Many people believe that boosting your immune system is the best way to avoid getting sick. This thought process is deeply flawed, and I’ll explain why. It’s important to note that you will get sick when your immune system needs to fight an infection on some level. A healthy immune system means you can recover quickly, while a poorly functioning immune system means you’re more susceptible to less severe infections.
What makes up your Immune System?
Many microorganisms live in and on our bodies. Most are harmless, some even helpful. But under certain conditions, some organisms cause disease, and that’s where a healthy “balanced” immune system comes in as a defense system. Your healthy immune system fights off pathogenic (disease-causing) microorganisms like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites.
A healthy immune system helps to regulate your body’s internal environment in response to external changes that occur within your environment. Think of it as an ever-moving, ever-evolving world that is constantly under attack from outside and inside – from the foods we eat, the air we breathe, and the objects we touch.
The human body is constantly at war against thousands of harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites. This constant struggle keeps us from getting sick.
Innate and Adaptive Immunity
Innate immunity is an immediate defense against harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites that enter the body. The immune system recognizes these invaders as harmful because they have specific molecules on their surfaces called antigens. Innate immunity acts quickly to prevent these microorganisms from multiplying and spreading to other parts of the body. There are also natural barriers that organisms must get through before infecting a person’s cells, such as skin and mucous membranes.
Innate immunity works in several ways. For example, neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, rush to the scene of an infection devour these antigens. Neutrophils also release molecules that attack the cell walls of invading bacteria, causing them to burst. Another way it fights off invaders is by sending antibodies, unique proteins that seek out and destroy these harmful microorganisms.
The body uses a different defense mechanism for coping with antigens it has already encountered, called adaptive immunity. When you are exposed to a disease-causing bacteria or virus for the first time, bacteria and viral antigens enter the lymph nodes, small bean-shaped glands found throughout the body. Lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system, a network of vessels and organs that filters lymphatic fluid, which contains white blood cells. The antigens travel to the lymph nodes, stimulating the production of millions of specific antibodies, each one designed to destroy a particular antigen. Then these newly created antibodies enter the bloodstream and combat any cell displaying that same antigen.
When a person repeatedly encounters an antigen, they should and usually develop protection against it. This comes in two forms: active and passive. If you have ever received a vaccine, you have developed active immunity against certain diseases. The antigens in the vaccine cause the body to produce antibodies specific to these antigens, which remain in the bloodstream until an infection occurs. The genes that code for these antibodies are called immunoglobulins, or Ig, and the system of cells that produce them is called the immune system. This is why vaccines are effective only for a limited time.
Sometimes a mother can pass antibodies through the placenta during pregnancy to protect her baby from diseases. This is called passive immunity. When a woman gives birth, any antibodies she has against these antigens are still in the baby’s blood and body tissues, making them immune for a short period. To prolong protection, I recommend women breastfeed for as long as possible.
Innate and adaptive immunity work together to protect you from harm. Innate acts quickly to block invading organisms and prevent their spread, while adaptive fights off the microorganisms that have already entered the body.
Innate and adaptive immunity work together to protect against disease-causing microorganisms in a healthy human being.
The Body’s Defense Contractors
The average healthy person’s immune system eliminates about 1 million old or abnormal cells every day. This process is vital because this is what protects us against disease and infection. The immune system has various types of cells to help accomplish this task, including phagocytes, natural killer cells, monocytes, neutrophils, basophils eosinophils, and lymphocytes.
Phagocytic cells are crucial because they engulf harmful microorganisms like viruses, bacteria, and fungi. These cells can be found in all areas of the body. The main types of phagocytes are macrophages (found in many different tissues), neutrophils (found in the blood), eosinophils (primarily circulate through the lymph nodes, spleen, liver, bone marrow, stomach lining, and elsewhere), mast cells (found in connective tissues surrounding blood vessels), dendritic cells (help regulate immune system response by presenting antigens to other immune cells), monocytes (primarily responsible for containing infection outbreak by killing microbes), and microglia (help support the central nervous system).
Natural killer cells are another type of phagocyte. They can directly destroy virally infected cells, tumors, and bacterial cells. They cannot recognize these types of cells independently; however – they need to be primed by other immune cells.
Monocytes are a phagocyte that also plays an essential role in the defense against bacterial and fungal infections. At first, these cells move from the blood into infected tissue to kill pathogens. They then recruit additional monocytes and macrophages, which destroy the pathogens. Monocytes can remain in tissues for up to a few months after initial infection, thus helping slow down the spread of disease if it occurs again.
Neutrophils are another common type of phagocyte that protects against bacterial infections. They are active in innate and adaptive immune systems, which means they are involved from the beginning of a disease. Neutrophils do not have any receptors to identify pathogens on their own. Instead, they rely on externalized proteins from other immune cells that have already recognized pathogens, such as macrophages. After neutrophils have encountered a pathogen, they will destroy themselves to release the newly made proteins that can then be identified by other immune cells.
Basophils are another type of phagocyte important for fighting parasites and worms. These cells release chemical signals that mobilize the immune system to defend against these types of infections. However, basophils can also contribute to allergic reactions due to their sensitivity. If exposed to an allergy-causing substance, they will release histamine and other chemicals that can cause inflammation.
Eosinophils are similar to basophils in that they contribute to allergies, but the significant difference is that eosinophils release their signals when fighting parasitic infections. Eosinophil cells comprise about 1% of white blood cells in humans.
Lymphocytes are another type of phagocyte, and they are known specifically for their role in the adaptive immune system. Unlike innate immunity, which works immediately to destroy pathogens within the body, adaptive immunity is not fully developed until after a person has been exposed to an infection. The purpose of lymphocytes is to remember the pathogen to be destroyed if reencountered. There are two types of lymphocytes: B cells and T cells.
B cells produce antibodies when exposed to a pathogen, which neutralizes the harmful bacteria or virus through protein markers called antigens. The production of these proteins allows other immune cells to identify and destroy these pathogens after pathogen exposure. On the other hand, T cells do not produce antibodies. Instead, they target infected cells and release chemicals to destroy them.
Healthy Immune System
The main function of your immune system is to kill organisms that pose a threat, either because they are likely to replicate or because they make our bodies uncomfortable with illness. There are only three reasons your immune system is not healthy for the most part. Many studies 1 2 3 have shown that one’s immune system is usually weakened by a lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and stress.
Sleep deprivation weakens your immune system because it prevents the body from recuperating and repairing itself and causes it to produce too much cortisol. A glucocorticoid hormone such as cortisol plays an essential role in the metabolism of several substances. It is released by the adrenal glands into the bloodstream, contributes to metabolic reactions such as carbohydrate and fat breakdown, and suppresses tissue growth and reproduction processes. Another aspect of cortisol is to regulate the body’s response to stress and anxiety. It increases blood sugar levels, redistributes heat from inside the body to its surface, and suppresses some immune system functions. Cortisol is released during physical or emotional stress such as pain, fear, anger, or excitement. So, the more we limit the use of cortisol, the better.
When you go to sleep, the cells in your body re-energize. Energy flows through each cell as its charged with new carbon molecules during the night. The longer and deeper you sleep, the more these cells get repaired, energized, or removed. When you don’t get enough sleep (7 -8 hours a night) or your quality of sleep is terrible (waking up during the night, no deep sleep), your body doesn’t get the adequate time to recuperate or repair damaged cells. This creates a vicious cycle of cellular disrepair. It’s like a junkyard of broken cells that rot, take up space or stay broken. Which are no use and, most of the time, create an environment that attracts and promotes disease—the exact opposite of what we need to have a healthy immune system.
Every second, trillions of cells are dying and being replaced throughout your body. When you’re awake, there is a constant cycle of cellular regeneration as old cells die and new cells are born. The older cells need to be replaced to maintain the body’s general function.
I can go on and on about our Pop Tart scarfing, Energy Drink consumption, McDonald’s eating society, but that is for many other blog posts. I have many blog posts on this site that talk about proper nutrition or healthy diet. What I mean by a healthy diet or adequate nutrition is to eat to create an environment to help in the repair and healing process that allows our immune system to flourish and do its job.
Because poor nutrition directly damages your body’s ability to function. It can result in malnutrition, weight gain or loss, skin conditions, shedding of hair, and fatigue, allowing disease to wreak havoc. Depending on your health, it is always good to start with rebalancing your immune system with something like the Ketogenic Diet, Primal Blueprint, or Paleo, then branch off from there – and yes, there are vegetarian versions of them (if you are a non-meat eater).
Your Diet absolutely needs nutrient-packed vegetables like spinach for Zinc, some citrus fruits for vitamin C. I try to eat as much fruit as I can that has a lower glycemic index like strawberries, apples and blueberries plus they’re rich in antioxidants.
Most of you reading this have heard that stress or anxiety results in a suppressed immune system, and if you don’t know, it does. The more stress we are exposed to, the more suppressed our immune system becomes. The reason is, here’s that hormone again – Cortisol. As a hormone, cortisol has a very practical side, but as with almost everything, too much of it can and will harm. In our society, we usually live in what I call “an Adrenaline state .”A place we never want to be except for extreme circumstances.
An Adrenaline State is the first stage of the human stress response. Though adrenaline is often associated with excitement, it can be released from harmful stimuli, including stress. Adrenaline state occurs when adenosine triphosphate (ATP) levels are low in cells, which causes neurotransmitters to excite parts of the brain. Upon excitation, the hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the anterior pituitary to produce adrenocorticotropic hormone. The release of CRH and adrenocorticotropic hormone leads to cortisol production by the adrenal glands. Cortisol then enters the bloodstream, inducing changes to prepare for a “fight or flight” response. This fight or flight response suppresses the immune system and stops defensive responses in their tracks.
Trying to Boost Your Immune System
As you can see, your “Immune System” is a complex defense system. Trying to add a supplement or food to boost your immune system without understanding the other factors related to immune suppression will be futile. Taking the necessary actions to get the sleep you need, the proper nutrition (which is different for everyone), and reducing your stress will give you a healthy immune system. One, ready and willing to fight off any bacteria, virus, fungus, or parasite. While people have been trying to ‘boost their immune system’ for centuries, the best approach is simply being aware of how your body works and taking care of it accordingly.
4. Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012 Jan;463(1):121-37. DOI: 10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0. Epub 2011 Nov 10. PMID: 22071480; PMCID: PMC3256323
5. Irwin MR, Opp MR. Sleep Health: Reciprocal Regulation of Sleep and Innate Immunity. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017 Jan;42(1):129-155. DOI: 10.1038/npp.2016.148. Epub 2016 Aug 11. PMID: 27510422; PMCID: PMC5143488.
6. Haspel JA, Anafi R, Brown MK, Cermakian N, Depner C, Desplats P, Gelman AE, Haack M, Jelic S, Kim BS, Laposky AD, Lee YC, Mongodin E, Prather AA, Prendergast BJ, Reardon C, Shaw AC, Sengupta S, Szentirmai É, Thakkar M, Walker WE, Solt LA. Perfect timing: circadian rhythms, sleep, and immunity – an NIH workshop summary. JCI Insight. 2020 Jan 16;5(1):e131487. DOI: 10.1172/jci.insight.131487. PMID: 31941836; PMCID: PMC7030790.
Disclaimer: This blog post is for general educational purposes and is not intended to be used as medical advice.