Immune health has become more relevant this year. Perhaps more so than ever before!
No matter how you look at it, there are a few core principles to optimizing immune health. There are also a few specific science-backed nutrients and nutritional compounds worth considering. Scroll down to learn more.
First of all, our body is a system and should be treated as so. One size fits all solutions and quick fixes are rarely the answers for good, life-long health and well-being. Consistent practices that are realistic and strike a balance across all influencing factors can help to support your success and overall happiness.
Within our internal ecosystem, various checks and balances are continuously at play. Facets of our lifestyle and environments can make or break the health of these systems. Let’s explore this a little further.
Inflammation & Oxidative Stress Wreak Havoc on Health
Chances are that you have heard about inflammation, but oxidative stress may be less familiar. Oxidative stress is a tricky thing that happens within our bodies. This natural chemical reaction can result from environmental, physical, and mental or emotional stressors within our daily lives. It also triggers inflammation in the body!
Scientists go back and forth, but generally believe that low levels of oxidative stress (oxidative eustress) could help the body to build internal resilience. Also, this may be a mechanism to treat diseases like certain types of cancer.
However, when oxidation becomes excessive and chronic, the imbalance is too much. As a result, the body goes into a bit of an overload and can’t handle it. This is when oxidative stress can contribute to damage to the cells and tissues within our bodies. It also reduces the body’s ability to defend itself!
Chronic oxidative stress contributes to the onset of diseases and increases the risk of infections.
Agents in our environment and lifestyles, such as pesticides and air pollution, cigarette smoking, and processed foods are known contributors to oxidative stress. Antagonistic substances, such as high-fructose corn syrup in food or chemicals in consumer products, may contribute further to the havoc. Also, our body’s response to overloads of psychological and emotional stressors may induce oxidative stress.
In the modern world, it is pretty safe to assume that excessive levels of oxidative stress will be likely and that measures to combat this threat should be taken. Also, if you have already developed a chronic condition such as diabetes or autoimmune diseases, then paying attention to sources of oxidative stress will be of utmost importance.
Nutrient-rich, healthy eating is one of the best approaches to oxidative stress. Anti-inflammatory foods and supplements provide the body the antioxidant boost it craves. Even better to know, the mitochondria in our cells (our little energy creators) are sensitive to environmental factors and oxidative stress yet respond well to good nutrition.
Other behaviors, such as consistent, moderate-impact exercise, managing psychological and emotional stress, prioritizing sleep, and taking precautions with chemicals, may also support the body to combat the negative effects of oxidative stress.
A Healthy Gut and Immune Health are Linked
Gut health more or less equates to immune health. An estimated 70% of our immune cells reside in the gastrointestinal tract (aka gut), making it integral to our immune system.
Our digestive organs and gut bacteria play critical roles in our body’s natural detoxification, hormone regulation, and overall internal defense. Essentially, when functioning properly, the gut helps us to get rid of what we don’t want and keep what we do.
Furthermore, research on the human gut microbiome, the bacteria residing in the gastrointestinal tract, has led to critical findings on human health and diseases, including the impact on immune health.
Gut bacteria and health outcomes are intricately linked. In a nutshell, if you fail to nurture the health of the gut, you will also be setting yourself up for poorer immune health.
Poor food choices and chronic exposure to chemicals and pollutants will burden the gut and contribute to dysfunction in the body. These factors may also lead to a “leaky gut” where the composition of the gut lining becomes compromised and allow parts of food to escape. Imbalanced nutrition can also compromise the immune system and leave it more vulnerable to infections.
Intestinal permeability (aka leaky gut) can lead to impaired nutrient absorption and may trigger food sensitivities. Also, particles that pass through the gut lining will rev up your body’s immune response in an unintended fashion. When this happens, a range of health problems may result.
Lifestyles that are sedentary or imbalanced may lead to further disruption of a healthy microbiome. Microbiome disruption contributes to an imbalance within the composition of gut microbiota. This may lead to a weaker immune system. This cascade, so to speak, can set you up for the higher likelihood of infections and the manifestation of chronic health conditions.
Essentially, cultivating an environment where your gut and body can effectively operate, then rest and restore itself is the aim. This can be supported through a consistent, daily focus on enhancing good gut health.
The same measures you would take to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation in the body will help to improve gut health. A few other things to help boost the health of your gut microbiome include the following:
- determining if you have any food sensitivities
- increasing intake of pre- and probiotic foods
- reducing sugar in your diet
- increasing fiber intake
- reducing chemical exposures from products in your day-to-day (skincare, food storage, etc.)
Sleep, Sleep, and More Sleep for Better Health
Sleep deprivation is commonly underlooked. When life gets busy or hectic, it’s often the first thing that people slough off. However, based on what we know from sleep science, there is no reason to make such excuses. Doing so will only short-change yourself and could have significant implications on the health of your immune system.
Sleep is the time within our circadian rhythms that our bodies restore themselves. Adequate sleep is critical to immune functionality, hormone regulation, and healthy digestion. (Notice a theme?)
Sleep and immune system health are also intricately linked. Lack of sleep may lead to the suppression of the immune system and weaken its ability to function. It can also lead to higher inflammation and greater susceptibility to infections. If sleep deprivation continues over prolonged periods, the body’s defense system will get confused. This dysregulation may contribute to the onset of chronic health conditions and diseases.
The importance of sleep should not be overlooked. Good health and sleep habits often go hand in hand.
No one is saying to set up a bear cave for prolonged sleep. Generally speaking, experts suggest 7-9 hours consistently across your days with the encouragement to keep bed and rise times the same. People with chronic health conditions, such as autoimmune diseases, may find that 8-10 hours is more conducive for their health and wellness.
Sleep experts support establishing a sleep schedule and supplementation when needed. Also, reducing the use of technology at least an hour (or more) before your bedtime may prove relevant. This is due to the blue-toned lighting used in technological devices and the mental stimulation that engaging in certain digital activities may provide. Finally, keeping social stressors in check may also lead to a better, more effective wind-down process before bedtimes.
The Meaningful Impact of A Healthy Relationship with Stress
Psychological and emotional stress, like oxidative stress, is much about finding a balance. Some stress in our lives can help challenge us both mentally and physiologically. However, persistent and enduring stress is what should present some concern. Long-term mental or emotional stress may result from aspects within our lifestyle or as a result of a traumatic event.
The effects of stress on the immune system have been studied for some time. Although acute psychological stress, (meaning circumstantial events that challenge us mentally), may provide boosts to the immune system and body’s overall resilience, chronically stressful lifestyles can cause trouble.
Over firing of stress hormones can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system. Furthermore, researchers believe that chronic stressors may dysregulate the immune system. This type of stress may contribute to weaker immune systems and a greater likelihood of developing illnesses. Also, as we age, this risk may become higher.
As one expert describes it, the chronic, less-predictable stress is what throws our bodies out of balance.
Stress hormones and hormone-producing glands naturally spring into action when stress is experienced. To the body, stressors are like threats to our livelihood that require an immediate response. It is a natural way for the body to defend itself from what it perceives as threats. However, this mechanism can also down-regulate some immune functions. (It’s a little like putting them in reserves so the body can respond to the threat).
With short-term bursts of the body’s natural stress response, a healthy body will rebound. However, if hormone levels like cortisol stay elevated for prolonged periods then, negative effects within the body will begin to initiate. This cascade could set the stage for longer-term health consequences.
There are also compelling connections between sleep quality and the effects of psychological and emotional stress. It’s nearly impossible to discuss one area without address the other. The dynamic between stress and sleep is codependent. In a nutshell, sleep deprivation may impair the regulation of stress hormones. While the dysregulation of hormones that stress can trigger may impair sleep. Needless to say, it’s an unproductive cycle.
Other stress-related effects on the immune system include increased inflammation, poor wound healing, a change in how the body responds to infectious agents, and impairments to digestion and, including the microbiome. (Wow, can you see how all these factors are interrelated?!?)
Keeping stressors at bay through stress management, relaxation, and other techniques to calm the body should promote a healthier immune system. A few options include the following:
- Meditation and Deep-breathing exercises
- Mindfulness therapies and/or Mind-body approaches
- Daily movement, Coordinated exercise, and Yoga
- Hormonal regulation therapies or supplements
- Calming techniques such as EFT (tapping)
- Remaining connected socially (with positive social connections)
- Having a little fun or Laughter
- Spending time in nature
- Snuggling or playing with pets
Final Tips to Boost Immune Health
The areas detailed above are entangled. Other things we know about keeping the immune system healthy include the following:
- The impact of specific nutrients or nutritional compounds on immune health, such as quercetin, glutathione, and zinc, has compelling support from research studies. (Glutathione can also be boosted through other factors).
- Trace minerals may vary in the diet due to numerous factors. Yet, are relevant to the health of the immune and digestive systems. Foods rich in minerals grown in high-quality soil would be recommended first. Mineral supplementation may be advisable to some people or populations. (Soil quality matters for minerals).
- Healing spices, such as turmeric and cinnamon, may also prove to be effective based on their role in reducing inflammation.
- Vitamin C helps to keep the immune system properly functioning. Citrus fruits and cruciferous vegetables are great general sources of Vitamin C. Other fruits, such as papaya and strawberries, and bell peppers, are also good options.
- Vitamin D influences how we respond when exposed to pathogens and could mediate the risk of infection. Natural sources of Vitamin D include sunlight, fatty-, omega-rich fish or fish oil (cod liver oil is most revered), shrimp, and egg yolks. Some mushrooms may also have variable amounts. (Please don’t overdose yourself on Vitamin D supplements). When paired with other nutrient-rich foods, such as dark leafy greens and broccoli, the body can appropriately process and use Vitamin D for optimal immune function.
- Shift work may present a higher risk due to interruptions to circadian rhythms and sleep. Studies have revealed night workers have lower levels of defenses and higher elevations of oxidative stress.
- Low-dose melatonin and melatonin-containing foods could help with the regulation of circadian rhythms and sleep as well as stress and immune function. Melatonin may also help reduce the effects of oxidative stress.
- Anxiety affects the body in many of the same ways that chronic stress does.
Immune system health has a lot of components.
It can be best to take a realistic and measurable approach. First, do what you can to avoid unnecessary havoc on the immune system (i.e. clean up the junk).
Identifying a few realistic “start small” areas to gradually integrate into your daily life can be an effective strategy. While other people may find the most success in identifying their most critical area of need and, then, starting to make changes related to it before moving on to other priorities.
Reducing burden or overload on the body while simultaneously boosting its processes and systems will help to support your body for overall health and well-being.
In terms of immune health, this can contribute to the lower risk of infection or improve the body’s ability to better manage infections that occur. There are no guarantees, but factoring in the facets above and staying on track can increase the likelihood of favorable outcomes.
The good news is that much of the lifestyle measures and behaviors most supportive of good immune health have benefits that extend well beyond the health of the immune system.
Ashley L Arnold, MBA, MPH is a lifestyle health educator and coach who supports clients to channel authority over their health, well-being, and overall vitality. Offering health education approaches and 1-on-1 coaching modules, she gets them out of excess weeds of information and inconsistent practices that don’t get desired results. Through helping people focus on the right applications paired with appropriate consideration for bio-individual facets, they become stronger, more confident self-advocates for their health. Bottom line, they will surpass challenges, embrace healthful living with ease, and, best of all, feel a greater sense of empowerment and more energy!
In need of formalized support to make healthful lifestyle changes? Contact me through my business site.