acids are considered “essential” because they cannot be produced by your body. The primary EFAs include linoelic acid and alpha-linoleic acid. They have a wide variety of important roles in the body. When it comes to your immune system, EFAs have been scientifically shown to improve the health of skin cells, stimulate immune function, and even relieve or eliminate symptoms associated with many autoimmune disorders.
- Chlorella: this tiny single-celled organism is an excellent little sidekick for your immune system. It’s actually a type of freshwater algae containing a high concentration of chlorophyll, which gives chlorella its green color. As you may remember from high school science, chlorophyll is important for plants because it helps to transform sunlight into energy. When consumed in supplement form, the chlorophyll found in chlorella algae helps oxygenate your body, promote tissue healing, and detoxify your blood.
It’s important to remember that before taking any supplement, you should speak with your doctor to determine what type and what amount of each supplement is appropriate for you. For instance, certain people with severe immunodeficiency disorders shouldn’t take probiotics. Plus, many inexpensive and commercial vitamins and supplements contain unhealthy additives or are made in facilities with limited quality control. As with food, you should always consider quality, price, and sourcing when selecting supplements.
The Use Of Homeopathy For Your Immunity
Homeopathy is an ancient branch of medicine that takes on a more natural, holistic, and whole-person approach to health and wellness compared to conventional health care. One of the main philosophies behind homepathy, which is popular in Eastern medicine, is that by naturally enhancing the body’s innate ability to heal itself, one can both prevent and reverse many common illnesses and diseases.
Like supplements, the use of homeopathic herbs can be an effective way to boost or complement a nutritious diet that may otherwise be lacking in vital elements, minerals, and vitamins. For boosting immunity, some of the most common and popular homeopathic herbs and remedies include:
As mentioned, garlic is another plant that has a potent homeopathic and immune-boosting effect on the body. To ensure that you’re taking the correct dosage and kind of herbal remedies, it’s important to consult with a homeopathic practitioner first, who can provide you with a customized plan to best fit your unique health needs.
Natural Immune Boosters and Lifestyle Changes
By this point, you’ve hopefully been convinced that eating right and adding certain supplements can have a dramatic effect on your immune system strength. Quality in, quality out. The next necessary step is to take a look at your lifestyle and identify the things you may be doing (or not doing) that could be preventing your immune system from functioning properly.
Lifestyle for a strong immune system
In many cases, the simple act of adding a positive behavior (rather than simply removing a negative one) can have a profound and longer-lasting influence. Here are some of the top healthy lifestyle changes that have been shown to enhance your body’s natural defense system:
- Learn good stress management and coping skills: it’s been well-documented that psychological stress lowers immunity, and that people who are subject to chronic amounts of stress are more likely to have other health problems and shorter life spans. Even acute stressors (like taking a test) have been shown to temporarily impair the immune system. In the same way that pollution, chemicals, and other environmental elements are stressors to your body, so too is poor mental health and an inability to cope with challenge. Of course, psychological stress is normal, and it’s unrealistic to expect that you always have to be calm, centered, and happy in order to have a healthy immunity. The more realistic option would be to learn and practice certain skills that can help you better manage your stress levels. This may include meditation and other mindfulness practices. In fact, research even shows that maintaining a regular meditation practice can boost both immune and brain function.
- Exercise regularly: exercise is a powerful health enhancer and a great stress reliever in its own right. It helps you build strong bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments–and it may also help you build a strong immune system, too. While there is limited definitive evidence, several theories exist on how physical activity may improve your immunity. For instance, the deep breathing required during moderate to intense exercise helps oxygenate your blood and can flush out airborne bacteria and other pathogens that may get into your lungs. Exercise also causes white blood cells and antibodies to circulate more rapidly throughout your body. Yoga is one of the best methods of exercise that combines mindfulness, stress relief, deep breathing, and gentle low-impact movement that may be able to protect your body against immune-harming stressors. You might also find it enjoyable to run 15-20 minutes every day. Even such a little effort can have a tremendous impact on your immune system and overall wellbeing.
- Try intermittent fasting: new research shows that periodic fasting for a few days can actually stimulate an increased production in white blood cells which can prevent you from getting sick, or help you recover faster if you become sick. And while getting quality nutrition is critical, evidence also suggests that periodically reducing your caloric intake can help free up energy normally used for digestion and instead be put toward cellular repair and tissue healing. Before trying intermittent fasting, it’s important to speak with your doctor, as dehydration and other problems may occur if a fast is not done safely.
- Get adequate sleep: sleep deprivation, and common and unfortunate phenomenon in our culture, has been shown to have a dramatic negative influence on your health. Sleep (most health experts recommend between 7-9 hours per night) is critical for cellular repair, recovering from an illness, and maintaining a strong immune system. To improve your sleep quality, be sure to sleep in a dark room, pitch black if possible. Don’t do work or watch television in bed. Aim to go to bed around the same time every night, avoid eating within 2-3 hours of going to sleep, and try to minimize or eliminate your dependency on medications that can help with sleep. Minimizing the amount of alcohol you drink can also help improve your sleep and improve your immunity.
- Quit smoking, or never start: it’s long been known just how bad cigarettes and other tobacco products are for the body. Smoking has been shown to increase your risk of a wide variety of health problems including heart disease, stroke, cancer, and asthma. People who smoke also tend to have a harder time recovering from illness. Nicotine and other toxins present in cigarette smoke have been shown to suppress the immune system, damage blood vessels, and destroy antioxidants that would otherwise protect the body against free radicals and cancer. In truth, if you’re still smoking, then it doesn’t really matter how well you eat, how well you manage your stress, or how much you exercise. Quitting smoking (or never picking the habit in the first place) is the number one thing you can do to improve your immunity. The good news is that in as little as 1 to 9 months after you quit, your immune system and lungs will already be functioning better.
Developing a Strong Immune System: Start Small and Keep Going
The proper functioning and health of your immune system is a critical component to your quality of life. You’ve learned many ways to improve your immune system without needing to rely too much–if at all–on medications and drugs. But changing your habits and lifestyle, while worth it, can be difficult. To keep yourself on the right immune-building track:
- Avoid changing everything at once. Don’t set yourself up to fail by trying to make many big changes all at the same time. If you currently smoke, drink a lot of alcohol, or eat a lot of sugary foods, then try to start by modifying one of these unhealthy habits. Add one or two healthy changes, and then as you gain confidence and start to feel better, continue to progress and challenge yourself.
- Recruit some close loved ones for help. Tell them that you’re making an effort to improve your health and that their support would mean a lot.
- Be sure to consult with your doctor. He or she can help you monitor your progress, run blood tests to determine the status of your immune system, and offer you specific tips based on your unique health history.
You deserve a fulfilling, active, and healthy life–and building a better immune system is one of the best ways to get there!