We have seen a lot of changes over the last few months, and the word “immunity” has become a big focus.
Many are seeking “hope-in-a-bottle” via over-the-counter supplements recommended by friends, health care practitioners, or various articles. These “natural” pills are relatively easy to acquire, and give us a sense of control over our health. Even I get easily enticed by supplements! After all, wanting a sense of control and protection via an easy method is something I desire as well.
What is the non-supplement approach to improved immunity?
To support immunity we have to know a little about the biology behind a robust immune system. It’s not just about white blood cells! Consider the following:
- Where is most of the immune system located?
- What is the purpose of the immune system?
- What triggers the immune system?
Here’s how we can answer the above: If you think about what an immune system does, we should think about “protection from, and recognition of, harmful elements” (from external infections and toxins). Where do most of these external elements get into the body? Most get in through our mouth, skin, or lungs. And this is thus where most of our immune system is located.
We have to breathe and eat/drink, so our immune system is always “on” but changing daily. It is highly dependent on our lifestyle habits. Supplements like zinc and vitamin C are great to have around, but we cannot out-supplement a poor lifestyle!
Let me explain in more detail.
Over 70% of our immune system is in and around our gut!
I don’t understand why we were not taught this in our medical education, but our bodies were designed to self-protect. In general, we have 3 primary barriers that protect us from things that can enter our body from the outside world:
- Gut (mouth, throat, stomach, etc)
- Respiratory passages (nose, mouth, lungs)
Of course, there are other ways for pathogens to enter our body but the above are the top three.
Our skin and lungs do not require a lot of chemical processes to be protective – “structures” like mucous, hair, sweat, and more do a pretty good job of keeping these areas functioning well. Especially mucous! How we can support these structures is by treating them well – use clean skin products (we absorb 60-70% of what we put on our skin), if you live in a city keep your indoor air clean with a high-quality air filter (like Enviroklenz or IQ Air), and stay well hydrated with clean water.
Our gut, on the other hand, relies a lot on both chemical and structural support. In particular, the areas where many of us have imbalances include:
- Eating too fast. Our body needs 3-5 minutes to prepare to digest, which includes turning on digestion via the parasympathetic nervous system. If we eat too fast, the sympathetic nervous system is “on” and we cannot digest (or absorb nutrients) properly.
- Tips to improve: Don’t “multi-task” when eating (includes looking at the phone and TV), and/or take 3-5 deep breaths or recite prayers prior to eating.
- Eating too much sugar, which can suppress the immune system for up to 5 hours. This does not include fresh whole fruits (when consumed in moderation, i.e. 1/2 cup at a time). It does include alcohol!
- Tip: Read nutrition labels – are you eating more than 15-25 grams of sugar per day?
- Not eating enough plants or fiber. Plants are our #1 source of nutrients, which are involved in hormone production, liver function, immune cell formation, and more. In addition, the only way to keep our “probiotics” around (which are part of our immune system) is to feed them plant fiber. No supplement will do better than plants!
- Tip: Aim to eat 4-6 cups of non-starchy veggies per day. For inspiration, see Dr. Terry Wahl’s TED talk where she describes the importance of consuming more veggies.
- Poor stomach acid and bile production. I see either one of these in 80% of my patients. Stress and the aforementioned information play a role in this. Medications and hypothyroidism are the next big drivers. Stomach acid is highly acidic for a reason – to break down protein and kill bugs. And bile is like the “detergent” for our gut (aka it keeps it clean!).
- Tip: Bile release is stimulated by bitter foods (e.g. chewing parsley or bitter greens prior to eating), is responsible for breaking down fat (so it’s mainly released when we eat a source of fat), and has better flow with foods that contain choline (e.g. beets, egg yolks).
Practicing the above on a daily basis will help significantly in supporting gut function (and thus immunity) – these are things I educate my patients on all the time!
Other things to consider:
Our immune system is highly dependent on our metabolic function and on our resilience to stress, both of which are directly impacted by our sleep and ability to breathe/relax.
Importance of sleep:
We all know that sleep is necessary, but it is especially important for our metabolic function. When we sleep, our body can repair and “reset” our hormones, will ramp up production of immune cells, and more. If you aren’t prioritizing sleep, or you have insomnia, here are some quick tips:
- Focus on those things you can control: sleep environment and bedtime habits.
- Environment: cool, quiet, dark (not even light from a clock, which can lower melatonin production), and limited distractions (i.e. no TV, no pets if they disrupt sleep, etc).
- Habits: No food or calories (includes beverages) 2-3 hours before bed, no screen exposure for at least 30 minutes before sleep (blue light from these suppress melatonin), write out your to-do list before bed so you don’t lose sleep over this, and do something relaxing for 30 minutes before going to bed.
- If you need more support, supplements or medications may be able to help. There are MANY options, and in general focus on calming the body (adaptogens), lowering cortisol, enhancing serotonin (which becomes melatonin), and increasing GABA. But this is not an article on supplements, so I will cover these in an article on insomnia.
Stress is not a thing, but we often treat it that way
We will never eliminate stress, but we can be more aware of it and develop better ways to cope with it. The opposite of stress is relaxation, so focus on this when you feel stressed. When we are relaxed, we increase oxygen absorption into our cells, which helps us make energy, support immunity, and just feel better! Ask yourself, how can I create a feeling of relaxation right now? Here are some tips:
- Start with taking a deep breath. It’s free, easy, and you don’t need any special equipment for this. Work your way into practicing deep breathing everyday for 3-30 minutes per day!
- Stretch daily. Stretching allows oxygen to get into our muscles and cells, which lowers tension and pain.
- Get out in nature. This has actually been shown to improve our immunity! Most of us don’t get more than 30 minutes of time outside of a building…change this statistic!
Is there a way to test for good immune function?
Beyond eating well, getting enough sleep, and doing something relaxing everyday, we can take a look at how your immune system looks with testing. Here are some options:
- Basic blood test:
- CBC – look at patterns with specific immune cells (most of which are not addressed by mainstream medical professionals)
- Natural killer cell levels (these are made by lymphocytes and are important in fighting viruses and cancer cells)
- Vitamin D (plays a huge role in immune processes)
- Evaluate levels of inflammation and oxidation (e.g. HgA1c, blood sugar, etc)
- Comprehensive stool test:
- This can identify inflammation, look for issues with digestion, presence of dysbiosis or parasites, and more.
- Blood-based antibody testing:
- To look for gut hyper-permeability (aka “leaky gut”).
- Organic Acid Testing (OAT):
- Urine-based test that focuses on the need for nutrients that may be needed to support mitochondria, detox pathways, gut function, neurotransmitters, and more.
The above are just options, and I find I get the most answers from a basic blood test with/without antibody testing.
Our immune system is always “on” and changing daily. Although pills may help us feel like we are doing something good for ourselves, they are only a small part of how we can improve immunity. If you read this far, you now know how the immune system works, where it is concentrated (in location), and there are many “non-pill” ways to support our health:
- Support the system where 70% of our immune tissues are located – the gut!
- Don’t eat too fast.
- Keep sugar intake less than 15-25 grams per day.
- Eat enough plants and fiber (4-6 cups of non-starchy plants).
- Support bile and stomach acid (which helps us absorb supplements and nutrients).
- Support our biology with good sleep.
- Sleep is a time when the body will allocate energy towards healing, hormone production, and immune cell formation. Focus on good environment (cook, dark and quiet) and good habits (no food 2-3 hours before bed, no screen exposure which suppresses melatonin production, relax).
- Remember that the opposite of stress is relaxation, and we need this for oxygen (to make energy and support immune processes).
- Take deep breaths, stretch daily, and get out in nature!
And there are ways to test how well our immune system is working (keeping in mind tests are only “snapshots” in time!). I recommend just a basic blood screening for most people.
Hope you found this useful! How can you better support your daily habits?
If you need guidance, I am leaving CCM and joining the amazing team at Parsley Health. I start seeing patients through Parsley in January 2021. Click here to learn more!
Wishing you good health and immunity,
Meg McElroy MS, PA-C
The information contained in this article is for educational purposes only. It does not constitute a diagnosis or prescription for treatment.