Goldilocks and the immune system have something in common!
The immune system is responsible for many checks and balances in a day: it scans the body for abnormal or precancerous cells, maintains tolerance to food and environmental antigens, quells pro-inflammatory states that drive conditions such as eczema and atherosclerosis, and maintains tolerance to the body itself.
With myriad responsibilities, it’s understandable how difficult it is for the immune system to perform well in all these domains while maintaining relative immune balance. Like Goldilocks’ attempt to find the “just right” temperature of porridge, the immune system requires a finely tuned balance of fighting spirit and self-tolerance.
The good news is, we can make a significant impact on immunity by tweaking our day-to-day lifestyle—and tip the immune balance so it’s “just right.” Here are four strategies.
1. Pay attention to your emotions
We know that negative emotions don’t feel good, and the immune system agrees. Anger has been shown to increase the production of inflammatory proteins, while stress and low psychological well-being increase the risk of autoimmune disease. Counseling can help us process challenging emotions.
2. Eat better
In general, we tend to consume too much sugar, refined carbohydrates, and saturated fats. The eating patterns of the “Standard American Diet” may cause immune dysfunction by inducing a state of chronic inflammation, which primes the pump of inflammation-driven conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, and atherosclerosis. Chronic inflammation, in turn, weakens the immune system’s ability to fend off infections.
While the jury is still out on the intensity of exercise that is best for the immune system, what we do know for sure is that both gentle exercise and regular moderate exercise are beneficial. There is a theory that intense exercise depresses the immune system, but more detailed study is needed before drawing conclusions, as any negative impact to the immune system might speak more to lifestyle factors common among athletes and military personnel (traveling, sleep disruption, anxiety, and so on.).
Exercise also helps circulate lymph (fluid made up of white blood cells, proteins, and fats) throughout the body via the lymphatic system. Lymph nodes in the lymphatic system are involved in fighting infection, quelling inflammation, and maintaining self-tolerance.
4. Get a better night’s sleep
Both sleep duration and quality are important for immune health. Getting enough sleep reduces risk of infectious disease and improves infection outcomes. Disturbed sleep also increases the risk of autoimmune disease.
Underlying causes of sleep problems, such as dysfunctions in 24-hour cortisol secretion, reproductive hormones, and vitamin D deficiency, can be identified and addressed with naturopathic tests and treatments.
Written by Cassie Irwin, ND