Immunity is on just about everyone’s mind lately, and it should be because a healthy body relies on a strong immune system for fighting off viruses as well as pathogenic bacteria and parasites. Supporting the immune system is very important, especially in light of the pandemic. But how do we know if our immune system is on the slack side and what does it mean?
The most obvious risk factors for impaired immunity are chronic disease or autoimmune disease, but there are lifestyle factors that can set you up for infections.
Typically for the general healthy population that does not have any underlying medical conditions these factors can include (but are not limited to) maintaining an unhealthy diet, having a high-stress job, having a high-stress level home environment, and having a poor sleep schedule.
All of these factors can lead to physical and psychological manifestations that might indicate that your immune system is on the slack side of being ideal.
Signs and symptoms may not be specific to a weakened immune system however. They could also be related to a range of other factors or health conditions, so it might be best not to ignore them.
Then there are factors which you really can’t control and ones that you ignore such as having chronic diarrhoea because you are lactose intolerant but keep consuming dairy.
For those who get sick more frequently it usually means that there is some breakdown in the immune system. The CDC suggests that it is normal for adults to experience 2-3 colds per year and that most will recover in 7-10 days.
For most healthy people this is enough time to develop antibodies to fight off the disease. But if it takes longer to recover or you keep getting sick, for example with sinus infections, ear infections or any infection, your immune system may be struggling to keep up.
For persistent infection seek medical advice, but you can also take steps to support your body by getting more sleep, eating a healthy diet, and reducing stress. You can also give the immune system a boost with certain supplements such as zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin C.
Most people really don’t understand just how important sleep is. Without good sleep hygiene you are missing out on some serious benefits and you are pretty much guaranteed that your immune system will not be functioning at optimal capacity.
Melatonin is released in the body when it is dark so you get sleepy, and it is also an immune mediator. Melatonin also causes certain immune cells to release cytokine which activates immune cells to fight infections, and when we sleep we have more recruitment and activity of certain white blood cells which are antiviral and anticancer.
When we don’t get enough sleep we can actually suppress these activities, and we also have less antibody responses.
If you have a high-stress job, school, or home life, chances are that your chronic stress is not doing any good for your immune system. This can reduce the recruitment and action of certain immune cells and prevent the body from mounting optimal antibody responses.
Chronic stress also means there will be excessive levels of cortisol in your system that can weaken the immune system by weakening the gut-immune barrier by lowering IgA antibody levels that line all of our mucus layers through the digestive tract that acts as the first line of defence making it easier for viruses, pathogens and bacteria to invade through the lining of the intestinal tract.
Incorporating mindfulness exercises such as mediation, yoga, and breathwork throughout the day can help you to reduce some of the stress that is affecting you.
Depression and grief can also impair immune function. A study showed that they are linked to an acute drop in immune activity making B and T cells less responsive in periods of stress and grief.
Even feelings of isolation and loneliness have been linked to weakened immunity. Diet and exercise may help to improve mental health and reduce emotional stress, but for those struggling it is best to seek out the help of a mental health professional.
Close to 70% of the immune system is found in the gut, so it should be no surprise that an imbalance here can have an effect on overall immunity. One should never ignore chronic diarrhoea. This could indicate a weakened immune system as it could be from an infection or parasite that you are not able to recover from.
It could also be caused by an imbalance microbiome which could promote inflammation and reduce the integrity of the gut lining to impair immunity. Whatever the reason for chronic diarrhoea, it can prevent absorbing nutrients that play roles in immune health. Chronic diarrhoea should be checked out by a doctor.
There are also steps you can take to support your microbiome like consuming a variety of fibre-rich plant-based foods as well as pre and probiotics.
If you eat a lot of refined processed carbs and sugar your immune system will be at a marked disadvantage. Blood sugar elevation hinders the immune system by reducing the function of white blood cells which affects the ability to battle pathogens. T-cells that regulate the acquired immune system are also hindered by elevated insulin levels.
Having a high body fat percentage creates fat cells that are pro-inflammatory and drive insulin resistance which weakens the immune response.
Maintaining a nutrient-dense diet rich in antioxidants and healthy fats that is low in refined carbs and added sugars can help to improve weight and insulin resistance to support the immune system.
It has been said that the skin is a window to what is going on within the body. This includes the immune system which can regulate inflammation and affect the barrier function and microbiome of the skin.
When the immune system is less than optimal it can show up as allergic reactions, eczema, poor healing, and depending on how weak the immune system is bacterial, fungal, and viral infections such as herpes which can be localised or widespread.
Skin issues could be triggered by poor nutrition or stress causing immunosuppression making the skin more vulnerable. It may help to try to address skin issues from within by improving your diet and using unscented care products, cleansers, and detergents while keeping the skin moisturised to support the skin microbiome to support the immune system.
Alcohol consumption relates to immunity as it directly weakens white blood cells and causes inflammation of the gut which can distress the gut-immune barrier. A casual drink every now and then may not be the issue, but if you are relying on alcohol to de-stress every day you may want to consider a stress-busting alternative such as full-spectrum hemp CBD extract. For those that like the ritual of daily drinking you may want to consider sipping on some kombucha or a booze-free cocktail alternative instead.
Lifestyle changes can make a huge impact on your overall health which includes your immune system. Don’t forget to manage any underlying health conditions that you may have. Washing your hands is also good advice. While these have been some of the more obvious indicators of a possible weakened immune system, there are many more. If you think you are in this category speak to your doctor who will help to address your concerns.