• The immune system defined: Your immune system is mostly made of immune cells that perform a multitude of complex functions to act as your body’s security, surveillance, and defense system.
• Disease fighters in every cell: Inside all cells are immune response systems that work to detect harmful substances, infections, and abnormalities that can initially hide from immune cells.
• The body’s recycling center: Autophagy is the recycling center of the body. It breaks expired cells down into molecular building blocks and then uses the viable leftovers to make new cells.
• Immunity-boosting tips: A healthy immune system is able to discriminate, adapt, evolve, recycle, and respond efficiently and quickly. Healthy lifestyle strategies such as nutritious eating, exercise, mindfulness, and sleep will boost your immune system.
Every cell in your body is equipped with a 24/7 surveillance crew that constantly investigates your body’s environment for threats such as infections, disease, cell mutations, or irregular cell death. Your body comes with a sophisticated and complex immune system that continuously surveys your body to detect any harmful agents, including viruses, allergens, and toxins, and much more. As a whole, your immunity uses enormous resources and produces a large number of cells that are dedicated to identifying and defending your body from all sorts of dangers. Most of adult immune cells are produced by your bone marrow, but inside every single one of your trillions of cells are immune response systems that work to detect harmful substances, infections, and abnormalities that can initially hide from immune cells. If a cell’s immune receptors detect a threat, they trigger an alarm that signals your immune cells to release cellular compounds designed to attack, defend, repair, and/or eliminate a destructive or mutated cell.
Compromised immunity is more vulnerable to illness and disease. This can happen because of poor nutrition, depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, exposure to toxins, and even due to a shortage of fun (yep, adults need to playtime too). Plus, compared to employees of a regular nine to five job, immunity is weakened in those who are shift workers, and in those who suffer from anxiety or depression. Body-wide chronic inflammation can result in these high-risk groups, which increases susceptibility for all illness and disease, including increased risks of asthma, acne, joint pain, colitis, respiratory problems, heart disease, obesity, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer.
So, that’s the bad. The good is that there’s plenty to do to strengthen your immune response, beginning by knowing what a healthy immune system looks like.
A Healthy Immune System…
• Discriminates between harmful and harmless substances: It’s essential that your immune system be able to tell itself from foreign matter, as well as distinguish innocuous foreign substances from dangerous ones. Your disease-fighting cells can mistakenly attack something harmless, or your immune cells can overreact by continuing to attack an already-resolved illness or other threat (as if it doesn’t have an off switch).
• Adapts and Evolves to the Environment: This type of immunity (called acquired immunity) is critical when it comes to preventing cancer and infections. Thankfully, the human body has an extraordinary ability to renew itself. It does this by having an excellent memory. Your immune system stores information about past infections and illnesses, so it can react even faster if there’s a reoccurrence. This memory system is dispersed all through your body, via antibodies in your blood that travel everywhere circulation goes. These antibodies keep killer cells posted 24/7, where they remain on alert in areas of your body that were attacked previously.
• Recycles its old parts: When your immune system signals cell death because of an abnormality, the parts of the cell that are reusable are salvaged by your body (called autophagy). In contrast, the most dangerous and defective parts of the cell are removed as waste. Autophagy sorts the treasure from the trash by breaking cells down into their molecular building blocks and then using whatever leftovers are viable to make new cells.
• Must be a Rapid Responder: Your immunity is always open for business. Threats don’t take holidays, and infections and cell mutations can often divide more rapidly than healthy cells. Some abnormal cells develop to “hide” from your immune system. This unpredictability, rapid transformation, and deviance of abnormal cells make it critical for an optimal immune system that reacts quickly and efficiently.
How to Fortify Your Immunity
If your immune system is chronically weak or overwhelmed, it won’t be able to keep up with illness, disease, or environmental toxins. Thankfully, there are a lot of strategies you can incorporate to boost your immune system and protect yourself. Get started with the following strategies.
• Get Sleep: Boost the body’s defenses with seven to nine hours of nighttime sleep whenever possible. Modern lifestyles and your profession can endanger your ability to get enough slumber time. While sleep won’t always protect you from getting sick, lack of it will leave your immune system weakened and more vulnerable to illness and infection. When you are sleep-deprived, your body will produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, and your immunity suffers. If you must be up at night, for work or by personal choice, make up lost time and protect immune function by napping. This can be especially helpful during flu season when your immunity is already working overtime. You might even want to splurge on two siestas. According to the National Sleep Foundation, taking two naps, for a maximum of thirty minutes (one hour total), one in the a.m. and one in the p.m. offsets the harm sleep deprivation has on immunity.
• Practice Relaxation: Chronic stress is another cause of too much cortisol in the body, which can cause system-wide inflammation. In addition, stress decreases the white blood cells that fight off infections. It’s important to protect yourself by activating the relaxation response. A simple solution is to include five to 10 minutes of focused, slow breathing, or mindfulness meditation each day.
• Optimize Nutrition: Poor nutrition can increase the risk of illness and infections and can compromise your immune function. Protect yourself by choosing the best immunity-boosting foods rich in vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats. Avoid foods that cause inflammation and inhibit immune functioning. The most common inflammatory foods are refined grains and sugars, highly processed foods, red meats, and saturated fats. Instead of these artery-clogging fats, enjoy unsaturated versions that include raw nuts and seeds, avocados, and extra-virgin olive oil. Finally, go for a zero-sugar tolerance level. Refined sugars cause system-wide inflammation that can overwhelm and weaken your immune system.
• Exercise Frequently: Physical activity can help flush bacteria out of lungs and airways, it may kill harmful bacteria in the body, and exercise increases in antibodies in white blood cells that fight disease. Regular exercise also improves the regulation of stress hormones. While scientists still don’t have the full explanation behind the magical healing properties of exercise, research does find that regular exercisers have stronger immune systems than their slothful counterparts. Is it okay to exercise if you are sick? It depends. The rule of thumb typically states it’s okay to work out if symptoms are “above the neck.” That means it’s a go if you have a stuffy or runny nose, sneezing, or a minor sore throat. But, listen to your body. It’s a good idea to reduce the intensity and length of your workout (walk instead of run). Don’t exercise if you are fatigued, have a fever, a severe sore throat, or widespread muscle aches.
• Respect the Clock: Your immune system follows a clock that is designed to do certain tasks at certain times of the day. These include immune cells that survey the entire body to check for danger, receptors within cells that trigger an alarm and send a signal for help, cells that fight and kill illness and disease, and other components that repair, recycle, and clean up threats. There are many nuances to the immune circadian clocks that would take hundreds of pages to detail. What you need to know is that if you are eating within a 10-hour window each day (8 a.m. to 6 p.m., for example), then you are already strengthening your immunity. How? When you refrain from eating for 14 hours at night, you give your body the time and rest it needs to heal, repair, reinforce, and rejuvenate your immune system.