Wellness websites are full of articles about ways to boost or support your immune system. From super-food smoothies to echinacea drops to lemon-ginger immunity shots, there is no shortage of natural tips and tricks aimed at strengthening your immune system and warding off illness.
But is there any truth to these claims? If you ask the experts, they’ll tell you no.
Before we dive into things, we want to mention that our immune systems are an incredibly complex and multifaceted system and we can’t even begin to fully explain their function in a single blog post. Experts spend years studying the system’s (actually it’s a number of systems) many intricacies, and anything we can offer here is a simple and brief look at an incredibly complex process. This post is not meant to be used in place of any medical advice but rather offer an alternative perspective to the commonly touted “immune boosters” on the market.
So, the common idea is that our immune systems need our help to keep them functioning properly. We’re told to take certain teas, tinctures, shots, and super-foods to keep things running smoothly. And while we’re not here to argue that these aren’t healthy, what the experts are saying is that it’s a misconception to think they can boost your immune system.
“Most people apparently think that the immune system is like a muscle, and by working it, giving it supplements and vitamins, the immune system will become stronger,” says Infectious Disease specialist, Mark Crislip. “The immune system, if you are otherwise healthy, cannot be boosted, and doing those things you learned in kindergarten health (reasonable diet, exercise and sleep), will provide the immune system all the boosting or support it needs.”
Experts, like Crislip, say that in an average person, the immune system is functioning just as it should, and there’s nothing that can (or should) make it work “more” than it’s designed to (aka boosting).
So, if there any way to support our immune function?
As Crislip mentions, it’s the basics that keep everything running smoothly: good sleep, exercise, and healthy food. It’s not so much that they boost your immune system, but rather they help to keep your body in a state of balance, which is essential for your immune system to function properly.
In his in-depth look at the immune system for The New York Times, Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, Matt Richtel, emphasizes that proper immune function can’t be maintained by a quick fix but rather a commitment to keeping your body in balance: “It is a hard pill to swallow knowing there is no pill to swallow,” he writes. “The most important steps to support your immune system require discipline and habit.”
Let’s take a closer look at the role that healthy habits play in allowing your immune system to function properly.
We’ll start with food. While taking superfood powders and vitamins aren’t going to super charge your immunity, consuming natural foods is easier on your body. Processed, unnatural foods can trigger your immune function and tax your system. A heavily processed diet can lead to inflammation and a host of other immune reactions, which put undue stress on your body and may leave less resources available to deal with viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens.
When we eat healthy, unprocessed foods, our immune system doesn’t need to ward anything off, so it’s able to focus on its intended role.
Sleep is another huge factor in the maintenance of a healthy immune system. Again, it’s not that good sleep will boost your immune system but rather that the absence of bad sleep will allow your system to function as it was intended.
When we don’t get enough sleep, our bodies just don’t function properly. A lack of sleep actually puts our body into a state of stress, and when we are stressed, we’re releasing stress hormones that can dampen our immune response. This study found that even one night of bad sleep can result in a decrease in our Natural Killer cells, which are one of our first lines of defence. Luckily the study also showed a return to natural production once sleep returned to normal.
Unfortunately, we are living in a sleep deprived society, and for most people, a sleep deficit is the norm. Consistently not getting enough sleep throws off our natural homeostasis, which is the real culprit of a compromised immune system.
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Similar to the effect that poor sleep can have, stress triggers the release of stress hormones that can throw our entire body out of balance and wreak havoc on our immune system and ultimately, our overall health.
“Ongoing stress makes us susceptible to illness and disease because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system, which then releases an array of hormones that not only gets us ready for emergency situations but severely depresses our immunity at the same time,” says Andrew Goliszek Ph.D. and author of Mind-Body Health & Healing.
“Some experts claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases, including cancer and heart disease. The way it does this is by triggering chemical reactions and flooding the body with cortisol that, among other things, decreases inflammation, decreases white blood cells and NK cells (special cells that kill cancer), increases tumor development and growth, and increases the rate of infection and tissue damage.”
Stress is a daily part of life, but we can keep it from negatively affecting our health by finding healthy ways of managing it such as meditation, mindfulness, removing unnecessary stressors from your life, etc.
Just like the factors above, it’s not necessarily exercise itself that strengthens your immune system, but rather a healthy amount of exercise can help to keep your body in a healthy state over all, which means there is less of a strain put on your immune system.
Regular moderate exercise is great for cardiovascular health, blood pressure, the maintenance of a healthy weight, amongst many other factors, which come together to facilitate a state of wellness and homeostasis in your body.
The bottom line? Your immune system is an incredibly complex and amazing set of interrelated systems that functions perfectly on its own without any external boosters. What you can do to keep things running smoothly is help your body to maintain balance by living an overall healthy lifestyle. Eating healthy, unprocessed foods, exercising, getting proper sleep, keeping your stress in check, and avoiding smoking and excessive alcohol consumptions are the best ways to avoid placing undue stress on your body and freeing up your immune system to do its job.
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