What is the immune system and tips to support it

24 Apr

What is the immune system and tips to support it

At this time of the year, we often feel run down and seem to be more susceptible to colds or viral infections. By the end of winter, we become tired of the weather and cloudy skies and feel that our immune defences are low. So what is immunity? Taking a brief survey amongst friends and family, the most interesting answer I received was: “Immunity is when I do something and get away with it”. This may be a good way to explain how viral infections occur: sometimes our immune system looses its resilience and doesn’t have the resources to fight a virus giving it the opportunity to establish itself in our bodies/cells and we feel ill. In short, “the virus got away with it, at least in the short term”.

We find plenty of information on how to “boost” our immune system in the media these days. This blog takes a step back by looking briefly at what our immune system consists of and then specifically outlines two areas in our body that play a big part in our immune response and how we can support them.

What is our immune system?

Our immune system is not a specific organ; rather it is an intelligent deployment of defence agents in the body to make up a system that allows our body to fight toxic or disease-causing organisms. Fighting disease is like a military operation using highly-trained intelligence agents. First we identify the enemy, then we mobilise the troops, which are deployed exactly where they need to be. This makes up our defence system. In our body, these agents originate from the bone marrow and the thymus and reside in the lymph nodes and in the intestinal epithelium, or gut lining. To keep it simple, I’ll mention two main types of agents that play a key role in this operation but there are many more:

  • B-cells - these create antibodies that attack toxins, bacteria and viruses.
  • T-cells – these kill cells that have been overtaken by viruses or have become cancerous and produce antibodies.

The immune response

Our ability to fight off bacteria and viruses depends on the resilience of our immune response or defence system. This depends on many factors some of which are:

  • The health of our most important internal defence organ – our gut; and
  • A healthy vascular system – our ability to deploy our defence agents to the infected cells.

Our largest internal defence mechanism is our gut, which provides approximately 80% of our immunity. Our gut is the most important barrier to the outside world inside our body and defends us in various ways. Here are two ways explained:

  1. The small intestine is home to B- and T-cells, which protect us against infections: healthy gut bacteria support this mechanism. B- and T-cells form part of our so-called adaptive immune system. They develop antibodies, which protect the body from future infections of the same virus. This is how our body adapts to fighting that specific invader.
  2. By keeping our gut lining healthy, we prevent pathogens from entering our bloodstream. A “leaky gut” may allow undigested food and bacteria to enter our bloodstream. This may cause an inflammatory response inside body tissues; and prevent B- and T-cells from being deployed to combat viral infections.

Our ability to deploy defence agents to infected cells also depends on how effectively we can circulate them through our blood and lymph systems. This in turn depends on the flexibility of our blood vessels, which is controlled by a chemical called nitric oxide that dilates our blood vessels. This speeds not only oxygen and nutrients, but also B- and T-cells, to the parts of the body where needed. Nitric oxide is produced within all of our cells; but the production tends to decline as we age.

Supporting our immune response

So what can we do ourselves, to improve our own immune response? We can provide our body with nutrients containing Vitamin A, C, D, E and Zinc by eating colourful fruit and vegetables (see our blog “What powers your life”), get sufficient sleep and exercise and manage our stress levels; these are topics we will cover more in detail in the next blogs.

In addition, we can focus on:

  1. Supporting our gut health; and
  2. Maintaining adequate nitric oxide production in our cells.

The following diet and lifestyle choices may positively influence our gut health by:

  • Eating fermented foods such as kimchi, yogurt or sauerkraut or drinking kombucha, which contain healthy bacteria.
  • Include chicken, lamb or beef broth in meals, which contain the amino acid, L-glutamine, and may help to strengthen the lining of the gut.
  • Get 20 minutes of sunshine per day, which encourages Vitamin D production in our body. Research has shown that Vitamin D may be beneficial for gut health.
  • Include spices such as turmeric, cinnamon, or garlic, which may have a positive effect on your gut bacteria.
  • Limiting alcohol intake as alcohol is converted to acetaldehyde which may damage the gut wall.

Nitric oxide levels may be supported by:

  • Eating vegetables high in nitrates such as celery, cress, chervil, lettuce, spinach, beetroot, arugula
  • Increase your intake of antioxidants as they may prevent the breakdown of nitric oxide, which is a very unstable molecule in the bloodstream. Eating the rainbow colours of fruit and vegetables may help to include the following antioxidants: Vitamin C, Vitamin E, polyphenols (also found in dark chocolate or green tea, glutathione
  • L-Arginine is an essential amino acid which may help to promote the production of nitric oxide when eaten in foods such as turkey, lentils, chickpeas, spirulina, pumpkin seeds

These recommendations are not meant to replace medical interventions but can form part of an integrative approach to health and wellbeing which we offer at Biohealth Clinic. Please contact us for more information about an online consultation or consultations in either Edinburgh, London or Windsor.

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