We have been hearing a lot about our immunity and how it protects us. Here, an effort is made to explain the bolts and nuts of our immune functionality and how one can keep their immune system healthy.
If our body is like a sovereign country, pathogens are like enemy fighting bodies constantly attacking us to cause disturbance and damage. Our cells are the people living in the country. Organs (heart, liver, brain, kidneys, etc.) are groups of cells performing a specific function - the federal government, state government, judiciary, executive, etc.
Just like a country has borders/barriers (walls, moats, oceans, mountains, etc.), our body also has surface barriers as our first line of defense (skin, eyelids, nasal hair, mucosal surfaces, etc.) to protect us from the pathogens entering into our body. If the attackers overcome the initial barriers, then the other lines of defense are inducted.
Inside our body, the immune system is organized into two levels -
- Innate immunity (like police patrolling the streets daily for continuous protection of people and special rapid action teams deployed to contain damage) consisting of natural killer cells, mast cells, eosinophils, basophils that are proactively waiting for an infection to happen and neutrophils, dendritic cells, macrophages, to eliminate the pathogens causing such infection.
- When the innate immunity fails – meaning when the police forces and the rapid action teams fail to contain the damage (infection) by the attackers (pathogens), the need for specialized details like army, navy, air force, etc. arises – a threshold level is reached activating induction of special kind called "Adaptive Immunity". The innate immune system can distinguish between pathogens and recruit the most effective form of adaptive immune response to eliminate them.
- Adaptive immunity (special-forces, army, etc.), based on the assessment, antigens (information on the infection and the pathogens causing it), as presented by the Innate Immunity, determines mobilization of correct immune defense. Cell-mediated or antibodies (weapons) mediated or both of them simultaneously will be the Adaptive Responses to a specific pathogen that induced the infection or disease. In one response, B cells secrete antibodies that neutralize the other; a cell-mediated reply, T cells kill the pathogen-infected cells.
- Adaptive responses are destructive and made only in response to molecules that are alien to the host.
- Now that we understand broadly how our immunity protects us, we also must examine how our immunity acts in some instances.
- Healthy individuals (immunocompetent - however good their immunity is) can suffer infections at the hands of primary pathogens. For e.g., E.coli can cause bloody diarrhea, inflammation, and renal failure, even in people with healthy immune systems.
- Individuals whose immunity is compromised (immunocompromised - patients recovering from surgery, patients undergoing treatment, pregnant mothers, elderly, etc.) are susceptible to infections caused by opportunistic pathogens. For example, coli generally found in the large intestine becomes
- "opportunistic" and can cause a urinary tract infection if it enters the bladder.
- Inflammation/Infection may be persistent with no apparent sign of any disease in the body. In this case, our immune system will be in a chronic engagement with the pathogens and not much of damage will happen to the host.
- Pathogens have co-evolved alongside a negative immune response and have developed unique strategies to bypass and evade host immunity. By living in immune cells, many pathogens can avoid host defenses as well as weaken immune responses. This explains why even a healthy immune system becomes
- The latest research tells us that our life habits shape our immunity, experiences and environment more than the DNA passed down from our
We are still in the process of understanding how our immunity works. There is still much that researchers don't know about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response. To function well, it requires balance and harmony. There are many known healthy ways to strengthen your immune system.
How to achieve good sleep? The immune system is influenced by the sleep-wake cycles of our circadian rhythms. Nocturnal sleep is essential for initiating effective adaptive immune responses that eventually produce long-lasting immunological memory. You must have 7 and 1/2 hours of quality sleep (both non-rem cycles and the rem cycles). To create a conducive environment for achieving a good night sleep, these may help - avoid consuming coffee/caffeine after lunch, finish your dinner early, switch off the TV, keep your smartphones and laptops in another room, preferably have a red light in the bedroom, listen to some recorded white noise (in case of sleep disorder), etc. Practicing these acts would help your body prepare for quality sleep and help boost your immunity.
Exercise can revitalize your body and make you fit. Physical Activity (Exercise) causes the muscles to contract and push lymph fluid through the lymph vessels in the lymphatic system. The lymph fluid contains antibodies and lymphocytes (B&T Cells) that form the adaptive response. The lymph fluid can move in the lymphatic system only with exercise and increased physical activity. To prevent infections and other diseases, exercise should be part of one's daily regimen. Exercising on an empty stomach (to burn more fat) will have better outcomes in the first half of the day. When exercise and fasting are coupled, the re-feeding increases production of both the stem cells and immune cells. The human body is made to do physical acts (we have 600+ muscles) and it will remain healthy as long as we are physically active. Exercise flushes out harmful pathogens from the body. Further, the hormonal secretions accompanying physical exercise have beneficial effects on immunity. Studies have proven the compelling link between physical activity and the body's defense mechanism beyond any doubt.
Stress, in general, disturbs immunity. But it is the chronic stress (distress) that impairs it. When faced with challenges, temporary stress comes under eustress (positive pressure), making you confident and satisfied. New jobs, promotions, marriage, buying a home, etc., fall in this category. It is the distress (negative stress) that increases cortisol secretions and chronic pain suppresses immune functions. It is easier said than done. You know what stresses you and only you can take steps to avoid stress.
Excess body fat promotes pro-inflammatory cells within fat tissue and shedding weight even by a small percentage can straighten out an off-balance immune system. Weight loss is indeed a massive challenge for anyone as it demands inevitable sacrifice. Your resolution to help your body lose weight and your conscious actions in this direction would help in the desired outcome. Skipping one meal without making any significant sacrifices can be a small move in this direction. For males, losing weight is easy. In females, the reproductive system comes in the way of shedding weight and a persistent effort is needed.
D-Vitamin and B12
Vitamin D modulates the adaptive immune system (T cell activation) and the antigen-presenting cells (APCs). Vitamin D deficiency results in an out-of-sync immune system as vitamin D (D3) also plays a crucial role in mobilizing the minerals required to build immunity. Our skin produces 90% of the vitamin using UVB solar radiation. Exposure to sunlight for as little as 30 minutes a day between 10 AM to 2.30 PM (local time for UV-B carrying solar radiation depends on respective location).
B12 deficiency results in reduced lymphocytes (B & T cells) and impairs the activity of natural killer (NK) cells. Maintaining good B12 levels is therefore essential for healthy immune function. The source for B12 is bacteria and other non-vegetarian (animal) foods. If you are vegetarian and B12 deficient, supplementation is your way out.
Avoid Smoking & Alcohol
Smoking causes inflammation using up antibodies and thus, weakening immune responses. It also destroys antioxidants in your blood. We all know smoking is injurious to health in many ways. If you are addicted, make conscious efforts to reduce tobacco and achieve being a non-smoker in some time.
Alcohol consumption lowers the immune cells' ability to kill germs. You can start practicing a restricted intake of alcohol if you cannot give up.
Please remember that you will be giving up your health if you don "t give up these short-term pleasures.
Environment (Exposure to man-made chemicals)
We changed the environment and now we are victims of our actions. Our environment is heavily polluted. And we are exposed to several chemicals in our daily usage – be it cosmetics, dishwashing or other cleaning agents, aerosols, etc. Xenoestrogens, carcinogens, hydrocarbons and other environmental pollutants act like pathogens against us, destabilizing our immunity and causing inflammation. If you face any health issues, it would be wise to relocate to a cleaner environment to support your immunity.
If your immunity is compromised, you have to bring in a severe shift in your diet while implementing all the above-suggested lifestyle changes. Avoid consuming foods with high glycemic load (glycemic index is not glycemic load), saturated and trans-fatty acids, caffeine and alcohol, insufficient micronutrients and antioxidants, and low dietary fiber intake. Instead, consume foods with low glycemic load, whole plant foods (to maximize fiber intake, antioxidants, and phytonutrients with vegetables, fruits, whole intact grains, nuts, seeds, and beans), omega-3 fatty acids, prebiotics and probiotics. Nutrient density-rich foods should be the key. These are merely suggestions. You can customize your nutritional needs based on your health, preferences and goals.
Any solution to health is not complete without abstaining from the primary causative element, i.e. food. Fasting is an excellent choice to jumpstart your immune system. One can adopt a water fasting (drinking only water during fasting) plan.
- minimum continuous duration of 16 hours daily, followed by day's fasting every week, for three months. While fasting diminishes immunity, re- feeding has been shown to boost immunity. Fasting also constrains your system to optimize its immunity resources to fight pathogens. Regular fasting alone can contribute to rapid health gains, including a positive influence on cell revitalization and triggering autophagy. Benefits are plentiful with fasting.
All the suggestions above are not mutually exclusive. And most of them do not cost a dime. The body works in tandem and when you practice all, you'll reap the maximum benefits. If you are young, you probably think you don't have to worry about health problems. No one becomes diabetic or cancerous overnight. It takes a considerable time for a slight inflammation to convert into a chronic disease. Many disorders associated with older age start in the body when you are young. Following a disciplined regimen on the lines suggested, you'll go a long way toward making your immune system robust.