How To Support the 4 Parts of Your Immune System

The immune system is a wonderful, complicated thing. It keeps us safe from infection, helps deal with toxins, cleans up aberrant cells that could lead to cancer, and helps us heal.

Not surprisingly, we’ve been fielding a lot of questions in the past week or two about how to strengthen and maintain this bodily wonder.

Here’s a little crash course in how the immune system protects you and how you can strengthen it. To simplify things, we’ve broken the system into four parts, with recommendations for supporting each one.

Defense 1: Physical Barriers
Your skin and mucous membranes are the first line of defense against potential invaders. If this barrier is strong and intact, bacteria and viruses have a far tougher time getting through.

How to support it: Wash your hands, get outside and breathe fresh, clean air to help keep the mucosa of your respiratory tract clean.

Defense 2: Chemical Barriers
Many of our physical barriers are coupled with chemical barriers. An excellent example is the hydrochloric acid of the stomach, which can kill many pathogens before they even have a chance to make it to the mucosa of your digestive tract.

How to support it: Eat a diet high in whole, plant-based foods. This will keep stomach acid levels well-balanced, and avoid the need for antacids that suppress this important barrier.

Defense 3: Your Innate Immune System
This part of the immune system is made of cells called monocytes, macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells. These cells circulated constantly in the body, always on patrol for signs of trouble. When they find it, they initiate a process called phagocytosis, in which they envelop a pathogen and destroy it. If the invader is too much to deal with these patrol cells sound the alarm and engage the “big guns”.

How to support it: These cells move around in your blood and lymph, so moving your blood and lymph help them do their job! Daily exercise that gets these fluids moving is your best course of action.

Defense 4: Your Specific / Adaptive Immune System
This part of the immune system isn’t on patrol like the innate system, but instead is a highly specialized part that hangs out in your lymph nodes, always ready to respond when it is called upon.

The adaptive immune system is made up of T-cells and B-cells. Through a complicated process, these remarkable cells make antibodies to an invader that are always remembered; if you are exposed to the same infection again they can respond rapidly and get on top of things before the pathogen has a chance to make you sick. This is the part of the immune system that is stimulated by vaccines.

How to support it: Eat a diet rich in foods with high levels of antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin A, Vitamin E, zinc and selenium. These nutrients are all critical for T-cell and B-cell function. Think fruits and veggies with lots of colour, and nuts and seeds.

Learning More
If you want to dig into this further, this video is much more detailed, but still easy to understand.

There are many supplements and herbal medicines that are also valuable in helping to support or boost your immune function, or to help it deal with a current infection. Talk to your naturopathic doctor to find out which ones might be right for you.

Sex Drive: How to “Feel the Love” More Often

This is a common reason for visits to the clinic, but not one that people find easy to talk about. Part of our job is to make the conversation easier by helping patients understand that there are a lot of potential reasons for low libido. 

For men, the most common issues are: 

  • Low testosterone
  • Prescription medicines like anti-depressants
  • Too little or too much exercise
  • Alcohol and drug use
  • Smoking
  • Psychological issues like depression, stress, relationships problems

About 4 out of 10 men over age 45 have low testosterone. While testosterone replacement therapy remains somewhat controversial, it is a common solution to the problem. We prefer a different approach.

For women, the most common issues are:  

  • Hormonal changes, especially during menopause, pregnancy & breastfeeding 
  • Prescription medicines like anti-depressants 
  • Too little or too much exercise
  • Alcohol and drug use. 
  • Fatigue/exhaustion from caring for young children or aging parents
  • Mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression
  • Stress, such as financial stress or work stress
  • Poor body image and low self-esteem
  • History of physical or sexual abuse, or previous negative sexual experiences
  • Relationship issues like lack of connection, unresolved conflict, or trust issues
  • Poor communication of sexual needs and preferences

As with men, our approach is multi-faceted and involves getting to the root of the problem.  

There are, however, some general recommendations that are helpful for everyone: 

  1. Become an “oxytocin farmer.” You can increase your “love hormone” by connecting to your sweetie in particular, but also by connecting to others, too. We wrote about it here.
  2. Get more sleep. Turn off the TV and go to bed earlier – just do it!  Feel more rested, and you’ll little feel more in the mood, too.
  3. Get outside and exercise every day. It only takes 30 minutes and it will change EVERYTHING to do with your health, including sex drive.
  4. Talk to a health professional who understands hormones and bio-identical hormone replacement therapyThese docs are really good at assessing how your hormones are out of balance and what to do about it!

How to Get More of the “Love Hormone”

Oxytocin is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter, best known for its role in childbirth where it causes the uterus to contract in labour and promotes the movement of milk for breastfeeding.

But oxytocin’s role goes much further, and across genders. It also works in our nervous system to play an important role in bonding and relationships.

Here on Valentine’s Day, you might be getting a little extra dose–oxytocin is released by both men and women when we are in love!

But that’s not all. The little love hormone also helps:

  • Reduce stress and anxiety
  • Increase feelings of calmness and security.
  • Increase feelings of contentment
  • Reduce the release of cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone
  • Reduce inflammation
  • Accelerate healing
  • Increase pain tolerance 
  • Reduce withdrawal symptoms 
  • Increase creativity 
  • Increase social enjoyment. 
  • Increase positive personality traits such as empathy, warmth, trust, and openness 

With such a great list of benefits, how do we get more of it? The best way to get more is to spread the love! Try some of these:

  • Hug someone (but ask first)
  • Tell someone you love and appreciate them
  • Give a gift, surprise someone for no reason
  • Share a meal
  • Meditate while focusing on others
  • Pet a dog
  • Sing with others
  • Consider supplements that affect oxytocin levels, like:  
    • Vitamin D. Oxytocin is directly activated by Vitamin D.  Deficiency of vitamin D is so common.  Another good reason to get tested and supplement accordingly. 
    • Vitamin C. Oxytocin synthesis is directly dependant on vitamin C. 
    • Magnesium. Critical for the function of the oxytocin receptor. This is the part of our cells that actually allow the hormone to work. 
    • The probiotic strain lactobacillus reuteri. Increases oxytocin levels in the brain. Another reason why an imbalance in your gut flora affects mood.  

Other hormones like estrogen and melatonin can affect oxytocin levels, too.  Working with a doctor that is skilled in bioidentical hormone therapy can help! For more information on hormones–and love–contact us anytime. 🙂

Have you seen our latest clinic chalkboard? It’s all about oxytocin–drop by and check it out!

Start Right to Sustain Your Exercise Habit

The new year brings with it many resolutions to do better and one of the most common is to “exercise more”. 

Despite the thousands of people that set this intention, and then even go so far as to show up at the gym for the month of January, the success rate is remarkably low. The majority of people soon ditch the gym and go back to their old ways.

We recently recommended James Clear’s book Atomic Habits as a great tool for creating and sustaining lifestyle change. Well worth a read. And a new month is right around the corner–it’s a perfect time to reboot a fading habit, or start a new one!

Here are some or our favourite techniques for kickstarting change that lasts.

1. Start with Redefining Exercise

Let’s be real: exercise sounds kinda awful. It seems hard. Sweaty. Difficult. It sounds like expensive gear and weird clothes and machines that you don’t understand.

What if you think of it differently? What if your goal isn’t exercise, but simply to move more? Does that open your mind to different possibilities? To things that you like or don’t feel intimidated by?

2.  Start With Why

People don’t actually want to exercise more–at least at first. They want the effects of having exercised more. They want:

  • A slimmer body 
  • More energy 
  • Better sleep 
  • Better concentration 
  • More calm and less stress
  • Increased health

What are your reasons for wanting to exercise more? When you’re beginning to make change, this list can often be far more compelling than the exercise itself. Put this reason somewhere you can see it to remind yourself of the why.  

3. Start Small and Grow

How often have you said to yourself, I’m going to the gym for an hour a day, or, I’m going to walk 10,000 steps.

Invariably, life happens and your well-meaning but overly-ambitious goal is not met. You feel like a failure and your fears are confirmed: I’m just not the person who can get exercise into my life.  

What if you start small? What if you start ridiculously small?

What if you walked 100 extra steps? What if you did one push-up? What if you ate one vegetable?

It may not seem like much, but the consistency matters more than the quantity.

After all, at the end of the month, would you rather be the person who walked a little every day, or the person who set big goals but didn’t walk at all?

4. Start with Commitment

It you have to meet a friend at the gym, or you have made a plan with someone to go for a walk, there’s a much greater likelihood of things happening. Plus, you get to meet another basic need for health–connecting with others!

Commitment really works. What form works best for you?

  • Social commitment: Tell a friend you’ll meet them.
  • Scheduling commitment: Put your new habit in your calendar before anything else.
  • Financial commitment: Pay in advance for a class, membership or trainer.
Dr. Tara, cold but happy in January!

Is This the Secret to a Happy Winter?

This little article made me think.

As someone who has often longed for the end of winter, I was intrigued. Could the secret to enjoying winter really be about mindset?

I now think the answer is yes. When you can change your mind, and decide that winter is something you get to do as opposed to something you endure, something changes.

And why not? In winter, after all, you get to:

  • Hang fairy lights in your house
  • Enjoy the beauty of snow on trees
  • Get rosy cheeks
  • Wear big sweaters 
  • Sit in front of a fire and read a book 
  • Go to bed early and not feel guilty about it

What do you get to do in winter that you don’t get to do in any other season? Focus on that, and enjoy!

P.S. Without winter, how would we get stories like this?

The Best Diet?

The most common question that Naturopathic Doctors are asked is, “What is the best diet?” 

It’s no surprise. The choice of diets can seem overwhelming. Should they be keto? Should they be vegan? Should they eat whole grains or avoid them? Should they eat raw food or cooked?  

The answer? It depends.

Not every diet is right for every person. The diet you need to eat for best health is different from that of your neighbour, or your cousin, or your best friend. And it’s almost certainly different from the formula in the latest cookbook.

There are, however, a few good rules of thumb that seem to work for a large number of people. Our favourite? Eat foods that nature makes, mostly plants, not too much. 

This is adapted from Micheal Pollen’s book In Defense of Food, and it’s simplest dietary advice that we can consistently recommend.

  • If nature made it, eat it. 
  • If it is a plant, not made in a plant, eat it.
  • If you are satisfied, stop eating.

It’s simple, and in our experience, it works. Unlike fads that come and go, eating a moderate amount of non-industrial food seems to serve the vast majority of our patients well, and has for years.

Lately, our obsession has shifted from what to eat to when. Eat six small meals a day. Fast for 16 hours each day. Don’t eat after 6. Don’t eat before 11. 

Let it go. If you are eating healthy, whole foods in moderation as outlined above, the timing probably makes little difference.

What’s the best diet for you? We don’t know–but experiences tells us that your body does. There are many people who eat raw food and feel great. Others eat raw food and they feel awful. Some go vegetarian and feel amazing, others feel completely wrung out. Some people can eat eggs and fill energized, others feel bloated and inflamed. 

Eat real food, and trust your body. In our experience, that’s the best diet plan of all.

What Would the Healthy You Do?

As we kick off a new year and a new decade, many of our patients have set goals for better health outcomes–things like a lower body weight, more energy, a better mood, or better sleep.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that the road to changing outcomes always requires changing habits. After all, the behaviour that got you to your current health won’t get you to a different place.

In the case of our health, we often know what the new habits are. They’re things like:

  • Eating better 
  • Turning the TV off at night
  • Getting more exercise
  • Spending less time on social media 
  • Quitting smoking
  • Drinking more water 

But although we know what the habits are, changing them can be a difficult thing to do. In some cases, it can feel impossible. 

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, suggests that at the deepest level, change is about your identity; that is, until you see yourself as the kind of person who thinks and behaves differently, you’ll struggle to make sustainable change.

His recipe?

  1. Decide the type of person you want to be.
  2. Prove it to yourself with small wins.

“What would the healthy you do?” is the entry point to this process. It’s a touchstone–a way to discover, and then remind yourself, what a healthier you looks like. It’s an identity question. For example:

  • When you’re choosing what to have for lunch you can ask the question, What would the healthy me do? 
  • When you’re wondering if you should work late instead of taking that walk, ask yourself, What would the healthy me do? 
  • When you sit down in front of the TV at night with a snack, ask yourself, What would the healthy me do? 

The question works best in moments when we have a choice to make–I was going to go to the gym, but maybe I’ll…

Those moments, as it turns out, happen many times in a day, and they offer you a chance to envision your best self, the one you’re striving to be, and ask yourself, “What would that person do?”

PS: Have you seen our latest chalkboard? You can add your own word for the upcoming year, too–just drop by the clinic!

Our 6 Best Winter Immune-Boosting Tips

Naturopathic medicine has many tools to help our patients recover from colds and flus. Vitamins, minerals, herbal medicines and IV vitamin C can all work wonders to get on top of symptoms and speed up healing.  

What we love to do even more is prevent illness in the first place! Here’s our recipe for a strong immune system in the cold and flu season.

1. Exercise Outside Every Day

Yes, we know you don’t want to. Try it.

2. Drink Water

Lymph fluid is the fluid that flows around the body to collect bacteria and waste. It transports all collected waste to the lymph nodes which serve as filters.

Drinking water works like a waterfall for lymphatic organs. The higher the amount, the stronger the push to the edge where the waste can be dumped over!

3. Avoid Sugar

Sugar inhibits your immune system. We know it’s true because Dr. Kendra said so. (No, really, there’s also research.) Avoid it.

4. Sleep

And, it turns out that sleep deprivation does the same thing as sugar–suppresses immune system function. Get more–you’ll be glad you did.

5. Check Your Vitamin D Levels

It’s easy to test your Vitamin D, and it’s sooo important. How’s yours?

6. Supplement, Supplement, Supplement

There’s research to support the use of vitamin D, probiotics, astragalus, echinacea and vitamin C in immune support. We also use monthly IV vitamin C infusions and our patients swear by them. Contact the clinic at any time to learn more!

This picture is from our latest monthly chalkboard in the clinic cloakroom. Drop by to check it out!

Could Depression Be Caused by an Immune System Imbalance?

Here’s a different way of looking at a challenging problem, and one that fits with what naturopathic doctors frequently see in practice.

In her new book, This is Depression, Dr. Diane McIntosh MD presents the idea that depression could be caused by an imbalance in the immune system.

Here’s the gist: 

There are cells in the brain called glial cells, which act as the brain’s caretakers. They supply neurons with nutrients, clean up any waste, and fight infection in the brain. They do a lot to keep the brain ticking along and doing its job.  

Now, enter cortisol.  

Cortisol is the hormone we produce when we experience high levels of stress. Whether that’s physical stress (like running a marathon), or mental stress (like studying for finals), or emotional stress (like dealing with a sick parent), cortisol is the hormone that we use to weather such storms.  

Too much cortisol, however, causes those caretaker glial cells to stop working properly. Instead, they start spitting out proteins called pro-inflammatory cytokines, which are the signallers of the immune system; they tell your immune system to make inflammation. Those cytokines damage the glial cells, which causes them to release more cytokines, causing an inflammatory cascade. That inflammation in the brain results, in turn, in the neurotransmitters not working properly. 

The end result? People feel brain fog, tired and low. They feel depressed.  

With this explanation in mind, the research linking changes in diet and lifestyle to improving depression makes even more sense. Inflammation is your immune system doing its work, but sometimes that work has side effects. Lifestyle changes reduce that inflammation, and the result can be an anti-depressive effect.

In fact, as research shows, the outcome of lifestyle interventions can be better than a pharmaceutical anti-depressant. For example:

Dr. McIntosh’s premise is still just a theory, but it’s one of those theories that we like, because there’s no real downside to the intervention. Healthy lifestyle changes are only going to make your life better–the side effects of reducing inflammation are all positive.

As the article in the Globe and Mail says:

Depression isn’t the only illness found to be caused by inflammation. Heart disease, HIV, lupus, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, chronic pain and several forms of cancer have also been called inflammatory disorders.

It makes a compelling case to take your fish oils, move your body outside, and eat well!

Grow a Mo, Save a Bro: The Crisis in Men’s Health

We spend a lot of time on women’s and children’s health issues here. At some level, that makes sense–after all, the general practitioners at StoneTree are women, so the health concerns of women are top of mind for us. We’re living them ourselves, and many of us are moms, too.

But there’s more to it than that. Men and women approach health care differently, and as a result, are served differently, too. Women are more likely to seek help from a care provider, and they are more likely to bring their children in for care. They are also more likely to come to a care provider earlier in the onset of their health complaint. 

In comparison, men tend to visit the doctor less often, and have shorter consultations when they do. They are more likely to see their health care provider later after the onset of their complaint, and they are less likely to report all of their symptoms.  

There is a persistent and troubling myth that men don’t care about their health but they do. The system is just not set up with male sensibilities in mind. This is part of the reason that men’s health is in crisis. Men die, on average, six years earlier than women, largely for preventable reasons. It’s a tragedy.

The organize that speaks to this issue best is the MOVEMBER movement, founded by two friends over a beer in a bar. Check out their origin story here. What began in 2003 with 30 “Mo Bros” has now seen more than 5 million participants.

The movement started with a focus on prostate cancer and has since incorporated testicular cancer and mental health and suicide prevention. Their goal by 2030 is to reduce the number of men dying prematurely by 25%.

How do they do it?

  • Give facts. Guys need data, info and facts to feel empowered and to take action. Did you know that when detected early, prostate cancer survival rates are better than 98%? Find it late, and those survival rates drop below 26%.
  • Give self-care resources. Guys want to take care of themselves. Teaching them self-care like the know thy nuts helps them feel in control.
  • Tell the truth. Mental health is a huge issue for men. Globally, every minute, for example, a man dies by suicide–in Canada, 75% of suicides are men. Men tend to keep to themselves and not talk. This website speaks to men about speaking out like a man would.
  • The Mo Movement. It’s Movember! Show your support. Grow a mo, attend an event, or contribute to the movement. You’ll find all the details here.

Hey! You don’t have to grow a Mo to support Movember! There are all kinds of ways to participate, including walking or running 60km over the month! Learn more here.