Got the sniffles? Is it taking your system longer than usual to recover? If you are interested in learning more about your immune system, learning about why you get sick and ways you can prevent and treat your illness this article is perfect for you!
Your immune system acts as your main defense against infection and illness. The key cells of your immune system are lymphocytes known as B cells and T cells. These cells originate in your bone marrow. T cells continue to develop in your thymus and the remaining cells all gather in your lymph nodes and spleen. Other organs involved in your immune system are your tonsils, adenoids, appendix and peyers patches. There are many cells involved in the immune systems response to antigens with are infectious agents. Macrophages are a type of immune cell that patrol all tissues in our bodies for pathogens. When it comes into contact with one it engolfs the pathogen and activates Helper T cells. Helper T cells then activate Cytotoxic T cells and B cells to make antibodies. The antibiotics and Cytotoxic T cells can kill the invaders directly. The cool thing about our immune system is that Memory T cells are also activated by macrophages. These T cells retain memory of the specific pathogen our system was exposed to so that if we are exposed to it again our immune system is able to respond much faster often before we even develop symptoms.
The ‘cold and flu season’ is typically during late fall and winter months. This is because viruses survive longer in cold temperatures and dry air. Thus during these times of year there is great infectious agent exposure. There are 2 other main reasons that we get sick and that is from gut inflammation and chronic stress.
About 70% of our immune system resides in our gut. This is due to the large surface area in the gut and presence of peyer’s patches throughout the gut. Peyer’s patches are areas of lymphoid tissue in the wall of our small intestine that regulate our immune system and act as our first line of defense. If our gut is inflamed then it would also be “leaky” meaning that the cells that line the intestine are no longer forming a tight barrier to protect us from pathogens, toxins and large food particles, thus making us more susceptible to infection. There are many factors that can be contributing to gut inflammation such as; antibiotics, pesticides, environmental toxins, infections, food intolerances, stress and poor nutrition. Signs that you may have gut inflammation include; chronic diarrhea/constipation, frequent gas/ bloating/ abdominal pain, IBS, frequent infections, chronic headaches, chronic sinus/nasal congestion, depression/anxiety, mental fog and poor concentration.
Chronic stress also affects our immune function. Cortisol is our stress hormone that is release from our adrenal glands in response to a stressor. Anything that contributes to feelings of distress or overwhelm will contribute to your stress response. Cortisol production during long term stress goes through phases. Initially, your response to a stressor is an increase in cortisol production known as the “alarm stage”. If there is sustained stress then our cortisol levels remain high throughout the “resistance stage”. The 3rd phase is the “exhaustion stage” when are adrenal glands can no longer keep up with the demands of cortisol production. There are different systems depending on what phase you are in. Then it comes to our immune function, cortisol modulates our immune function and inflammatory response. When cortisol is high during the alarm and resistance stages, our immune system becomes suppressed, we have a reduced inflammatory response and this can increase our susceptibility to infection. When cortisol is low in the exhaustive phase, our immune system becomes overactive, our inflammatory responses become over-exaggerated and long term this can make you more susceptible to developing autoimmunity, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain and fibromyalgia.
PREVENTION: when it comes to prevention, there are a number of things you can be doing to reduce your susceptibility to infection. First, you need to make sleep more of a priority. Your immune system is most active during this time and it is when your body is most effective at healing and recovering. Get to bed earlier. The hours before 12am are the most beneficial for this. Now that you are aware of how your gut health can be affecting your immune function it would be important to improve your gut health. This involves discovering any food intolerances you may have (we can help you with this), improving the variety and quality of your nutrition, reducing your exposure to environmental and dietary toxins, and targeted supplementation to improve gut health. Reduce your stress levels by first becoming more aware of your triggers and how it is affecting your body. Start incorporating more relaxing activities into your lifestyle such as; journalling, deep breathing exercises, yoga, meditation and regular exercise. Most importantly make time for yourself! Say ‘no’ more often, you are only one person!
TREATMENT: The same things apply for treatment as they do in prevention. Prioritizing sleep, eliminating causes of gut inflammation and targeting supplementation are essential. In addition to any food intolerances, you should also be avoiding foods with dairy and refined sugar. Both of these suppress immune function and contribute more mucous and phlegm production (yuck!). Here are some lifestyle tips to help you treat various illnesses:
- Immune Boosting Tea: loosens mucous and promotes circulation and drainage. Recipe: 1 cup hot water, 1 tbsp fresh ginger, ½ freshly squeezed lemon, dash of cayenne.
- Magic Socks: promotes circulation, drainage and stimulates immune function.
- Instructions: wet thin cotton socks with cold water and put on feet. Then put a pair of thick dry wool socks on top. Do this before bed at first signs of infection.
- Steam Inhalation: breaks up mucous and opens airway.
- Instructions: boil water and pour into a large wide bowl. Place your face over the bowl and tent a towel over your head preventing any steam, from escaping. Can add 2-3 drops of eucalyptus/lavender essential oil to enhance effect.
As always, we are here to help. Discovering food intolerances and assessing your adrenal health are essential component of improving your health. In addition to this, specific and individualized high quality supplementation can significantly improve your results. If you have any questions we all over free 15-min consultations to allow you to meet us and have your questions answered!
By Deanna Walker, ND