Finding it tricky to shift that cold? Your immune system may be suffering more than you think…
Our immune system is an incredibly complex system involving many different parts of the body working synergistically together. Its defences range from physical barriers such as our skin, enzymes in our tears and saliva and the cough-reflex, to the numerous immune cells in our blood streams, and the trillions of immune-modulating bacteria residing within our guts. On duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, it’s no wonder our immune system can become overworked at times. Here are 6 signs that you might need to give your immune system a little extra support.
- Frequent infections – Recurrent colds (more than two a year), tonsillitis, urinary tract infections, thrush, athlete’s foot and fungal nail infections are all signs that our immune system isn’t functioning optimally. Imagine the immune system as an army made up of different regiments under constant attack from a barrage of invading pathogens such as bacteria, fungi and viruses. When each of the regiments is fully conscripted, armed and communicating well with each other, the pathogens can be defeated. However, if one regiment suffers a big defeat, or communication breaks down, this leaves our defences weakened, and this is when infections can take hold.
- Chronic Stress – When we’re stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight off pathogens is reduced. Cortisol (our stress hormone), suppresses certain immune cells, leaving us more susceptible to infections. This is a natural evolutionary response. When running away from a saber-tooth tiger, our immune systems wouldn’t have been very useful to us, so instead we evolved to prioritise the cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems (amongst others) in times of stress. Once we had escaped the tiger, both our cortisol levels and our immune system would return to normal. However, the pressures of modern living lead many to experience stress on a chronic basis, leading to chronic depression of the immune system. High stress is also a big risk factor for the development of autoimmune conditions, where the immune system becomes confused and incorrectly starts to attack parts of the body.
- Allergies and atopy– Allergies and atopic conditions such as eczema, asthma, hay fever and hives is said to involve a malfunction of the immune system, in which usually harmless substances (such as pollen, dust mites, chemicals, pet dander or foods) are misinterpreted by the immune system as being harmful, causing a heightened reaction towards them. This leads to an increase in IgE antibodies and the release of inflammatory substances such as histamine. If you suffer with atopic conditions and/or allergies (or have recently developed one), it’s a sign that your immune system could be out of balance.
- Antibiotic use – If you’ve had to take a course of antibiotics recently, not only does this signal that you’ve had an infection your immune system wasn’t able to clear on its own, but you could also be at increased risk of picking up further infections, due to antibiotics effects on the gut microbiome. Did you know up to 70% of our immune cells reside in the lining of our guts, and these cells are supported by our gut bacteria? Antibiotics are extremely effective at wiping out infection-causing bacteria. However, they are indiscriminate, and can also kill beneficial bacteria in our gut at the same time. Replenishing your gut bacteria with a good quality live bacteria supplement such as Bio-Kult Advanced Multi-Strain Formula (bio-kult.com), which contains 14 different strains, is therefore really important to support your immune system during and after a course of antibiotics.
- Food intolerances – As discussed above, maintaining a healthy lining of the gastrointestinal tract is essential for optimal immune function. When the lining of our digestive tract becomes damaged (by stress, alcohol, poor diet, inflammation, medications etc…) it can become hyper-permeable or ‘leaky’. This allows larger proteins from foods which shouldn’t normally be able to pass through the digestive lining to enter our blood streams. Our immune systems see these as foreign invaders and in response mount an inflammatory immune attack. This leads to the symptoms associated with food intolerances, which can either be localised within the gut, or more systemic, affecting our skin, mood and much more.
- Diet low in nutrients – Nutrition plays a critical role in determining immune responses and malnutrition is the most common cause of immunodeficiency worldwide.Poor nutrition has been shown to result in increased infections and slowed healing from injury and infections, whereas studies show that healthy eating can help in keeping your immune system functioning properly. Certain nutrients are particularly important such as ensuring adequate protein intake, along with the micronutrients zinc, selenium, iron, copper, vitamins A, C, E, B6 and folate. If your diet has been looking a little beige recently, chances are your immune system isn’t getting all the nutrients it needs.
The most effective approach to supporting immune function is a comprehensive plan involving diet, lifestyle, stress management, exercise and supplementation where needed. The immune system does an incredible job of protecting us, but the bottom line is, you need to look after your immune system if you want your immune system to keep looking after you.
Words by Nutritional Therapist Hannah Braye (www.bio-kult.com).