The immune system executes incredibly intricate processes that scientists don’t yet fully understand. When it’s operating at its peak efficiency, it can identify and remove threats to wellness, remember and replicate previous immune responses, and heal cellular and tissue damage. If it is functioning too high or too low, however, it can cause chronic pain and allow all kinds of illness to set in.
We are all born with immune function called innate immunity, the first line of defense against disease. This is the quick-acting response to an intruding antigen – germ, bacteria, or virus – preventing it from ever reaching the body to become an illness. The skin is an example, blocking many harmful substances from reaching the rest of the body. Mucous traps them, stomach acid and enzymes can deactivate or kill them, and coughing can expel them. Fevers also act as an early response, raising the body temperature beyond what the pathogen can withstand.
The long term immune response includes white blood cells called lymphocytes that produce antibodies that help the body break down an antigen. The cells then retain memory of deactivating or killing the antigen, then wait until they need to replicate that action in the future. The more times the body is successful at defeating an antigen, the stronger and more diverse the immune system becomes; this is called acquired (or adapted) immunity. (1)
Because of the way the immune response is activated, the immune system is intertwined with the circulatory, endocrine, digestive, neurological, and integumentary systems, to name a few. To boil it all down, the whole body works together. One action always affects many processes, and for the immune system especially, can have far reaching effects.
The top 5 immune system killers come from all body systems and functions:
- Lack of exercise
How Age Threatens the Immune System
Unfortunately, one of the biggest enemies of the immune system is also irreversible: age. As the body ages, immune functions are diminished.
Lymphocytes are not as prevalent, and the innate response is slowed. But while we can’t stop the clock, we can work to turn back its effects. (2)
The same basic functions that help to keep us feeling young also seem to help the body to function as though it is young. Elderly individuals who exercise regularly have a stronger immune system later in life than those who remain sedentary. (3) Consuming a diet rich in antioxidants helps to reverse the damage that time, stress, and pollutants have done, which in turn allows the immune system to continue on. (4)
Being aware of immune system killers and supporting the body with healthy habits helps to slow the march of time and retain immune function into our golden years.
How the Diet Affects Immune Response
Two different factors come into play when thinking about diet and the immune system. The first is the way that harmful substances are ingested and then defeated (the innate response we just talked about), and the second is the way that our diet impacts immune function.
Stomach acid is harsh stuff, but it doesn’t destroy everything that comes its way. The intestines battle antigens that make it through the stomach. Immune cells provide some of this effort, and the intestinal flora contribute as well. The body contains an impressive amount of microbes, and many of them are on our side, helping to tackle the ones that aren’t. (5)
The balance of these microbes is determined in large part by what we eat and drink. Standard American Diets (SAD) typically result in a very different “landscape” of intestinal bacteria than what we expect from more traditional diets. (6) This, coupled with our understanding that sugar can weaken the immune system and vitamins (especially vitamin D) can strengthen it, helps to show us how our food habits can make or break our immune response.
How Exercise is Interwoven with Immunity
It has become standard rote now: eat well and exercise regularly. But we can’t become numb to these basic needs. We may not quite understand the relationship that exercise has to immunity, but we know they are connected. Remaining sedentary, as mentioned above, can reduce immune function. On the other end of the spectrum, very strenuous exercise can also cause dysfunction. (7)
Without a doubt, the way we treat our bodies affects the way our bodies treat us. When it comes to immune function and preventing illness, particularly chronic illness, exercise is vital. Making sustainable, enjoyable changes toward regular moderate exercise is the key. (8) Putting stressful demands on the body is not only difficult to keep up but will likely do more harm than good.
How Stress Kills the Immune System
While most stressors in our Western lifestyles are mental or emotional, they have no less effect on the immune system than prolonged physical stress. As with exercise, not all types of stress are equal, and not all have the same effect on the body.
Immune cells are sensitive to stress and its impact on the body, and they can be triggered into action by these changes. (9) Short term stress, even at high levels, is not usually a problem for the immune system. However, chronic stress depletes the immune system enough to leave the body susceptible to major illness. (10) Releasing stress – perhaps through enjoyable exercise or a wholesome diet – can therefore be beneficial to the immune system. Seeing a pattern yet?
How Your Environment Affects Immune Strength
We are constantly touching, ingesting, and breathing pollutants that our body never intended to encounter. Fortunately, our lungs and respiratory system, lined with mucous prepared to catch antigens with every breath, are at the forefront of immune function. (11)
Environmental pollutants are an assault on the immune system, taking up immune resources and even affecting cell function. We often think of smog and chemical pollution, but excessive alcohol and any cigarette smoke can be just as detrimental. (12) We cannot begin to eliminate all of the pollutants in our environment, but what we do have control over can be removed, to the benefit of the entire body.