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The Immune System – How to Maintain & Boost your Defence against Infection

What are its Functions?

The main functions of the human immune system are to protect against infection from pathological microorganisms, to clear damaged tissues, and to provide constant surveillance of potentially malignant cells that grow within the body. The immune system also develops appropriate tolerance to avoid unwanted response to healthy tissues of self, or harmless foreign substances.

The first line of defence are the skin, cornea, and mucosa of the respiratory and digestive tracts which form a physical barrier. When these barriers are breached two types of immune response may occur – innate immunity or adaptive immunity. We are born with an innate immune system and the adaptive immune system develops over time in response to exposure to antigens.

All human beings experience lowered immunity at points in their life and to varying degrees, from colds, to serious autoimmune diseases, or even cancer. Digestive complaints and fatigue can also be signs of lowered immunity.

Our immune system is a complex, highly organised constellation of cells and molecules spread throughout the body. These not only fight infections but are responsible for healing and damage repair. Its akin to a biochemical language for all our bodies systems, including the nervous and endocrine system with shared neurotransmitters, hormones and chemical mediators in the body.

How can we Maintain and Boost our Immunity?

Research indicates that psychological stress or trauma can dysregulate the human immune system and increase the possibility of developing chronic illnesses long term or exacerbating existing ones. Stress is so endemic today that being mindful of our immune system functioning optimally has to be a priority. There are many lifestyle measures we can take that will contribute to maintaining our immune integrity. These might include addressing work/life balance, adopting stress management techniques like yoga or deep breathing, taking regular exercise, choosing nutritional foods and not eating processed foods etc. I will look at these in more detail separately. If unresolved trauma is believed to be a contributing factor consider seeking professional help, possibly a talking therapy (www.bacp.co.uk), and ( www.psychotherapy.org.uk ).

A kinesiologist and health coach can help with making these changes to help return the holistic body back to balance.

Be Physically Active – Move your Lymph!

Studies support the view that regular moderate to high intensity exercise most days for 30 – 60 minutes enhances immune support. Overtraining is not advised but there is evidence amongst athletes that increased immunity can decreases inflammation.

Exercise has a profound impact on our immune defence capabilities and is the foundation of health and well-being.

The reason for this is down to the function of our lymphatics – these are a network of vessels and nodes that are the circulatory system spanning the whole body and are in constant flow. With the exception of our cartilage, nails and hair, our entire body is bathed in lymph fluid. This is a clear liquid, around 15 litres! – compared with around 5 litres of blood, permeating every area of our body carrying our immune cells, hormones and proteins. Blood vessels and lymphatic vessels share many structural and anatomical similarities, however, unlike the blood system which has the heart to pump oxygenated blood to our tissues, the lymphatics are open ended and physical movement is essential to force the lymph fluid through the body.

Functions of the Lymphatics

The lymphatic flow requires exercise that makes the muscles contract to push the lymph fluid around the entire body, into every ‘nook and cranny’ whereby it can maintain its constant surveillance, looking out for infection or cancerous cells. It is critical for our health. The lymphatics bring our immune cells together in ‘hubs’ called lymph nodes, which are the ‘operational’ centres for activating our bodies defence. Until we become unwell, we are unaware of this constant monitoring and removal of infections when it is doing its job well. Nonetheless, the system can quickly become congested as a result of genetic issues, acute stress, a sedentary lifestyle or poor digestion which will adversely affect our ability to circulate the lymph.

The lymphatics are also the entry point for fats and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D, E and K, from our diet.

The lymphatics also act like ‘drains’ and are fundamental to filtering away the daily waste from the day-to-day running of our body, including toxic by-products from pesticides and environmental pollutants that are too big to enter the blood stream and end up being collected into the intestinal tract, where they are sent off to the liver for processing.

The lymphatics carry nutrients and oxygen around the body, and the fluid diffuses into our tissues. Disfunction of this process leads to problems with how effective the toxins are being eliminated and can allow cancerous cells to survive and grow to form tumours in one or more of the lymph nodes.

Problems can occur when the daily flow is disrupted leading to inflammation, and weakening the lymph’s ability to defend against infection. This can encourage the lymph to lay deposit fat tissue at the site of the inflammation. Expanded or leaky lymphatics don’t drain so well leaving us open to ill-health and infection. Accumulation of fat tissue and inflammatory immune cell infiltration are a progression to long term inflammation that is implicated in several chronic health conditions.

A sedentary lifestyle leaves us open to infection and can increase the risk of unhealthy weight gain and obesity.

The lymphatic system is susceptible to stress. Stress causes a remodelling of lymphatic vessels which in turn inhibits proper drainage of tissues. Chronic exposure to cortisol, our stress hormone, can literally cause the lymphoid tissue to die off, suppresses our immune system and reduces the circulation that the body needs to fight off foreign invaders.

Get Moving!

I hope this has persuaded you to get moving if you are not doing so at present. Improving lymphatic function can reverse unhealthy changes. It was only at the beginning of the 19th century, that a system of therapeutic gymnastics became popular as previously researchers hadn’t made the link with our lymphaticsbeingour first line of defence.

The good news is that as little as 20 – 30 minutes a day is enough to increase nitric oxide levels and to have a positive effect on lymphatic flow, particularly if you breathe through your nose.

Breathing deeply also ‘massages’ the vessels to pump and maintain lymph flow. Whatever your age or weight – adding a brisk walk to your day is enough. The diaphragm is a big muscle beneath the lungs and above the stomach and deep diaphragmatic breathing will activate lymph movement and is also important to self-manage stress and relieve tension at the end of the day.

Get a mini-trampoline and bouncing gently up and down will activate lymph flow as the fluid responds well to G-forces, with the one way lymphatic valves opening, and when closing, causing the lymph to move.

Housework, gardening, walking the dog, cycling to and from work or school all count. The advice is to aim to walk 10,000 steps every day, (4.5 – 5 miles), starting slowly and gradually building up to this if you have led a sedentary life.

Hydration & Cryotherapy or Thermotherapy

Dehydration is a common cause of lymph congestion. Lymph becomes thicker and less mobile so make sure you are hydrated throughout the day. There is a blog about water to know more.

Lymphatic vessels contract when exposed to cold and dilate when exposed to heat. The heat decreases significantly during cooling, which in turn improves lymph flow. Swimming can be beneficial because it adds pressure to the vessels. Whether you are brave enough to run into the sea in winter or have access to a sauna, then a hot bath followed by a cold shower at home comes close. If you can’t face the cold shower over all your body then try to bear it by aiming the shower head to your legs.

Optimise Sleep

I have written 2 blogs on sleep to refer too so I will only re-mention the importance of getting between 7 and 9 hours of good quality sleep every night to allow the lymph to maintain its anti-inflammatory role and immune function. The brain has its own lymph system which only washes lymph fluid through the organ and vessels when we are in stages of deep sleep, removing, filtering and eliminating anything harmful that might accumulate.

Avoid Smoking!

Smoking negatively impacts on both the innate and adaptive immune systems. Cigarette smoke generally weakens immunity against infections but promotes adverse autoimmunity. Free stop smoking services are available through the NHS.

Consider Alcohol Intake – Are you Regularly Going over your Recommended Daily Limits?

There is plenty of research highlighting the immunosuppressant effect alcohol has; it impacts on all aspects including the structural host defence systems in our gastrointestinal and respiratory tract as well as our innate and adaptive immune systems. It leads to nutritional deficiencies from food that we need in order to function fully.

Further, without optional digestion and absorption of key nutrients even the most nutrient dense diets will be of little benefit to overall health. Signs of malabsorption might be anaemia, bloating, fatigue, stomach cramping, weakness and loss of weight. Stress is a big trigger and drinking due to a stressful life further weakens our defences.

Toxic Exposure

Research is showing us that exposure to industrial pollution can harm the immune system of generations, weakening the body’s defences. We can’t avoid car fumes for example, but there are lots of environmental toxins/pollutants that can be controlled and minimised. Keep toxic load to a minimum by choosing non-toxic cleaning products, personal hygiene productsand cosmetics, Avoiding plastic wrapped foods and plastic bottles, eating organic where possible and filtering water.

Nutrition can Make a Difference

Again, plenty of research backs up the importance of good nutrition for a strong and healthy immune system. I have written a blog on the Nutrivore diet which already covers this aspect.

Malabsorption, poor digestion and dysbiosis – an imbalance of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract are common when the microbiome is unbalanced –these will all reduce our immune systems ability to function. Read the blog on Prebiotics andProbiotics for further information.

Food sensitivities may impact on the integrity of the mucosal barrier in the gastrointestinal tract, which may in turn lead to an immune reaction and inflammatory response. A kinesiologist can test for food sensitivities. Although some substances are common among many people, testing often reveals substances particular to the client.

Ageing leads to a greater susceptibility to immune dysregulation, mostly in older people above 60 – 65. Ageing results in loss of lymphoid tissue, particularly in the thymus, and the ability to respond to pathogens, antigens and mitogens. Mucosal barriers become impaired with age, resulting in weaker immunity. A diet rich in antioxidants will help to combat oxidative stress and may help slow down the ageing process and protect the immune system from more rapid decline. Extra attention to diet and possible supplementation is required.

Inflammatory triggers can come from poor diet, physical inactivity, obesity, smoking, dental caries, poor sleep and nutrient deficiencies. A diet rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, antioxidants, curcumin, quercetin, resveratrol, ginger, garlic, cumin,rosemary, magnesium and vitamin D are all anti-inflammatories worth considering.

Micronutrients to Support the Immune System

  • Vitamin C – Supporting cellular functions of both the innate and adaptive immune systems and promotes the scavenging activity of the skin to protect against environmental stress by supporting the epithelial skin barrier.
  • Vitamin D – Has a positive impact on both innate and adaptive immune systems and may also help prevent or lessen autoimmune inflammatory diseases.
  • Vitamin E – Vitamin E is thought to enhance mucosal barrier integrity and some studies show a reduced risk of developing influenza in the elderly.
  • Cobalamin (Vitamin B 12) and Folic Acid – Deficiency can impact the production of nucleic acid, protein synthesis, inhibiting immune cells and interfering with metabolic processes, including methylation which causes systemic vascular inflammation.
  • Zinc – Helps to maintain homeostasis in both innate and adaptive immune systems.
  • Selenium – A deficiency can impair both innate and adaptive immune systems.
  • EPA/DHA – Essential fatty acids, especially derived from fish oil have been found to modulate both innate and adaptive immune systems due to its powerful anti-inflammatory action.
  • Catechins – Green tea contains a high content of the most abundant and biologically available active compound. Shown to be effective in modulating multiple aspects of innate and adaptive immunity.
  • Beta Glucans – Have been found to have powerful immunomodulatory effect, stimulating immune system cells and therefore helping to fight infections and even malignancies.
  • Adaptogenic herbs – See previous blog on Adaptogens. They help to stimulate the immune system indirectly, by building the body’s resistance to non-specific stresses, such as, toxins in the environment, overwork, poor diet and emotional factors. They also work by boosting resistance to pathogens, viruses and bacteria.
  • Some key Adaptogenic herbs that may stimulate immunity include: Echinacea, Astragalus, Siberian Ginseng, Larch arabinogalactan and Ashwagandha.

At the time of writing the world’s populations are being subjected to the Coronavirus. Not so long ago there was SARS and Bird ‘Flu. Developing vaccines takes time and it seems that with each new virus, they become more clever in mutating and surviving. While we can take action with good hygiene habits and social distancing, we would be well served if we adapted our lives and adopted protocols for maintaining our immune systems as a way of life, irrespective of this immediate challenge.