An Introduction to Immune Health
As your personal built-in security system, your immune system offers both offensive and defensive support to every cell, organ, and system in your body. The main components of the immune system include:
- The spleen
- Bone marrow
- The thymus
- White blood cells
- The tonsils
- Mucous membranes in the nose and throat
- Mucous membranes in the bowels
- Tissue, vessels, and nodes in the lymphatic system
Gaining a better understanding of how the immune system works as an entity can help you map out your maintenance plan for individual organs and systems as well as for overall health and vitality.
Primary immune system functions include:
- Repairing cells and tissues
- Removing old and dead cells
- Protecting against external microbial threats
- Destroying cells infected by microbes
- Cleaning up debris left over from metabolic processes (such as oxidized cholesterol particles)
- Detoxifying the body
- Managing the microbiome
How Modern Life Influences Immune Health
Your body has a limited amount of resources to devote to the everyday functions and processes that keep you healthy. The good news is, your body is quite good at multitasking and budgeting its energy. When functioning normally, the body can divide its resources among any number of processes and systems at one time and still have enough left over for your daily needs.
Unfortunately, life in the modern world places unique pressures on the body’s operating systems, especially immune system functions. These stress factors are a result of our own modern innovation. They include:
Unnatural diet: Our plentiful and convenient diet of predominantly processed foods and fatty grain-fed meats is loaded with excessive carbohydrates and unhealthy fats that clog up our systems and slow us down.
Toxic environment: The modern world is saturated with a variety of hidden toxins such as mycotoxins from molds and numerous toxins as byproducts from the creation of plastics and from using petroleum and coal. These compromise cellular production of energy, disrupt hormone systems, and suppress immune system functions. The artificial energy from our computers, cell phones, electrical devices, and microwave towers also disrupt energy pathways in the body and suppress immune system functions.
Chronic stress: The complexities of 21st-century life cause a certain level of pervasive, low-grade tension when not managed well. Over time, this chronic stress triggers the body to inhibit immune function.
Sedentary lifestyle: Most of us have sedentary jobs, and prolonged inactivity — especially sitting in front of a computer — is stressing the body in different ways. It’s associated with decreased blood flow, retention of toxins, immune dysfunction, decreased endorphins, and low energy.
Microbes: Wellness is associated with a strong prevalence of normal flora and high diversity of the microbiome. The modern human microbiome, however, is anything but. Processed foods, chronic stress, and liberal use of antibiotics in both humans and agriculture limit diversity of the microbiome, with a shift toward potential pathogens that pose a constant challenge to the immune system.
Immune Health and Your Microbiome
Managing your microbiome is among the most important of your immune system’s functions. Your microbiome is the sum of all the microbes that inhabit your body – 100 trillion microbes of several thousand different species – and your immune system has the tough job of maintaining that delicate balance of microbes.
Your microbiome is passed on from your mother both during and after birth, and then you continue adding microbes throughout your life. Microbes need nutrients and resources from a host — your body — to survive. They gain access to your body in a variety of ways: through food and beverages; intimate contact with other people; bites, cuts and scrapes; and exposure to dirt.
Most microbes join your microbiome as normal flora; they give back as much as they take. Having a wide diversity of normal flora is associated with good health, but not all microbes want to help your body maintain that healthy balance in the microbiome. Thankfully, your immune system is designed to promptly recognize and dispatch microbes that have other intentions.
The line between friendly flora and outright pathogens can often be blurry – many microbes are “stealth microbes” that seem friendly at first, but end up overstaying their welcome. Because of their stealthy characteristics, the immune system has a hard time eradicating them, so they linger in the recesses of the body.
Some stealth microbes are more concerning than others, but everyone on the planet harbors some of them. Many of the same herbs and habits that keep your overall health and immune system functioning properly also keep these stealthy invaders in check.
Herbs and Natural Ingredients to Promote Immune Health
Like us, herbs have a microbiome. Unlike us, however, herbs lack an immune system, so they keep their microbiome in balance with a sophisticated array of biochemical substances, called phytochemicals.
When we consume phytochemicals from herbs, we gain the support and protection that a plant has to offer. Because different herbs grow in different environments and face different threats, each one provides slightly different levels and types of phytochemicals.
Some of those benefits of these phytochemicals can be direct, such as the same antimicrobial qualities that the plant used to defend itself can help us defend ourselves. In this case, the antimicrobial properties help keep the microbiome in check and take a load off the immune system so that it can better manage all of it’s other responsibilities.
One neat aspect of using herbs for this purpose is that they are often much gentler on the body than, say, antibiotics, and most do not disrupt the beneficial flora of the body. Antimicrobial ingredients to check out in this category are:
- Berberine (a phytochemical that can be derived from several species of herbs)
- Prickly ash
- Chinese salvia (aka red sage)
- Cat’s claw
- Japanese knotweed
Other times, these plant properties translate to us in different ways than the plant used them, such as the immune-enhancing effects of certain herbs. In this case, herbs can help in a variety of ways by acting on the immune system directly to optimize immune function. Herbs that shine in this category include:
Note that there is often a lot of overlap in the properties of herbs like the ones mentioned above. For example, cat’s claw is a great antiviral herb as well as a potent immune enhancer.
Examples like this abound in the herbal world thanks to often dozens or more active phytochemicals found in each plant. While the benefits of herbs discussed here are usually more subtle and accrue with cumulative use (as compared with pharmaceutical medications), they have very few side effects and often provide benefits in several areas of health.
Other Tips for Supporting Immune Health
While genetics, toxin exposure, and other uncontrollable aspects of life do play a role in your baseline immunity, there is plenty more you can do to give your immune system a bit more energy and attention to devote to your natural defenses.
1. Clean Up Your Diet.
By cutting back on — or better yet, eliminating — grain-derived processed foods and sugar, you can help strengthen your immune system. If you eat like most Americans, the bulk of your diet is made up of processed food products, meat, and low-quality dairy. For a multitude of reasons, classic American foods do not support your immune system. A healthy body and a robust immune system require a healthy, nutrient-dense diet. To learn more, check out our digestive health guidelines.
2. Eat Fermented Foods.
They contain probiotics — good bacteria that may help balance your microbiome — and prebiotics (fiber that feeds those good bacteria). Good examples include sauerkraut, kefir, and kimchi.
3. Get Plenty of Sleep.
When you sleep, every system in your body gets the chance to renew and restore. Aim for 7 to 9 hours of restful sleep each night to support a healthy immune system. Learn more about getting good sleep here.
4. Manage Your Stress.
Be sure to make time for relaxing activities like yoga, journaling, meditation, reading, or any other activity that helps calm your body and mind. Learn more about managing stress here.
5. Drink Plenty of Pure, Clean Water.
Water aids in the body’s natural detoxification and lymphatic processes. To help support a strong immune system, aim for several liters of clean, purified water each day.
6. Stay Active.
Regular physical activity stimulates endorphins (happy hormones!) and immune-supporting cells that are essential to optimal health. Engaging in physical activity each day provides an endless list of benefits for your body, including a natural immune system boost.
7. Limit Your Exposure to Toxins, Environmental and Otherwise.
Remember that toxins can enter your body through your skin, the air you breathe, and the food you eat. Limiting your exposure to them can help you maintain optimal health of your immune system and the rest of your body.
8. Wash Your hands.
As simple as it might sound, washing your hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds can help keep harmful bacteria at bay and promote a healthy, strong immune system.