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. Gaining a better understanding of how the immune system works can help you map out your maintenance plan for individual organs and systems and overall health and vitality.
Primary immune system functions include:
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 pathogen 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. The same habits that keep your overall health and immune system functioning properly also keep these stealthy invaders in check.
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. However, a busy modern life can take a toll on all systems of the body, including the immune system.
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 hidden toxins and toxicants. Toxicants — byproducts from the creation of plastics and using petroleum and coal — 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. Continually “running from the tiger” 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 are a constant challenge to the immune system.
While genetics, toxin exposure, and other uncontrollable aspects of life do play a role in your baseline immunity, there is plenty 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.
2. Take immune-supporting herbs. 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, each one provides slightly different levels of phytochemicals.
If you’re seeking advanced immune support, consider adding the following herbs to your daily holistic-health regimen: Japanese knotweed, cat’s claw, andrographis, garlic, sarsaparilla, and berberine. For more everyday support and maintenance, turmeric, rhodiola, reishi, gotu kola, and boswellia.
3. Eat fermented foods. They contain probiotics — good gut 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 7-9 hours of restful sleep each night to support a healthy immune system.
5. 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.
6. Drink plenty of pure, clean water. Water aids in the body’s natural detoxification process. To help support a strong immune system, aim for several liters of clean, purified water each day.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. Wash your hands. As simple as it might sound, washing your hands regularly with soap and water can help keep harmful bacteria at bay and promote a healthy, strong immune system.