The immune system defends the body against infection and inflammation.
Although it works effectively most of the time, sometimes our immune system fails, and we become sick.
Are there ways we can boost our immune system and prevent illness?
The immune system is a network of special cells, tissues, proteins, and organs that work together to protect the body from potentially damaging foreign invaders and disease.
When our immune system functions properly it detects threats, such as bacteria, parasites, and viruses, and it triggers an immune response to destroy them.
Our immune system can broadly be divided into two parts: innate and adaptive.
Innate immunity is the natural protection that we are born with and our first line of defense to combat infection. Upon detecting an infection, our innate response acts quickly to kill and flush out the invader by producing extra mucus or cranking up the thermostat to blast it with a fever. Then it activates the adaptive system.
Adaptive immunity is protection that we gain throughout life as we are exposed to diseases or protected against them from vaccinations. The adaptive system spots an enemy and produces the specific weapons—or antibodies—that are required to destroy and eliminate the invader from the body.
Can the immune system be boosted?
As such, innate immunity can’t be “boosted,” and you wouldn’t want it to be. If the innate response were over stimulated, you would feel constantly unwell with a runny nose, fever, lethargy, and depression.
The efficiency of the adaptive response can be sped up with vaccinations. A vaccine contains a harmless version of the germ from which you need protection. The adaptive system remembers the invader so that the next time it comes into contact with the germ, it can act quickly to launch an attack.
The immune system, in particular, contains several different types of cells that respond to various microbes in many ways. Our body continuously makes immune cells that are called white blood cells, or leukocytes.
Weakened immune system.
For many people, the immune system works well to regulate itself and does not need any help. However, in some people, medications or immune system disorders cause overactivity or low activity of the immune system.
- Primary immunodeficiency disorders are usually present from birth and are caused by the immune system missing particular parts.
- Secondary immunodeficiency disorders occur as a result of the immune system being compromised by environmental factors, including HIV, severe burns, malnutrition, or chemotherapy.
- Allergies and asthma develop when the immune system responds to substances that are not harmful.
- Autoimmune diseases are conditions, such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, and type 1 diabetes, whereby the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s cells and tissues.
You can suppress the defense response of the immune system with medications, like antihistamines ( like Benadryl, Claritin, etc.), steroids ( like Prednisone), or immunosuppressants that are used to treat autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, etc.
Or you can strengthen your immune system by changes in lifestyle.
The best thing you can do to maintain your immune system is to adopt healthy living strategies that will benefit the entire body, including your immune system. These strategies might include:
- eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables
- exercising regularly
- maintaining a healthy weight
- quitting smoking
- drinking alcohol only in moderation
- getting enough sleep
- avoiding infection through regular hand washing
- reducing stress
Diet and the immune system
Consuming a balanced diet and eating the recommended amounts of nutrients will help maintain normal immune function.
Populations that are malnourished are known to be more susceptible to infection, and there is some evidence that deficiencies in certain micronutrients alter immune responses.
Vitamins and minerals.
For example, Zinc deficiency—which may contribute to chronic diseases—has been demonstrated to negatively impact how the immune system responds to inflammation in older adults.
Vitamin D supplementation has been linked with alterations in the behavior of the immune system. Taking vitamin D supplements during pregnancy—a period where the immune system is in continual flux—may modify the immune system of the newborn in such a way that protects against respiratory infections and asthma.
Research suggests that vitamin D activates T cells that can identify and attack cancer cells and protect against colorectal cancer in some people. In older adults, vitamin D has also been shown to reduce respiratory infections.
Foods affecting immune response.
Studies have focused on how specific foods or diets might affect the immune response.
Soluble fiber switches immune cells from pro-inflammatory to anti-inflammatory, which helps us to heal faster from infection.
Pterostilbene and resveratrol, found in blueberries and red grapes, respectively, play a vital role in the maintaining healthy innate immune system.
Probiotics may help counteract the adverse effects of broad-spectrum antibiotics by keeping the immune system ready to respond to new infections.
Fish oil rich in DHA has been found to enhance B cell activity, part of adaptive immune system.
Resolvins, derivatives from fish oil, help to improve, speed up the resolution of an infection and inflammation.
Prolonged intermitting fasting has been linked with stem cell regeneration of older and damaged immune cells.
Curcumin, found in curry and turmeric, may assist the immune system with clearing the brain of beta-amyloid plaques seen in Alzheimer’s disease.
High carbohydrate and high-calorie diets trigger a response from the immune system similar to a bacterial infection! Researchers suggest that eating unhealthy foods makes the body’s defenses more aggressive long after switching to a healthful diet, which may contribute to diseases like arteriosclerosis and diabetes.
Exercise and the immune system.
Just like eating a healthy diet, regular physical activity contributes to overall good health and, therefore, a healthy immune system. Exercise promotes efficient blood circulation, which keeps the cells of the immune system moving so that they can effectively do their job.
One study revealed that just 20 minutes of moderate exercise stimulated the immune system, which, in turn, produced an anti-inflammatory cellular response.
The investigators noted that their finding has encouraging implications for people with chronic diseases—including arthritis and fibromyalgia—and obesity.
Other immune response factors.
In addition to a balanced diet and regular exercise, scientists have found evidence of other factors that may affect the response of the immune system.
Chronic sleep deprivation may lower the response of the immune system and circulation of white blood cells, while adequate slow-wave sleep—or deep sleep—strengthens the immune system’s memory of pathogens that have previously been encountered.
Getting outside in the sunlight may benefit the immune system. Researchers discovered that sunlight energizes infection-fighting T cells that play a key part in immunity. Specifically, the blue light that is found in the sun’s rays made T cells move faster, which may help them get to an infection site and respond more quickly.
Reducing stress may also help to support normal immune system function.
A study uncovered that anticipating a happy or funny event increased levels of endorphins and other hormones that induce a state of relaxation. Chronic stress can suppress the response of the immune system and its ability to fight disease; therefore, reducing stress may help to prevent infections and other disorders.
Singing in a choir for 1 hour was reported to reduce stress, improve mood, and increase the levels of immune proteins in individuals with cancer and their caregivers. The study findings demonstrate that something as simple as singing can help reduce the stress-related suppression of the immune system.
Loneliness has also been pinpointed as a stressor that may affect the immune system.
Research indicated that individuals who were lonely produced higher levels of proteins related to inflammation in response to stress than those who felt they were socially connected.
The inflammation-related proteins are associated with conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, and arthritis.
For more information on how you can help your immune system to stay healthy and prevent chronic diseases please contact the office of Dr. Koganski, by calling 215-750-7000, or going online: www.newtowninternalmedicine.com
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