Modern medicine focuses on cures, not on lifestyle interventions that can prevent many diseases depending on a healthy immune system. Let’s actively boost our immune system to overcome deadly pathogens, carcinogens and self-inflicted wounds driven by anxiety and stress. Let’s realize that our immune system is at the core of our wellbeing, regulating our organism’s response to infections, cancer and autoimmunity.
Basics of the Immune System
The immune system is a sophisticated set of proteins, cells, tissues and organs working together to protect any organism. Even trees have rudimentary immune systems! Although its main goal is to repel infections, it also plays a role patrolling and controlling cancer while potentially able to trigger autoimmune diseases.
The immune system consists of a number of important players, described as members of a detective task force in chapter 2 of the free kindle book Mindful Framing:
T Cells: These are the major orchestrators of all the components in the immune system. Some types of T cells are able to recognize infected and cancerous cells and directly kill or destroy them. Other T cells assist or regulate the activities of other immune cells.
B Cells: These cells play a major role in producing billions of antibodies, tiny molecules that are always on the look out for pathogens and unwanted cells. B cells play a crucial role in controlling infections by tagging pathogens and cancer cells to be recognized by macrophages, but can also generate antibodies causing autoimmune diseases.
Macrophages: These cells recognize pathogens or unwanted cells that need to be removed while interacting with T cells, informing them which cells are allies or enemies.
Natural Killer Cells: These are rapid-response cells able to kill infected and cancerous cells, like the T cells, but just relying on certain markers not requiring the intervention of other immune cells.
Age and the Immune System
The elderly are more susceptible to infectious diseases, and unfortunately, more likely to die from them. This is because as we age, our immune system is less effective at combating infections, and less responsive to vaccines.
Why is this? As we age, the total number of T cells remain the same; however, the number of naïve T cells decrease. Naïve T cells are T cells that learn to recognize specific pathogens. They then develop into cells that are specialists in future encounters with those specific pathogens.
Additionally, senescent T cells, which are T cells that have deteriorated with age, are easily exhausted after becoming active and start producing inflammation-causing substances potentially leading to chronic systemic inflammation, such as rheumatoid arthritis, thyroiditis or lupus.
There also seems to be an association between nutrition and immunity in older individuals. The elderly can display micronutrient malnutrition, a form of malnutrition which occurs when one is deficient in various essential vitamins and minerals. This is because they tend to eat less and have a less diverse diet.
You can optimize your immune system by using these 4 infallible lifestyle interventions to boost its function:
Eat a healthy diet
There are many definitions of what a “healthy diet” is, but the general consensus is that it is one that is rich in fruits and vegetables and poor in processed foods. Research has shown that fruits and vegetables contain nutrients such as beta-carotene, and vitamins C and E, which can boost your immune function. In addition, fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants which fight inflammation.
In particular, beta-carotene is a potent antioxidant that not only reduces disease-causing inflammation, but also boosts the immune system by increasing the number of immune cells in the body. Foods that are rich in beta-carotene include carrots, sweet potatoes, and green leafy vegetables.
Likewise, vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that aids in the destruction of free radicals. It also boosts the immune system in a number of ways. For instance, it promotes the production and coordinated function of T cells and B cells, and protects them from free radical damage. Lastly, vitamin C strengthens the skin barrier, preventing pathogens from entering the body in the first place. Good sources of vitamin C include oranges, strawberries, lemons, red peppers and other fruits and vegetables.
Vitamin E is another powerful antioxidant. Studies have shown that it increases the T cells ability to form an effective immune synapse. An effective immune synapse means having a close contact between immune system cells, essential for the proper functioning of the immune system. You can get Vitamin E from nuts, seeds, broccoli and spinach.
Having a balanced diet leads to a healthy gut, essential for a healthy immune system. That’s because the majority of your immune system resides in the gut, in fact, up to 80%.
In order to maintain a healthy gut, you need to maintain a good balance between the good bacteria, and the bad bacteria in your gut. One way you can do this is by consuming probiotics, either in supplement form or in food. Good food sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables.
Another way in which you can improve your gut health is to avoid or limit your consumption of highly processed foods. This is because highly processed foods can cause inflammation of the gut.
Get enough sleep
We all know the importance of sleep for rejuvenating our mind and organism, but did you know that it can also boost our immune system?
Not getting enough sleep has been linked to a reduction in immune function. For example, research has shown that people who sleep less than 5 hours a night are more likely to have suffered a recent cold.
Why is this so? Well, in order for your T cells to destroy pathogens, they need to come in close contact with them. Sticky substances called integrins facilitate this contact; think of them as the glue that your T cells need to stick to pathogens.
Stress hormones make these integrins less sticky. When you get enough sleep, your stress hormones drop, causing the integrins to stick better. And when they’re stickier, your T cells are better able to adhere to pathogens, boosting your immunity.
In order to get enough sleep, it is critical to optimize your sleep environment. For instance, you’ll want to reduce your exposure to blue light from blue-light emitting devices such as TVs, laptops, tablets, and cell phones. This is because blue light reduces the production of melatonin, a hormone that is responsible for good sleep.
You’ll also want to make sure your sleep environment is quiet, so you can fall asleep and stay asleep. If you live in a noisy neighbourhood, you may want to wear earplugs, or turn on a white-out machine to drown out noise.
You’ll also want to make sure that you’re not too hot or too cold, as either factor can result in poor sleep. You can do this by wearing night wear that keeps you at a comfortable temperature, adjusting your thermostat accordingly, and using appropriate bedding.
Practice anxiety management
Anxiety and chronic stress affect not only your mind, but your immune system too. Chronic stress decreases the number of T cells and B cells. This in turn increases your risk for viral infections, such as colds and cold sores. Chronic stress also activates latent viruses, viruses which have been dormant in your body. The activation of latent viruses due to chronic stress causes wear and tear on your immune system, making it exhausted and “burnt out”, unable to deal with everyday assaults to your body. Lastly, chronic stress results in chronic inflammation, causing autoimmune diseases.
Due to the effect of chronic stress on the immune system, it is important to practice anxiety management. You can do this in a number of ways. One way is to practice mindfulness-based meditation. This lowers your cortisol levels, which in turn reduces inflammation. Mindful framing also achieves this effect by transforming your anxiety into vital energy while developing a mental framework focusing on connecting to nature, emotional intelligence and invigorating your organism. Practicing yoga also lowers your cortisol levels and relaxes your nervous system, thus reducing inflammation.
Besides practicing these mind-body activities, simply spending time in nature can boost your immune system. When you’re out in nature, the sounds, smells, and sights can also induce feelings of calm. Additionally, some research shows that phytoncide, an antibacterial substance released by trees, increases Natural Killer Cell activity. So, the next time you’re under stress, go for a walk and while you’re at it, practice some mindful framing.
Engage in regular exercise
You know the saying, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away?’’. Well, that saying can also apply to exercise. In a study examining the effects of exercise on the immune system, participants who walked at least 20 minutes a day, a minimum of 5 days a week, had almost 50% less sick days than those who walked once a week or less. What’s more, when they did get sick, they were sick for a shorter period, and their symptoms were milder.
Engaging in regular exercise becomes even more important as you get older. That’s because research shows that exercise can increase the number of T cells, and even improve the response to vaccines in the elderly.
However, exercise intensity matters. You want to aim for moderate intensity exercise, not high intensity exercise. This is because engaging in prolonged high intensity exercise, without enough recovery time, may increase the risk of illness. So, go ahead and get some exercise, but try not to overdo it.
We live in an increasingly hostile environment to our bodies and minds, and despite many miracle therapies in today’s medicine, prevention is still better than cure. So, take the time to boost your immune system in a holistic manner. Your very life could depend on it.