Pharmacy aisles are filled with medicines and supplements that help fight off sniffles and sore throats. While these are powerful tools to help your body fight germs/infections, there are plenty of alternatives to keep sickness at bay and boost the immune system naturally.
What Is the Immune System? How Does it Work?
We’ve all been sick, whether it was a little bug that caused a cough or a bug that had you bedridden for a week. There also always seems to be that one family member or friend who gets sick at least once a month. But why? Let’s dive into how the immune system works so we know how to better support it.
Your immune response is a complex and intricate system that fights to keep the body balanced and healthy. The immune system is made of several organs, tissues and stations throughout your body—each with a specific function to patrol and protect against pathogens. Immunity is divided into two parts: innate and adaptive immunity.
Innate immunity is what you’re born with and isn’t specific to the germs, microbes and other substances it fights. Physical barriers act immediately as the first line of defense against harmful substances. Skin, hair, mucous, and membranes can deflect microbes that we come in contact with daily.
The internal part of innate immunity consists of cells programmed to fight intruders that may enter the body. Some of these guardians are white blood cells and cytokines. White blood cells travel to infection sites when they detect a foreign invader. Cytokines are chemical messengers that communicate the symptoms of feeling sick and inducing a fever.
Don’t be alarmed when you have a fever; it’s a sign your body is working to heal itself! An internal temperature of 100°-102° F (37.8-38.9° C) provides your cells with an ideal work environment while making it harder for bacteria and pathogens to survive. Note: Most fevers go away on their own within a few days. But if your fever exceeds 102° F or lasts more than three to five days, you should seek medical attention.
Adaptive immunity develops over time and is specific to the germs we’re exposed to. This kind of immunity takes over if the innate response is unable to destroy the invader. The adaptive system’s responsibility is to stop the current infection and provide immunity against reinfection with memory cells. For example, if you’ve had chickenpox, you’re practically guaranteed immunity from another infection thanks to the adaptive immune system.
Adaptive immunity is also responsible for managing allergies. Antibodies release histamines and trigger the inflammatory response to help control the antigen. This is why reactions like sneezing, rashes and swelling often occur when we battle an allergy.
Where Is the Immune System Located?
Organs and tissues all over the body make up the immune system. Some are production stations for immune cells, some house immune cells and others act as messaging centers. Four key locations for the immune system are the gut, bone marrow, lymph nodes and spleen.
About 70% of immune cells are located in the gut, so it is central to the immune system. Jonathan Jacobs, MD, Ph.D., a professor of digestive diseases at UCLA says, “The microbiome and the immune system are critically intertwined. What’s present in the gut determines what education immune cells get.” And if the stomach lining is damaged, more toxins and microbes are able to slip through the membrane and into the bloodstream.
A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia
All cells with immune function are made from stem cells in the bone marrow. Depending on the identity of the cell, it will either stay in the bone marrow or travel to its new base. B cells, tasked with making antibodies, stay in the bone marrow until called. T cells, used in the adaptive response, travel to the thymus to mature.
These tissues full of immune cells are stationed throughout the body. You can find lymph nodes in the neck, underarms, groin and along the digestive tract. When signaled, they enlarge to become centers for immune cell replication. Lymph nodes also act as a filter for toxins and pathogens.
The spleen plays an important role in a healthy immune system. It acts as a filter for circulating blood and screens for damaged blood cells and pathogens. If cells contain pathogens, macrophages destroy the unhealthy cells. This organ also hosts white blood cells and platelets, ready to aid an infection. While a functioning spleen is important for fighting infections, you can still live a healthy life without your spleen.
What Factors Can Lead to Poor Immunity? What Signs of Low Immunity Should I Watch For?
Many factors contribute to a weak immune system. Newborns and young kids are more susceptible to illness due to a developing adaptive immune response. Similarly, as we age, our bodies become less efficient and can’t fight infections as well. Be on the lookout for signs from your body that it needs a recharge. Some of these might include:
- Swollen lymph nodes
- A persistent cold
- Gut issues like leaky gut, frequent constipation
- Consistently high stress levels
These aren’t always indicators that your immunity is low. Pay attention to how you feel daily and incorporate healthy habits to fortify your immune system.
How Can I Strengthen My Immune System?
Before you reach for the medicine cabinet, there are plenty of natural ways to maintain and boost the immune system. First, if you do get sick, let your fever pass on its own. It can be tempting to take a fever reducer like ibuprofen at the first sign of raised temperatures, but it’s better to let your immune response run its natural course as long as you’re not at risk.
Boosting your immunity can be as simple as getting eight hours of sleep each night or eating more fruits and vegetables. Here are six natural ways you can easily incorporate into your lifestyle at any age.
1. Eat the Rainbow
But not in Skittle form. A diverse and colorful diet provides your cells with essential vitamins and nutrients to optimize growth and function. Try to get as many colors on your plate from natural origins as you can. Sorry, Froot Loops. This means eating whole grains, fresh fruits and veggies, healthy fats, lean meat and avoiding excessive alcohol and refined sugars. Include foods that have recently been “alive.” Transitioning to a balanced diet isn’t as intimidating as you might think. Stock your kitchen with these immune boosting foods:
Iron: crucial for immune cell development
- Lean red met
- Dark leafy greens
- Dried fruit
Vitamin A: crucial for immune cell development
- Goji berries
- Bell peppers
Vitamin C: support innate and adaptive immune systems
- Citrus fruits
- Goji berries
Zinc: antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
Probiotics: support healthy gut bacteria
- Fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi)
Still unsure about how to include everything? Get your grocery list ready, because here are some simple meal ideas that are budget-and-immune-friendly.
- Oatmeal with berries
- Omelet with fresh veggies
- Orange with low-sugar yogurt
- Spinach salad with avocado, bell peppers, tomatoes
- Rice bowl with lean steak and broccoli
- Miso soup with greens and oysters
- Chicken noodle soup with homemade bone broth
- Stir fry
But every good meal has a drink, right? Look no further than these:
- Water: may be boring to some, but a dehydrated immune system is inefficient. If you can’t stand to drink enough on its own, try mixing in *natural* flavor packets that also contain vitamins. Just drink your water. (:
- Ginger Tea: flavor it with fresh lemon and sweeten with local honey for a five star immune cocktail.
- Bone broth: Bone broth provides the gut with amino acids and collagen that can greatly improve gut health. This is easy to make at home and tastes wonderful on a cold day. Drink plain or add to stews or soups.
2. Get Moving
Physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of illness by promoting white blood cell activity to detect pathogens. In addition to moving immune cells through the body, exercise can prolong the presence of the immune cells up to several hours after completing the activity. It’s recommended that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week.
It’s as simple as:
Increased heart rate = increased blood flow
Increased blood flow = more immune cells moving through the bloodstream
More immune cells moving = more filtration from the spleen
While it’s important to move your body, be sure not to overwork yourself. You should avoid training when you feel ill or have an injury as this can make it worse. Find ways to move that work for you. It can be as simple as a 20-minute walk or an hour-long training session. Paired with a healthy diet, exercise is a great way to keep your body healthy and ready to fight infection.
3. Count Sheep And Catch Your Z’s
Getting a good night’s rest is arguably the most important thing to keep your immune system functioning properly and efficiently. Rhythmic sleep gives your body the TLC it needs to recover each day. It’s best to be proactive vs reactive when it comes to sleep.
Neale R. Lange, MD encourages at least eight hours of sleep each night, and potentially more if you’re fighting an infection. “The worse or more fragmented your sleep is, the higher your resting inflammatory condition will be, and heightened inflammation just puts you more at risk for complications to arise from the illness.”
4. Synthesize Sunshine
Vitamin D, the “sunshine” vitamin, can work wonders for your immunity by supporting both the innate and adaptive systems. Vitamin D production initiates upon exposure to UVB rays from the sun. During the summer, getting your daily dose of vitamin D is easy—just spend an hour or so outside (with sunscreen, of course). Colder temperatures bring less sunlight, making vitamin D harder to get in the winter.
Dr. Antony Young says, “Winter sunlight does not have enough of the UVB component that is essential for vitamin D synthesis. For all practical purposes, one cannot make vitamin D in cold climates in winter.” If you live in colder climates where vitamin D is not readily available during the winter, try getting your “sunshine” vitamin from food.
Freshwater fish like rainbow trout and salmon are high in vitamin D and provide 645 IU and 383-570 IU respectively. Don’t have the palate for fish? You can find milk and juice fortified with vitamins, specifically vitamin D.
5. Calm the Cortisol
Did you know that stress can weaken the immune system? The body responds to stress by releasing the hormone cortisol. Cortisol suppresses the immune system by reducing the number of lymphocytes and inhibits white blood cell activity. If unmanaged stress is a part of your daily lifestyle, your body will start to adapt by accepting the high levels of cortisol as a new normal. Take time to be mindful of stress triggers or stressful thoughts and avoid them if you can. Next time you feel overwhelmed, try these activities:
- Practice deep and controlled breathing
- Go for a walk
- Follow a guided meditation
- Sing/dance along to your favorite song
- Take a media detox
6. Get Rid of Germs
Keep your hands clean by washing or sanitizing your hands regularly. It is one of the easiest steps to keep pathogens away from our bodies. If you frequently touch your face, this step is especially important for you! Many times germs enter the body when we touch our eyes, mouth and nose. Disinfecting high traffic surfaces is equally important. Pause and think about the last time you disinfected your phone, computer keyboard or kitchen counters. Keeping hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes handy can help reduce your contact with germs.
The complexity of the immune system is just one example of how intelligent the body is. Find healing within the body, through food, movement and nature. Next time you start to feel under the weather, try some of these natural ways!