As autumn and winter approach, many of us will experience bouts of colds, infections, catarrh and similar concerns. Often we blame bugs as the cause of our illness rather than addressing varying weaknesses in our immune system.
So what is the immune system and how does it work
The immune system is unlike any other system within our bodies with a complex interaction between several glands, proteins, tissues, chemical compounds, hormones and gut bacteria. These interactions are all involved to help achieve optimal immunity and in its simplistic form,the immune system comprises specialised white blood cells, which learn what belongs to the body and what does not. The role of the immune system is to protect the body against many pathogenic bacteria and viruses on an ongoing basis. Any organism that attacks our system will cause infection and disease and it is the optimal working of the immune system that helps destroy these organisms in order to prevent any further damage and infection. This process is referred to as the immune response.
The skin has a strong immune system capacity, which is why a healthy person who suffers a cut will heal quickly; this is a gateway for viruses to penetrate the body and our immune system works to close the gate as quickly as possible. The ear, nose and throat are other possible entry points, which can lead to a variety of concerns including sore throats, catarrh, bronchitis and middle ear infections.
To further complicate matters, there are three categories of immunity: innate, passive and adaptive. Innate immunity gives the body general protection against germs that affect other species; passive or ‘borrowed’ immunity is taken from another source and lasts for a short period of time, an example would be breast milk from a mother to a baby; adaptive immunity develops throughout life as we are exposed to different kinds of viruses and bacteria.
When bacteria and viruses, known as antigens, are detected in the body, white blood cells work together to respond to the threat. They prompt a specific type of cell, called a ‘B lymphocyte’ to produce a specific protein called an ‘antibody’, which locks onto the bacteria or virus. Once an antibody has been created, it exists in the body for the rest of one’s life and confers immunity against that specific bacteria or virus. The antibody itself does not destroy the pathogen but allows a specialised cell called a ‘T lymphocyte’ to actually destroy it. The T lymphocyte also signals other cells and organs to assist in the destruction of the pathogens.
This is a very simplistic view of the immune system, however the immune system is so complex that modern science is still not able to pinpoint the exact mechanisms involved.
Factors that affect the immune system
There are many possible factors that can weaken the immune system and I have listed some of them below:
- High sugar diets: sugar decreases the ability of white blood cells to kill pathogens almost immediately. It is especially important to cut out sugar when you feel that you are coming down with an infection.
- Dehydration: every process in the body takes place in the fluids within our bodies; lack of hydration will hinder the normal biological processes and thus affect immunity.
- Sleep disturbances: sleep is absolutely essential for optimum health; during sleep there is growth and regeneration of the immune system, nervous system and the musculoskeletal system; if your body is fatigued due to lack of sleep, then you will feel tired and it will be harder to fight disease.
- Stress: most stress is unavoidable and we all face some degree of stress, however if stress levels becomes overwhelming, then your body will find it difficult to fight off disease.
- Exercise: when you exercise, you increase circulation to every tissue and organ within the body; the individual components that make up the immune system are better circulated and help ensure the immune system has a better chance of acting on the pathogens before they get a chance to spread.
- Poor diet: a balanced and healthy diet is important to ensure optimal immunity; try to consume whole grains and healthy fats found in fish, seeds and nuts; include garlic and onion into your foods for their antimicrobial properties.
- Lack of vitamin D: vitamin D’s role in maintaining a healthy immune system is unquestionable and most of us are vitamin D deficient.
Ensuring peak immunity
In order to ensure that we do not go down with a cold or an infection, our bodies require that we obtain the maximum nutrients from food and avoid sugar and processed foods, which weaken our immune system.
I strongly believe that cutting-edge supplementation plays a key role in helping to protect against infections and I recommend Daily Immunity by Food Science of Vermont, which should be taken from autumn right the way through to spring. Daily Immunity may also help shorten the duration of an infection by increasing the dosage. It contains a comprehensive blend of ingredients including:
- Astragalus:I am a great advocate of this herb for its safety and efficacy in helping to keep the immune system at its peak. Astragalus works to increase interferon and white blood cell counts, both of which are vital to detect infection causing bacteria and viruses. The role of white blood cells is to destroy these pathogens and hence defend the body against infection.
- Elderberry: rich in several beneficial nutrients such as vitamins C and B, as well as flavonoids, numerous studies indicate that the oral administration of elderberry extracts helps reduce the duration of infections from an average of 6 days to 48 hours. This may be due to their ability to inhibit vital replication.
- Oregano: contains carvacrol, one of the most potent antibacterial and antiviral compounds; it has other beneficial properties including helping to alleviate catarrh and help suppress coughs.
- Olive leaf: the active compound ‘oleuropein’ has powerful antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties helping to inhibit a variety of organisms; additionally olive leaf may help reduce a fever.
- Garlic: an incredible herb offering numerous benefits to the body including enhanced circulation, protection against insect bites and helping to lower cholesterol; garlic also possesses powerful antimicrobial and antiviral properties.
- Bee Propolis: Propolis is a bee resin and has a broad spectrum of activity against bacteria; it is also the richest source of caffeic acid and apigenin, two very important compounds that have been known to aid the immune response. I have previously referred to the fact that the immune response is the complex interaction of chemicals, blood cells and organs to send signals for the destruction of pathogens in the body, Propolis helps to ensure the immune system responds quickly and efficiently.
- Maitake and Shitake mushrooms: mushrooms contain powerful compounds called ‘beta-glucans’; these compounds have been scientifically studied and found to activate the immune system through a variety of mechanisms, one of which is to bind to white blood cells activating their ability to scavenge for invading organisms.
- Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium: these are the most widely studied probiotic organisms in the world; friendly bacteria have a powerful beneficial effect on your gut’s immune system and aid in the production of antibodies; over 80% of our immunity is derived from these friendly bacteria.
- Vitamin D3: research has confirmed that ‘catching’ a cold or an infection may actually be a symptom of vitamin D deficiency. A group of Danish scientists found that specialised cells, called ‘T-cells’, are critical for immune defence and are dependent upon adequate levels of vitamin D in the blood. When a T-cell is exposed to a foreign bacteria or virus, it sends a signalling device known as a vitamin D receptor. If there is vitamin D deficiency in the blood then this T-cell remains dormant and cannot attack the bacteria or virus.
- Zinc and Vitamin C: although a deficiency in any essential nutrient can compromise immunity, zinc is considered to be the most important of all nutrients. It is vital for the thymus gland, the primary gland of immunity, and is required for white blood cell production. Vitamin C supplementation has been shown to boost white blood cell counts, antibody production and help the immune response and also antagonises viruses by inhibiting an enzyme that helps them to spread through body tissues.
If you wish to maintain good health, it is important to boost the immune system not only to prevent infection, but to ensure the optimal working of many other processes carried out within our bodies. Daily Immunity has been specifically formulated to help improve your overall health and wellbeing.
This content is not intended to replace conventional medical treatment. Any suggestions made and all herbs listed are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, condition or symptom. Personal directions and use should be provided by a clinical herbalist or other qualified healthcare practitioner.