In this multi-series blog I will do my best to simplify the complexities of the immune system and
educate the reader on what can be done to optimize immune function through lifestyle
interventions. The interventions we will focus on are: diet/nutrition, physical activity, stress
management environmental toxins and hygiene/habits. I will attempt to explain and how and
why these lifestyle interventions are so important for a healthy immune system.
The immune system is divided into two sub-systems: the innate immune system and the
adaptive immune system. Both work close with one another and are vital for protecting our
bodies from invading organisms. The innate immune system is considered the “first line of
defense”. It involves mechanical barriers too pathogens. Some of these barriers include skin,
mucus membranes, chemical barriers such as stomach acid. Breaches of barrier function are
one of the most potent immune challenges a person can face. Protecting barrier function is
vital for basic immune function and appropriate immune responses. This is especially true of
the intestinal lining where it is said the 80% of the immune system resides. The innate immune
system is comprised of many different type of cells to include neutrophils, basophils,
macrophages, dendritic cells and natural killer cells to name a few.
One very important key regulators of both the innate and adaptive immune system is the mitochondria. Given the growing information about how important mitochondria are for basic immune function with the fact that mitochondrial dysfunction may be the link to chronic diseases and other illnesses not previously linked, it should be clear that mitochondrial support strategies plays a critical part in any immune-supporting strategy.
The immune system includes a cascade of complex reactions in response to singling cells when exposed to pathogens or damaged cells. An important component of these reactions are cell receptors. Receptors are proteins that preform specific reactions. If the proteins are modified in any way their function is also modified. One common and well known way a protein can become modified is by having a sugar molecule attached to it. This is precisely what happens with increased sugar consumption. Hemoglobin A1c is a blood test most people are familiar with. It measures sugar attached to a protein. In this case it measures sugar attached to the protein hemoglobin. This test is a surrogate marker for glucose attached to other proteins in the body as well. Sugar attached to a protein will impair with that proteins function.
As we age so does our immune system. The aging of the immunes system is a phenomenon referred to as immunosenescence. Therefore, as we age, our immune system is less able to adapt new strategies when encountering new antigens. That is why the elderly are more vulnerable to immune-related disorders. An aging immune system is a part of life and experienced by everyone but the degree of immunosenescence one is affected depends on genetics, epigenetics, environmental factors and lifestyle-related signals from diet, physical activity, sleep and stress management. Proper hormone function to include cortisol to DHEA ratio, thyroid function to name a few.
But fear not there are many ways to build a stronger immune response and increase the metabolic reserve our immune system relies on every day. There is no way around the fact, a healthy body demands a healthy lifestyle. Making little changes to your life can have a big effect on how well your immune system is able to protect you from illness. The best immunebuilding strategies are those that provide the metabolic building blocks and signals to trigger the healing properties the body. Some of the most important and studied lifestyle inputs affecting overall health and especially immune function is diet and nutrition. The Western or Standard American Diet is considered detrimental to nearly all healthy functions and the immune system is no exception. It is clear that avoiding unnecessary exposure and purposely avoiding antigens and allergens may be a prudent way to stay healthy and avoid episodes of critical illness. Lifestyle choices over many decades will strengthen and build the metabolic reserve that allows immune function well into the 8th and 9th decades of life.
In the next article on this subject I will discuss specific details and strategies to support and maintain a healthy immune system and I will give you a hint, It does not include medication. I will be covering not only the what but also the why of how these lifestyle interventions can help maintain a healthy functional immune system.
One of the first principles for over all immune support is the ability to maintain barrier function. Nowhere is this more critical than in the gut. Breaches in the gut barrier function is one of the most potent immune challenges. It is now university understood in the medical community that GI function and health are strongly correlated with a strong immune system. 70-80% of immune cells reside in the GI tract. Along with GI barrier function, the other mucosal barriers of the eyes, mouth, lungs, breast, vagina and skin should also be maintained.
Health and happiness,