During the SARS scare, we saw a lot of white masks. Many of us were also prompted to think a fair bit more than usual about the nasty bugs we get exposed to on a daily basis. But do you know your best defense against most infectious and invasive marauders? It isn’t a mask, or gloves, or even a giant plastic bubble. It’s your immune system.
Your body’s immune system is the most dynamic component in determining the state of your health. This vital system provides vigilant protection from your external environment, interacts constantly with its “internal” environment and utilizes its own “smart technology” to sense the difference between friend and foe.
You may realize that your health is substantially reliant on the function of your immune system, but did you know that your lifestyle choices help determine whether your immune system is up to the task?
Defense and Offense
The human immune system employs several lines of defense against a constant barrage of viruses, bacteria and mutating cells. The skin and mucous membranes serve on the front line as physical barriers against invasion from foreign bodies. The skin serves as the body’s armor and the mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth contain protective enzymes and antibacterial properties that attack any invading agents.
If a germ does get past this front line of defense, other components of the immune system come into play. These components are usually referred to as lymphoid organs, since their primary purpose is the growth, development and management of the lymphocyte – the white cells that do the main work of the internal immune system. The bone marrow, spleen, thymus gland, tonsils, adenoids and lymph system all coordinate their efforts to detect and eliminate threatening elements before they can settle down and reproduce. Even if a viral or bacterial agent does begin to multiply inside the body, the immune system will continue to do valiant battle until the invader is wiped out.
Of course, this is the description of a healthy immune system. As with other bodily systems, immune balance is the key. An immune system out of balance cannot properly ward off or battle the body’s enemies – whether colds or cancers.
Unfortunately there are many more factors that suppress the immune system than enhance it. The aging process typically reduces the immune system’s competence. Allergies and infections can also have this effect over time, even though they may initially stimulate immune activity. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and some antibiotic therapies can further weaken immune function – a Catch-22 situation, since such therapies may be critical in reversing life-threatening conditions in the short term, but may weaken your body’s self-healing ability and increase its vulnerability to illnesses in the future. But there’s more:
- Exposure to photochemical smog, industrial chemicals, pesticides and certain antibiotic residues in foods can all inhibit immune function.
- Diet plays a pivotal role in immune health. A diet too high in fat or sugar or too low in essential fats, protein and nutrients can retard immune function.
- Your emotional state of mind can either inhibit or enhance your immune system. Low self-esteem, emotional upheaval, loneliness and depression all suppress immunity via biochemical imbalance.
- Overwork, multiple stresses, plane travel, insufficient sleep and lack of exercise (or too much!) can also deplete the energy and strength needed for immune defenses. All these factors make the body more vulnerable to attack.
I believe that these environmental, emotional and lifestyle imbalances are the true basis of immune weakness. On the positive side, lifestyle choices go a long way in mitigating or reversing the damage of the immune system’s many suppressors.
To determine the health of your own immune system, start by asking yourself these questions: Are you generally healthy and full of energy? Do you rarely catch a cold or the flu? Do cuts and scrapes heal quickly? If so, it is unlikely that your immune system is compromised. It is probably reasonably healthy.
However, if you are easily fatigued or get recurrent colds or infections, your immune system may be out of balance and a blood test may be in order. The test could be a simple CBC (complete blood count), which provides important information about the white blood cells, or it might be a more detailed T and B cell study, which provides a sensitive index of the immune system. Your doctor can provide these tests and determine where any problems exist.
If you are found to have a weakened immune system, your next step is establishing a systematic approach to strengthening it.
First of all, take action to reduce any active allergic reactions you have (to foods and other common allergens) through avoidance, desensitization and detoxification. These steps will help to reduce the immunosuppressant effects of existing allergies. (For information on detoxification, visit my Web site at www.elsonhaas.com.)
More generally, avoid chemicals, pesticides, formaldehyde and other known immune suppressors whenever possible. Take stock of your work and home environments to see if your exposure to risk agents is high. Also, avoid chemical exposure through consumptive habits, such as alcohol, caffeine and drugs.
Diet and Exercise
Be careful and deliberate with your dietary choices. Wholesome foods free of chemicals and pesticides are essential to a healthy immune system. The fiber, essential fatty acids (EFAs) and phytonutrients found in whole foods are all necessary for building a healthy body and immune system. So are sufficient dietary proteins and L-amino acids, which help form the immune tissues and antibodies.
When nutrients vital to the immune system are deficient, dietary supplements are necessary. Vitamins A, C and E, beta-carotene, zinc and selenium should all be part of any supplemental program because of their powerful antioxidant properties.
Drink plenty of good, clean water. Fluids serve as the transmission and delivery device for the immune system. Most of us need at least six to eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. Coffee, sodas and alcohol don’t count, as these can actually cause dehydration. (Only one-third of Americans claim they drink eight glasses of water a day; 28 percent have three or fewer servings, and nearly 10 percent say they don’t drink water at all!) In addition to the important hydration factor, water helps to flush impurities from the body and, with fiber, helps to clear the colon of toxins.
Exercise is another vital part of healthy immune function, and is known to stimulate and support the immune system in several ways. Take your lymph system, for example. It’s the circulatory system of your body’s immune defense system, but unlike your body’s circulatory system for blood, the lymphatic system has no pump. Instead, it depends on muscle activity to move the fluids that deliver immune cells and eliminate toxins throughout your system (for more on the lymph system, see “Look After Your Lymph” in the July/Aug. 2002 issue of Experience Life, available in the online archives at www.lifetimefitness.com/magazine).
The bottom line is: In order to properly circulate your lymph fluid, you have to get your body in motion! I recommend at least one hour of exercise daily, including stretching and strengthening exercises, along with 30 to 45 minutes of aerobic activity at least four times a week. Find a balance of activities that will help you generate good tone, flexibility and endurance.
Taking It Easy
For purposes of immunity and general health, I can’t overemphasize the importance of getting quality sleep on a regular basis. The body is designed to access states of sleep and rest in order to heal and repair itself. So don’t view the need for sleep as a “weakness,” but rather as part of a systematic approach to good health.
Assess the level of stress you are exposed to at work, home or in your relationships. Stress can severely reduce the effectiveness of the immune system’s lymphocytes. Work to reduce these stresses to help conserve your strength and slow down unnecessary drains on your energy. Learn some relaxation exercises or practice yoga, tai chi or qi gong. These gentle practices will help you incorporate relaxation into your life through slow movements and breathing exercises.
Your emotional state also plays an important part in the health of your immune system, so endeavor to find balance and satisfaction in your personal life. Cultivate healthy, loving relationships with others. Recognize that touch and intimacy are good for your health. If you’re not in an intimate relationship, get a massage, renew an old friendship, or make time for some close emotional interchanges with a trusted friend or family member.
Your immune system is astonishingly complex and it works hard to protect you and keep you well every second of every day. So give it a hand. Make its job easier, not harder, by implementing some or all of these lifestyle changes outlined here.
Getting sick and run down affects every area of your life, so why not do everything you can to avoid it? Take steps to keep your immune system revved up enough to handle the myriad challenges it faces on an hourly basis, and it will repay you with more healthy days to enjoy, however you like.
Elson M. Haas, MD, is medical director of the Preventive Medical Center of Marin (www.elsonhaas.com) in San Rafael, Calif., and a leading practitioner of integrative medicine. He is also the author of several books, including Staying Healthy With Nutrition and The Detox Diet. Dr. Haas is a regular contributor to EL.