What does it really mean to support your immune system?
In the current climate, it’s more important now than ever to have a healthy, robust immune system. It’s your insurance policy against illness.
But there are hundreds of supplements and claims out there, all promising you that they boost your immune system. Many people take this advise and these supplements in a commendable effort to be well. However, your immune system is an intricate orchestra of players, composed of many types of cells, many more types of immune chemicals, and all working simultaneously in a complicated pattern to keep you healthy. For instance, different immune cells go out to fight parasites in your gut than the cells which fight viral infections. If you’re trying to avoid a viral illness, it makes no sense to call out the soldiers who take down helminths. This is one example, and an oversimplification. But it gives you an idea of how you need to know WHAT you’re doing for your immune system to stay healthy and WHY. A great deal of people would love to boost their immune systems to proactively take steps to avoid getting sick these days, especially to avoid viral illness. Let’s unpack what this means for a moment.
Among some of the key players that help your body fight viral infections are T-helper cells called Th-1 cells. They do just as they imply: they help your immune system take out viruses. Many people douse themselves in antioxidant drinks to ward off sicknesses that are viral, but an excess of antioxidants is actually one of the things than can impede these Th-1 cells. Instead, specific herbs and foods can be used to boost your immune system. And by this I mean, boost your Th-1 cells rather than other T-helper cells such as Th-2, Th-9, and Th-17, which all play roles in your immune system.
Specific supplements that can encourage healthy Th-1 cell function and so support your antiviral defenses include berberine and baicalin/Chinese skullcap. These are herbs that have been long used and are well-known boosters of Th-1 cells. Other supplement options are zinc, selenium, glutathione, N-acetyl cysteine, and melatonin, all of which support those Th-1 players.
Therapeutic use of food can also be implemented via consumption of ginger, blueberries, mushrooms, garlic, and onions. Ginger directly aids Th-1 cells, while blueberries can help increase natural killer cell populations. Both of these are great antiviral measures. All of these foods are known supporters of the body when it needs to fight off an infectious agent such as a virus. In contrast, some of foods to minimize or avoid while you’re upgrading to a healthier immune system you may have heard about: gluten/grains, dairy, refined sugars, alcohol. Each of these categories of foods can either contribute to inflammation or inhibit immune function directly or both. This is not to say never again drink a glass of wine. Simply put, since infections create inflammatory storms of their own accord, a body already mired in inflammation is not at its peak in terms of warding off bad bugs.
There are also broader actions to take, which are more general supports of healthy immune function. For instance, perform some introspection regarding your beliefs. What you believe about your sickness or about the possibility of getting sick actually has a significant impact on your health. Anxiety and worry are inflammatory and place a burden on your body to clear inflammation when it should be shoring up defenses against illness. Inflammation also can impact gut function, where a vast amount of your immune cells make their home and can negatively impact these players.
Other emotional factors to look into are: other sources of stress, fear, and unhealthy relationships. Not only can you mitigate these hindering immune factors, you can encourage healthy immune function by meaningful physical touch such as hugging. A simple hug can impact immune regulation and is anti-inflammatory. Incredible! And of course, do not forget the importance of sleep. You may think you don’t have the time to get enough quality sleep, but do you have the time to get sick? Sawing those logs is a crucial aspect of immune function and repair. You simply cannot function without it. And it’s free!
So how to you start to build immune resilience habits? After all, this is not about popping a pill and forgetting about it. Here a few tips to get you started.
1. Start a habit journal.
This is not a time-consuming activity as the term journal may suggest. It’s a simple tool that’s quite powerful. In your weekly schedule, create a small box with the habits you want to begin. For example, “get 8 hours of sleep,” “spend time with my child without busy distractions for half an hour,” “eat dessert 3 days per week instead of 5,” etc. Whatever your goals, make them attainable and relevant. Then track your progress through the week. I prefer to make a check-mark next to each habit I am starting each day of the week I actually do it. At the end of the week I look back and see how many days I achieved that habit and then can compare to other weeks. It's fun and either encouraging or convicting - both are useful!
2. Take 10 minutes to think about and write down your beliefs regarding illness, food, and health.
What is at the heart of your health journey? This is a huge factor in your progress.
3. Find community
We are creatures of community. The more you can find like-minded individuals who are about being well and encouraging you to do the same the more likely you are to succeed. This can be your family, your neighbors or friends, or online groups. Be creative!
The next time you’re strolling through the grocery aisles and see a label shouting at you that it will make your immune system invincible, pause, reflect, and simply ask: What is it specifically meant to do and which part of my immune system does it impact? This can be the difference between throwing your money away and wisely giving your body tools and fuel for robust immune function.
Of course, this is by no means medical advise or a claim to cure or prevent diseases of any sort. It is, however, an attempt to empower you. The more you understand about how your immune system works, the more you can be your own best advocate and take charge of your health! This is why Rapha Nutrition exists: to bless those who are trying to take care of their precious bodies, but who may be confused by the contradictory information found on the internet and in pop news. When consulting anyone for health-related issues, do your research. This is one reason I decided to obtain an advanced degree in nutrition and continuing education from a prestigious immunology program. Our bodies are miraculously complex, immune system included, and demand as much understanding as we can grasp.
Are you ready to upgrade your lifestyle and diet to support your immune system? Check out Rapha Nutrition's "Contact" page to set up your complementary discovery session and a free hour long initial consult!