Lifestyle strategies for a fine-tuned immune system
Dr. Cassie Irwin
Goldilocks and the immune system have something in common (hear me out on this one)! The immune system is responsible for many checks and balances in a day: it scans the body for abnormal or precancerous cells, maintains tolerance to food and environmental antigens, quells pro-inflammatory states that drive conditions such as eczema and atherosclerosis, and maintains tolerance to the body itself, which is weakened in autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. With myriad responsibilities, it’s understandable how difficult it is for the immune system to perform well in all these domains while maintaining relative immune balance. Like Goldilocks’ attempt to find the “just right” temperature of porridge, the immune system requires a finely tuned balance of fighting spirit and self-tolerance. The good news is, we can make a significant impact on immunity by tweaking our day-to-day lifestyle—and tip the immune balance so it’s “just right.”
We know that negative emotions don’t feel good, and the immune system agrees. Anger has been shown to increase the production of inflammatory proteins, while stress and low psychological well-being increase the risk of autoimmune disease.
Honouring negative emotions and processing them through a healthy medium is helpful, whether that’s seeking counselling or practising healthy lifestyle habits at home, including the following.
We Canadians—champions of poutine and maple syrup—consume sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats just like our neighbours to the south. The eating patterns of the “Standard American Diet” cause immune dysfunction by inducing a state of chronic inflammation, which primes the pump of inflammation-driven conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and atherosclerosis. Chronic inflammation, in turn, weakens the immune system’s ability to fend off infections.
Feed your immune system with nutrients required for immune functioning.
Load half your plate with veggies and leafy greens. Plant-based foods are rich in many of these nutrients, along with prebiotic fibre. Fibre protects against food allergies, reduces susceptibility to pathogens, speeds the resolution of influenza infection, and protects against immune-associated disease. Remember, only nourish your body with foods it can tolerate. Foods your body is sensitive to, whether identified or not, can exacerbate inflammation and dysfunction in the gut, which can contribute to autoimmunity.
Vitamin C Supplementation may prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections.
Vitamin D Deficiency is associated with impaired immunity, increased risk of infections, and autoimmunity in genetically predisposed people.
Zinc This mineral is involved in sustaining proper immune function.
Quercetin This plant compound is involved in immune modulation and regulating inflammation, particularly in allergic reactions.
Elderberry Supplementation is shown to reduce duration and severity of upper respiratory symptoms.
While the jury is still out on the intensity of exercise that is best for the immune system, what we do know for sure is that both gentle exercise and regular moderate exercise are beneficial. There is a theory that intense exercise depresses the immune system, but more detailed study is needed before drawing conclusions, as any negative impact to the immune system might speak more to lifestyle factors common among athletes and military personnel (travelling, sleep disruption, anxiety, etc.). Exercise also helps circulate lymph (fluid made up of white blood cells, proteins, and fats) throughout the body via the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes in the lymphatic system are involved in fighting infection, quelling inflammation, and maintaining self-tolerance. If you are differently abled and struggle with physical movement, try dry skin brushing to encourage lymphatic circulation.
Be sure to include at least 150 minutes per week of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity in your schedule. Gentle exercise can also be helpful; the martial arts tai chi and qigong increase immune cell activity and have a moderate effect on the balance of T immune cells involved in autoimmune conditions.
Our environment holds a great deal of power in priming our immune system. Exposure to cigarette smoke, solvents, air pollution, and heavy metals increases the risk of autoimmune disease. And we now know that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in commercial household cleaners, laundry detergent, and personal care products are pro-inflammatory and may be associated with the development of food intolerance, as well as metabolic disorders such as type 2 diabetes and obesity.
Keep your living space clean by dusting regularly, using air purifiers, opening the windows when possible, tending to water damage to stifle mold growth, and disinfecting high-touch surfaces during cold and flu season. Pay attention to disinfecting doorknobs, remote controls, light switches, fridge handles, touchscreens, and toys.
Both sleep duration and quality are important for immune health. Getting enough sleep reduces risk of infectious disease and improves infection outcomes. Disturbed sleep also increases the risk of autoimmune disease.
Try some of the following sleep hygiene practices.
If sleep hygiene practices aren’t cutting it, and sleep is still an enigma, that’s when consulting a health care professional can help. Underlying causes of sleep problems, such as dysfunctions in 24-hour cortisol secretion, reproductive hormones, and vitamin D deficiency, can be identified and addressed with naturopathic tests and treatments.
Feel supported with a strategy that fits where you are in life. Working with an ND will provide you with a preventive immune support plan based on characteristics and risks of your age and stage.
Feel empowered having VIP access to what’s going on inside your body! Naturopathic doctors offer testing not often covered by provincial health care, such as vitamin D, nutrient status, environmental burden (mold and viruses), and functional hormone testing. These shine a light on underlying causes and risk factors of immune dysfunction down the road.
Feel confident that what you’re taking for immune health isn’t actually making things worse. “Immune-boosting” herbs can be harmful in autoimmunity, a state of immune dysfunction that can be in play even if you don’t have a diagnosis. An ND is trained to pick up on early signs of disease.
Feel on track. If you already have an autoimmune, allergic, inflammatory, or immune-deficiency disease, working with a naturopathic doctor will provide you with milestones to work toward to induce remission, improve quality of life, and mitigate health risks.