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.
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.