Our immune system is a highly complex network of various types of white blood cells and hundreds of proteins and chemicals. It’s an incredible organ of sorts, working overtime to not only fend off a constant onslaught of microbes (which number in the thousands) but also must self-monitor to avoid attacking ourselves.
And as amazing as it is, the immune system is certainly not infallible. We get sick, and autoimmunity, as manifested by numerous diseases and conditions wherein our immune system targets self, presents some of the most challenging illnesses we can face.
Immunity is much like our health; when taken care of it protects us from illness. When neglected, it’s quite noticeable how the frequency of illness increases.
So how can we keep our immune system in top shape and experience little in the way of illness? Due to the complexity of immunity, there isn’t any one proven nutrient that does it all. Rather, there are many variables that go into sustaining immunity, much the same as there are for health in general.
Overall, the best approach to immunity involves providing a balanced approach. In a future blogs I’ll get more specific about which nutrients and natural medicines show promise for immunity. But if you don’t cover the basics, taking extra nutrients probably won’t help.
But first, let’s get rid of some common misconceptions about immunity!
Will you get sick if you catch a chill?
We’ve covered this one before. In short, researchers have done all kinds of tests exposing people to freezing, damp conditions. And the consensus is that normal exposure to cold temperatures won’t make you sick.
So the next time Granny threatens that “you’ll catch a cold” if you go out without a scarf, hat and jacket, it’s safe to say you can ignore her (this one time!).
However, if you’re run down, tired, stressed and out in the elements for long periods of time, all of this can come together and certainly make it easier for you to get sick. But normal exposure to cold won’t hasten your demise.
Do we get sick because we’re trapped indoors all winter, in close quarters?
It’s also commonly said that we get sick more often in the winter because we’re all trapped indoors breathing each other’s germs. How does this differ from the summer, when we’re all trapped indoors with the air conditioning on? Sure, we get outside more in the summer, but arguably we spend the same amount of time indoors at work (if you work indoors) year round.
Researchers think the real reason we get sick more often in the winter is due to low vitamin D levels in our bodies. (We talk more about how vitamin D supports immune function in this blog.) Once summer tans have faded, vitamin D levels plummet, making us more vulnerable to getting sick.
Does sugar inhibit immune function?
This notion gets tossed around quite a bit in natural medicine circles. There’s no evidence that sugar directly suppresses immunity. Rather, it’s the apparent effect of too much sugar (and the unhealthy foods it’s found in) and not enough immune-boosting nutrients in fresh foods that have lead to this observation. Too much sugary food and not enough nutrients from healthy foods won’t keep immunity in top shape, not to mention your cardiovascular system as well.
The Basics of A Healthy Immune System
Your overall health, and the health of your immune system are like a garden. It takes constant nurturing to keep it in good shape. Here are the worst things you can do to lower immunity:
Smoke (None of our readers do this – do you??) This is common sense, right? Other than the toxic burden of cigarette smoke, it paralyzes the microscopic hairs (cilia) inside our lungs that keep them clean, allowing phlegm and other junk to build up, setting up a nice breeding ground for bacteria and viruses.
Drink to excess. More than 6 alcoholic beverages a week will bring you down. Alcohol is a toxin, quite simply. Too much will impair immunity – and too much isn’t a lot!
Insomnia. If your sleep is broken, so is your immune system. Not only that, but you’ll also have problems with mood, weight gain, blood pressure and insulin resistance.
Stress. Everyone has stress, that’s normal and may even confer some immunity upon us. But when it’s extreme, it will take your immune system out.
High sugar, low nutrient diets. Again, none of you, right? Loads of simple carbs and a relative lack of fresh foods is one of the ways we get too much sugar, without good nutrition. Your immune system thrives on nutrients like vitamins A, B2, B6, D, C, E and minerals like zinc and selenium, to name a few. A good way to make sure you're getting all of these is with a multivitamin.
So if you adhere to all of the above, what else can you do on an ongoing basis to stay healthy?
Don’t touch your face (eyes, ears, nose, mouth) without having washed your hands first. Stop and think of all the things you’ve touched today, that never really get cleaned. Gas pumps, door handles, steering wheels, pens, desktops, etc. Known as fomites, these inanimate objects harbor infectious organisms that can be easily transferred between people.
Wash your hands. Of course. So you don’t contribute to the bug pool on all those fomites!
Get fresh air. Earlier I said it’s not being trapped indoors that necessarily makes us sick. But it doesn’t help either. Open your windows all season long – yes even in the winter. Get the old stale air out and freshen it up. Spend a little time outside each day at work and get some fresh air.
Maintain fitness. There is a whole body of research that looks at the relationship between exercise and immunity. In short, no exercise affects immunity like it does the rest of your health – you won’t have much if you don’t do it. Moderate amounts of exercise (2-8 hours a week) will boost immunity, considerably.
But more than 8 hours a week, we actually see a dip in immunity. There are several theories for this but the prevailing notion is that too much exercise then becomes a stressor on the body and the immune system again becomes imbalanced.
Of course all of this varies from person to person but it’s safe to say no to little fitness lets the immune system sag, moderate amounts are very helpful, and if you exercise more than 8 hours or so weekly, you may find yourself battling more colds than normal.