The immune system is an incredibly complex network that protects us from foreign pathogens including bacteria, viruses, and parasites, and responds to events including allergies. While a healthy immune system is desirable, not even a robust immune response can provide absolute resistance to illness or infections. However, it does help protect you from accidental encounters with infectious agents, as well as provide resilience in terms of recovery from illness or infection.
- Introduction to the immune system
- How does your immune system work?
- What is immunocompromisation?
- What indicates an underfunctioning immune system?
- Which lifestyle factors are likely to negatively impact your immune system?
- How can you manage common immune-related conditions?
- How can you naturally bolster your immune system?
- Your immune system and COVID-19
Individuals may experience immune dysfunction due to issues such as underlying disease, hereditary conditions, advanced age, or medical treatments. Someone who is immunocompromised has an immune system that is not functioning optimally, and, as a result, is more vulnerable to becoming ill or developing infections.
Introduction to the immune system
The immune system is the essential cornerstone of our body’s overall wellness. If your immune system is not functioning optimally, your ability to prevent and recover from illness or infections suffers. We rely on our immune system to not only avoid illness but also to help us stay active and responsive. The vast network of immune cells, tissues, and organs that make up the immune system work together to defend us from infections and potential allergens. Even your skin is a part of your immune system, functioning as a physical barrier that protects the more vulnerable internal parts of your body.
Germs including bacteria are all around us in our day-to-day lives; it’s impossible to avoid them, so we depend upon the integrity of our immune system to fight them off and keep us healthy. Our immune system is remarkably intelligent and is able to distinguish ‘self’ - our body’s own healthy cells - from ‘non-self,’ including foreign pathogens and even our own faulty or damaged cells.
Keeping your immune system nourished and functioning optimally can help protect you from catching colds, succumbing to the flu, or developing other infections.
How does your immune system work?
Your immune system has two aspects: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. Though they have different roles, they are interlinked and work together to protect your body. We are born with most of our innate immune system in place, whereas adaptive immunity develops over time, as we grow and encounter new infections.
Your innate immune system offers a broad, general defense against pathogens that may enter the body through, for example, a break in the skin barrier such as with a cut, or from being ingested and entering the digestive tract. Physical barriers such as skin, hair, and mucous membranes are part of your innate immune system. The innate immune response also encompasses certain defensive cells found throughout the body which identify and protect you from foreign pathogens.
The adaptive immune system is, as the name suggests, highly adaptive, and can defend us against new pathogens that we encounter over our lifetime. It manufactures specific antibodies against specific pathogens when they are first encountered, and provides ongoing immunity to these same pathogens should they be re-encountered. Antibodies are developed by cells called B lymphocytes, which are long-lived and remain in the body. Our adaptive immune system includes additional specific immune cells known as T cells, as well as chemical messengers such as complement and interferon that help facilitate a robust immune response, including from the innate immune system.
What is immunocompromisation?
People can experience immunocompromisation for a variety of reasons. When you are immunocompromised, it means that your immune system is not functioning at an optimal, ideal degree of protection against infections or other illnesses. Immunocompromisation can vary in severity; some may simply be more susceptible to colds and flu, while for others, falling ill while immunocompromised can pose a significant risk to their health.
Circumstances that may result in immunocompromisation include chronic medical conditions that can weaken overall immune response, such as HIV infection and certain types of viral hepatitis, or autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, or rheumatoid arthritis. Instead of having an underfunctioning immune system, people with autoimmune diseases experience an overactive immune response. It malfunctions by mistaking the body’s own cells as foreign and mounting a defense against them.
Other factors that may contribute to an underfunctioning immune system are advanced age, unhealthy lifestyle choices, and overall poor health, as well as having undergone certain medical treatments such as chemotherapy or organ transplantation. Following trusted healthcare providers’ advice is essential for immunocompromised individuals who are at higher risk of infection or illness, as is protecting themselves from potential exposure to pathogens through good hygiene practices. This includes frequent hand-washing and avoiding social contact with people experiencing communicable illnesses.
What indicates an underfunctioning immune system?
Indicators that your immune system might not be functioning optimally can include ongoing fatigue, joint pain, chronic cough, or frequently recurring cold and flu infections. If conditions you already experience, such as seasonal allergies or cold sore outbreaks, crop up with increasing frequency and/or severity, this may also be an indication of lowered immunity. If you are concerned about symptoms that may suggest your immune system is underfunctioning, be sure to check in with your healthcare practitioner, as well as taking steps to reduce behaviors that may be detrimental to your immune system.
Ongoing immune issues can put individuals at risk of certain relatively minor irritations, such as catching every cold that goes around, or they can have more serious consequences including increased vulnerability to life-threatening infections like pneumonia.
There are many factors unique to an individual’s health that can affect their immune function, such as chronic health issues or medical treatments. Some factors may be beyond their control, for example, genetic conditions; however, putting in the effort to bolster your immune system is always beneficial for your health and wellbeing.
Which lifestyle factors are likely to negatively impact your immune system?
While your habits and lifestyle are not the only factors in maintaining a healthy immune system, certain behaviors and choices are more likely to have a detrimental effect on your health and immune function.
It’s well-established that smoking cigarettes is extremely harmful to your overall health and can increase your risk of developing cancer and heart disease. A lesser-known consequence of the chemicals in cigarette smoke is their inflammatory and immunosuppressive effects. If you’re a cigarette smoker, speak to your doctor for guidance and to discuss support measures available to help you quit.
While a drink or two may be fine in moderation, alcohol consumption can indeed negatively impact your immune system. If you’re concerned about being under the weather during cold and flu season or contracting a more serious illness, or simply wish to keep your immune system functioning as well as possible, it’s advisable to limit both the quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption. Many people use alcohol to help de-stress; instead, consider substituting your cocktail with an infused sparkling beverage or kombucha, and opt for other methods of stress relief like yoga, soothing herbal teas, or a formulated stress-reducing natural remedy.
Over-processed & high-sugar foods
Regularly consuming highly-processed and sugary junk foods isn’t great for your health in general; such foods are generally deficient in the nutrients your body needs, along with being high in added, undesirable ingredients such as sodium, refined sugars, and saturated fats. Moderation is key when it comes to having ultra-processed foods in your diet, and it’s best to entirely avoid products with high-fructose corn syrup in their ingredient list. Research shows that the consumption of sugar can weaken your immune response, and inadequate nutrition can be a factor in ongoing conditions affected by your immune health, such as cold sore outbreaks.
While getting enough rest is often trickier than cutting out that extra cocktail or candy bar, it’s an essential part of maintaining your overall emotional and physical health. Sleep deprivation can leave you feeling run-down and reduce your body’s immune response, making you more vulnerable to illness and infection. Prioritizing your rest is vital when it comes to staying healthy!
A sedentary lifestyle may be a factor in a reduced immune response as well. One comprehensive study on the link between lack of exercise and vulnerability to disease, states unequivocally that “[t]he comprehensive evidence herein clearly establishes that lack of physical activity affects almost every cell, organ, and system in the body causing sedentary dysfunction and accelerated death.” For those who perform seated office jobs or have other barriers to regular physical activity such as busy schedules, parenting, mobility issues, or struggles with mental health, it can absolutely be difficult to prioritize exercise. However, it is an important aspect of keeping your body optimized and functioning properly. Simply getting a short daily walk outside is a great place to start!
While everyone gets stressed sometimes, experiencing chronic stress can put a serious damper on your immune system. Ongoing stress releases cortisol which can negatively affect white blood cell function, including the ability to fight infections. Additionally, stress can have a widely detrimental effect on your body and your routine, impacting your sleep, digestion, and mental wellbeing, all of which are important factors in physical and emotional resilience.
How can you manage common immune-related conditions?
If you’re experiencing a serious health condition, always be sure to follow the recommendations of your doctor. For other common issues, however, there are some tips for natural ways to potentially manage and improve your symptoms.
Outbreaks are due to the herpes simplex virus, and their recurrence may increase when your immune system is weakened. If you experience cold sores regularly, there are many natural options for managing them. You may also find it beneficial to check for lifestyle factors that may be stressing your immune response and leaving you vulnerable to outbreaks. Look at also incorporating supplements formulated for cold sore prevention into your routine!
Cold and flu
If you find yourself vulnerable to colds and flu with uncommon frequency, even during summer months, your immune system may benefit from some additional support. Natural remedies for strengthening your body, including your immune system, are a valuable tool for staying healthy. As well, consider keeping up-to-date with your seasonal flu shot, which can help protect you from several strains of the flu.
Some people groan when chilly weather starts to warm up, as they know that when the flowers start blooming, they’ll be sniffling and sneezing! Seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever or allergic rhinitis, can induce frustrating reactions such as itchy eyes, runny nose, coughing, sneezing, and sniffling. Allergies are part of an immune response to a specific foreign substance; in the case of seasonal allergies, it’s usually pollen being unleashed into the springtime air as plants blossom, that is the culprit. Special cells lining the respiratory tract release histamine in response to the pollen, which is perceived as an allergen, and triggers those annoying allergy symptoms. While you may not be able to completely eliminate your seasonal allergies naturally, some natural options may help regulate your immune response and reduce allergies’ severity.
General fatigue is a fairly broad symptom and it can be hard to evaluate what it may indicate on its own. Exhaustion can stem from inadequate sleep to more serious physical or mental conditions; it may also be a sign of an underactive immune system. If you’re finding yourself low-energy, tired, and not refreshed even after a good night’s sleep, you may be experiencing an immune-related lack of energy. If fatigue is in the picture, it’s vitally important to audit your routine and lifestyle to see if you can reduce your stress levels, prioritize restorative sleep, and better support your immunity.
How can you naturally bolster your immune system?
Every individual’s body, health, and needs are unique. These factors, as well as any relevant conditions impacting the immune system, will determine how you can best work to prioritize your body’s immune response. Natural, researched options and lifestyle choices can offer valuable increased support for your immune system.
Nutrition and diet
The old chestnut “you are what you eat” has much truth to it - a nutritious diet is foundational to resilient health. While everyone indulges in less-than-healthy treats from time to time, keeping your overall diet balanced and nourishing is key. A good rule of thumb for maintaining a nutrient-rich, nutritious diet is to incorporate a variety of colorful and whole foods in every day, with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Superfoods such as berries, whole grains, and leafy greens provide immune-bolstering nutrients, and foods that have high levels of vitamin C and antioxidants are ideal for supporting immune health. Your gut health also plays a vital role in maintaining healthy immune function, and a thriving digestive microbiome helps to optimize that. Consider adding fermented foods as well as probiotics and prebiotics to your diet or supplement routine to support your gut health!
There are plenty of traditionally used remedies for a nasty cold - you might even have some old family recipes you swear by. Some like a ginger-lemon hot toddy, others break out the echinacea tea, and some opt for elderberry cough syrup when feeling poorly. Do any of these do the trick? If you’re already under the weather, a mug of echinacea tea isn’t a cure-all, but the steam and warm, soothing infusion might make you feel better!
Though many traditional natural remedies have been in consistent use - sometimes for thousands of years - they often don’t have a body of scientific research proving their efficacy. This doesn’t mean that they don’t work, however! Plant-based remedies typically contain multiple beneficial compounds, sometimes thousands, making it difficult to narrow down or isolate their benefits to just one or two.
In herbal medicine, the sum is often greater than the total of the parts! If you would like to incorporate natural and herbal ingredients into your immune support regimen, some of the best options include: medicinal mushrooms, echinacea, elderberry, ginger, turmeric, garlic, and, for non-vegans, even honey. Honey offers naturally powerful antibacterial and anti-inflammatory benefits and can be used in tandem with other remedies in the form of honeyed teas or tinctures.
While many adaptogens fall under the “herbal remedy” umbrella, adaptogens provide benefits beyond the offerings of your average herbal tea selection. Adaptogens are beneficial herbs and mushrooms that help your body better adapt to, or combat, the effects of stressors, and they have a great deal to offer your overall health and wellbeing. While individual adaptogenic plants and mushrooms have unique properties, adaptogens are best known for their generalized stress-reducing, energizing, and immune-supportive qualities. It’s easy to incorporate adaptogens into your wellness routine with a targeted adaptogenic supplement for stress relief!
If you’re concerned about immune health, make sure to prioritize your regular daily intake of immune-supportive vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C, for example, is integral to the unimpaired function of both the innate and adaptive aspects of the immune system. Getting the essential nutrients you need via nutritious foods is ideal; however, taking a supplement with immune-bolstering vitamins, minerals, and herbs can be helpful and convenient. When seeking to nourish your immune health, opt for a supplement that is specifically formulated with a highly beneficial blend of herbs and adaptogens which work together synergistically to support immune response.
Not only is regular exercise one of the best things you can do to stay strong and balanced, it can also boost your mood and energy levels, improve your sleep quality, and even reduce your chances of developing certain chronic health conditions. Regular, moderate exercise contributes directly to your immune health through increased blood flow and circulation, which helps increase the scope of white blood cells’ movement and immune function in your body. Physical activity is also a powerful stress reducer, releasing feel-good endorphins that keep you smiling even after you’ve stopped sweating.
Introducing mindfulness activities into your routine is easy with options such as meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, and even at-home CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) techniques for mental wellness and stress relief. As established earlier in this article, emotional and mental wellbeing are important aspects of holistic health, and ongoing stress can enact a heavy toll on your mind and body, including your immune response. Conscious options for stress reduction can help mitigate the chance of anxieties or stressors impacting your health. Practicing yoga, for example, can have an anti-inflammatory effect on your body, as well as promote increased physical flexibility, calm, and focus. Meditation can be a powerful ally for centering yourself and prioritizing your mental health. Creating comforting routines like taking time to unwind every evening can have benefits for sleep quality and reduced stress.
A good night’s rest is integral to your overall health and offers restoration and rejuvenation to your body and mind. Just as sleep deprivation can undercut your immune health, getting adequate sleep may bolster your immune function. Healthy levels of sleep - for most folks, that’s seven to nine hours a night - may even reduce inflammation. Additionally, stress chemicals in the body can interfere with our immune system’s T cells; as fewer stress chemicals are released during the sleep cycle, T cell functioning may improve during sleep. If you’re having trouble getting to sleep, or with your sleep quality, consider enacting a sleep routine or exploring supplement options for sleep support.
Your immune system and COVID-19
COVID-19 has had a massive global impact on the economy, culture, and worldwide health unlike anything seen in decades. Although it is being studied by medical researchers all over the world, we do not yet completely understand its effects on the body, nor do we have a proven treatment or vaccine (although expedited vaccine development is underway in many countries).
To protect ourselves, our family, and our community from this potentially devastating illness, many are interested in how to best improve their immune response. There is some recent evidence that robust immune health may offer protection, but more time and scientific study are necessary to establish conclusive facts, as patients’ experiences have been highly variable.
Prioritizing your immune health is always advisable, and never more so than during a public health crisis. Regimens that can benefit your immune health include regular physical movement and staying well-nourished and well-rested, as outlined earlier. Employ safety measures in public such as wearing a mask, especially if social distancing cannot be maintained, and good hygiene including frequent handwashing and sanitizing. Be sure to stay up to date with the latest COVID-19 developments and recommendations for your continued health and safety.
Successfully improving your immune system health
While there is no perfect recipe for improving immune health, you can help “boost” your immune system by working to strengthen your overall resilience and making lifestyle choices that prioritize your health and wellbeing. Your immune response is part of a magical, incredibly complex system and its functioning is intrinsically tied to your whole body health. Valuing yourself and your body through strong lifestyle choices can give your immune system its optimal chance at protecting you, as well as empowering you to feel your best.