Immunity is the biggest topic of conversation right now aside from politics – and it should be! A healthy body relies on a strong immune system to fight off viruses such as Covid-19 as well as pathogenic bacteria and parasites.
Supporting the immune system is very important, especially in light of the outbreak and the coming of cold and flu season. But how do we know if our immune system is on the weak side? What does it mean and how do you even start to fix it?
The most obvious risk factors for impaired immunity are chronic disease or autoimmune disease, but there are lifestyle factors that can set you up for infection. Typically for the general healthy population that does not have any underlying medical conditions these factors can include but are not limited to maintaining an unhealthy diet, having a high-stress job, having a high-stress level home environment and having a poor sleep schedule. All of these factors can lead to physical and psychological manifestations that might create an immune system that is less than ideal.
Signs and symptoms may not be specific to a weakened immune system. They could also be related to a range of other factors or health conditions. Listen to your body! There are factors which you really can’t control and ones that we often ignore, but can control — such as having chronic diarrhea because you are lactose intolerant but keep consuming dairy! Why do we do this to ourselves?
For those who get sick more frequently it usually means that there is some breakdown in the immune system. The CDC suggests that it is normal for adults to experience 2-3 colds per year and that most will recover in 7-10 days. For most healthy people, this is enough time to develop antibodies to fight off the disease. If it takes longer to recover or you keep getting sick, then your immune system may be struggling to keep up. For persistent infection seek medical advice, but you can also take steps to support your body by getting more sleep, eating a healthy diet and reducing stress and taking supplements to help such as boosting with zinc, vitamin D3, vitamin C, glutathione and silver just to name a few.
Most people also don’t understand just how important sleep is in regulating the body’s stress response and subsequent immune system. Without good sleep hygiene, you are missing out on some serious benefits and you are setting yourself up for immune system dysfunction. Melatonin is released in the body when it is dark causing you to get sleepy. It is also an immune mediator by causing certain immune cells to release cytokines which in turn activate immune cells to fight infections. When we sleep, we have increased recruitment and activity of some white blood cells which are antiviral and anticancer. When we don’t get enough sleep, we can actually suppress that activity and therefore, less antibody response.
Additionally, our stress response hormone cortisol, is regulated by sleep and is the “gatekeeper” hormone for the body to mount a “fight response” against infection. Adrenal fatigue caused from lack of sleep and stress as discussed below, causes cortisol dysregulation and immune suppression.
If you have a high-stress job, school or home life changes creating chronic stress, that is not doing any good for your immune system. Ir reduces the recruitment and action of certain immune cells and prevents the body from mounting optimal antibody responses. Chronic stress also means that there will be excessive levels of cortisol in your system that can weaken the immune system by weakening the gut-immune barrier via lowering a certain type of antibody called IgA antibody. These antibodies line all of our mucous layers through the digestive tract and act as the first line of defense to protect the body from viruses, pathogens and bacteria. Incorporating mindfulness exercises such as mediation, yoga, and breathwork throughout the day can help you to reduce some of the stress that is affecting you — normalizing cortisol!
Depression and grief can also impair immune function. A study showed that they are linked to an acute drop in immune activity. thus making B and T cells less responsive in periods of stress and grief. Even feelings of isolation and loneliness have been linked to weakened immunity. Diet and exercise may help to improve mental health and reduce emotional stress, but for those struggling it is best to seek out the help of a mental health professional.
Now onto what I call the Gut-Immune Connection. Close to 70% of the immune system is found in the gut, so it should be no surprise that an imbalance here can have an effect on overall immunity. So the fact that our society and even our medical community is ok with “chronic bowel issues” often labeled “IBS” such as chronic constipation or chronic diarrhea is a travesty. The gut is so important to overall health and over time could indicate a weakened immune system. Whether it’s from an infection or parasite that you are not able to recover from or more commonly by an imbalance in microbiome which could promote inflammation and reduce the integrity of the gut lining to impair immunity — “leaky gut.” Auto immunity, inflammation, increased allergic response, low nutrient absorption and suppressed immune system are all consequences of poor gut health.
There are steps you can take to support your gut and microbiome like consuming a variety of fiber-rich plant-based foods, pre and probiotics, glutamine and calming anti-inflammatory supplements for leaky gut and food allergy testing with food avoidance to name a few. Ask Dr. Lori Gerber how to start a gut healing protocol today to boost immunity and improve overall health.
Additionally, blood sugar elevation inhibits the immune system by reducing the function of white blood cells which affects the ability to battle pathogens. Sugar also hinders T-cells that regulate the acquired immune system via elevated insulin levels. Similarly, high body fat percentage and obesity also creates fat cells which are pro-inflammatory and drive insulin resistance which in turn weakens the immune response. Maintaining a nutrient-dense diet rich in antioxidants, cruciferous vegetables and healthy fats that is low in refined carbs and added sugars can help to improve weight and insulin resistance to support the immune system.
The skin is a window to internal health and I see that everyday in my practice! The internal health can be shown in the immune system which can regulate inflammation and affect the barrier function and microbiome of the skin. When the immune system is less than optimal it can show up as allergic reactions, eczema, poor healing, and depending on how weak the immune system is bacterial, fungal, and viral infections such as herpes could be localized or widespread. Skin issues could be triggered by poor nutrition or stress causing immunosuppression making the skin more vulnerable. It may help to try to address skin issues from within by improving your diet and using unscented care products, cleansers, and detergents while keeping the skin moisturized to support the skin microbiome and the immune system.
And now for the important one… alcohol! Most of us love to indulge in a drink or two especially during quarantine and social distancing. Just know that alcohol consumption relates to immunity by directly weakening white blood cells and causes inflammation of the gut which can distress the gut-immune barrier. A casual drink every now and then may not be the issue, but if you are relying on alcohol to destress every day (since most of us have been home together more and living close quarters) you may want to consider a stress-busting alternative such as full-spectrum hemp CBD extract. For those that like the ritual of daily drinking you may want to consider sipping on some kombucha or a booze-free cocktail alternative instead.
Lifestyle changes can make a huge impact on your overall health which includes your immune system. Don’t forget to manage any underlying health conditions that you may have. Washing your hands is also good advice. While these have been some of the more obvious indicators of a possible weakened immune system, there are many more. If you think you are in this category speak to Dr. Lori Gerber who will help to address your concerns.
Lori Gerber D.O.