Our immune system is a beautiful intimate dance of trillions of living organisms and compounds. They communicate with each other nonstop to maintain homeostasis within our bodies. This extraordinarily complex set of mechanisms is constantly responding to the environment. Every time we inhale or ingest food, we are taking in foreigners, to which our immune system says,
“Is it safe?”
“Safe! Coast is clear.”
“Not safe! Prepare for battle!”
Our body responds with something called innate immunity. Which is a series of defense mechanisms that prevent the foreign (potentially harmful) invaders from traveling throughout the body. It is there to kick viruses, bad bacteria, parasites, and other particles out of the body.
Without a balanced immune response, we can experience severe inflammation and tissue damage that can lead to future disease and also affect everyday functioning. From our mood to our complexion, energy levels, sleep, brain function, and our susceptibility to infection – it’s all often a direct reflection of our immune response.
Here are six ways we can strengthen our immune response. Each has a small biological explanation along with practical examples so we can begin to incorporate them into our day. After all, a strong immune system is a foundation for a longer, healthier, and happier life.
Let’s dive in.
1. Eat Probiotic and Fiber-Rich Foods
There are roughly 40 trillion bacterial cells in your body and only 30 trillion human cells. That means you are more bacteria than human. Crazy, right?
Probiotics and fiber-rich foods work to diversify the microbiome and gut flora by introducing good bacteria. Probiotics are loaded with millions of good bacteria, and fiber-rich foods contain pre-biotic fiber which acts as food for the good bacteria.
The gut microbiome, specifically, is all of the microbes in your intestines. They begin diversifying the moment you’re born through your mother’s breast milk. And they continue to diversify and protect you throughout your entire lifespan.
The gut is the largest contributor to our innate immunity. It holds a massive army of good bacteria that promote cell survival, strengthen the stomach lining, and induce protective responses from cells. Good bacteria are essentially both the brain and food of the gut’s immune cells, which help them win the battle against pathogens. A healthy population of gut flora as well as a diverse microbiome will help protect your heart, brain, and every other organ in your body.
We can introduce good bacteria, or probiotics, through many natural foods.
To clear the flair of supplements and potions, know it’s neither necessary nor the best way to get these little helpers into your gut. Nature provides ample natural sources. A few delicious foods that are rich in probiotics and excellent for gut health include:
- Nut-milk yogurts
- Nut cheeses
2. Introduce medicinal mushrooms into your diet
Similar to our muscles, the immune system gets stronger with a little exercise. We call these workout regimes immuno-stimulants and immuno-modulators.
A beautiful example of immuno-modulators is the magical kingdom of fungi. Also known as mushrooms! Around 700 out of 140,000 species possess pharmacological properties. These medicinal species modulate or positively alter our bodies’ innate immune response. They wake up depressed or dormant parts of our immune system.
Mushrooms such as Reishi and Chaga have been used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. And with good reason. The therapeutic effects of mushrooms range from anticancer to the suppression of autoimmune diseases and common allergies. This works by their ability to induce the production of cytokines – messengers of the immune system that signal immune responses between cells.
Reishi and Chaga are both excellent to start with. Reishi is known for its antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties. They stimulate DNA production in the bone marrow to produce more white and red blood cells, essentially creating a bigger army. The increase in the concentration of white blood cells has rendered them helpful for people infected with HIV, mononucleosis, and other viral infections.
Chaga is known to have the highest amount of antioxidants gram for gram than any other substance on the planet. They also contain a high amount of zinc, which is a crucial nutrient for the development and function of our immune cells.
3. Use adaptogenic herbs
Adaptogens possess a unique ability to combat stress. The HPA (hypothalamus/pituitary/adrenal) axis is our stress response system that extends from the brain to the top of the kidneys. It’s a complex feedback mechanism that works by releasing hormones throughout the body in response to environmental stress.
Chronic stress increases the production of the hormone, cortisol, which is known to suppress white blood cell activity – a critical component of our immune system. In turn, we become more susceptible to inflammation, allergies, low libido, anxiety, and depression.
Adaptogenic herbs work by regulating our adrenal response to stress and physical challenges so that we don’t overproduce cortisol. They also normalize some of the neurotransmitters (ex. dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin) involved in the HPA axis. They do this by making the blood-brain barrier more permeable. Which allows the precursors that induce the production of neurotransmitters to pass through easily. This way adequate amounts are produced naturally.
Common adaptogens to use are:
These powerfully potent herbs have a long history of use in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. You can find them in powdered form to mix with water or into your smoothies. As well as in the form of tea.
4. Cook with digestive spices
Spices are found in the root, seed, bark, berry, and flower of plants. They are not only delicious but also tremendously beneficial to our immune system. Many spices have the power to block chronic inflammatory pathways in the body. These are the pathways that lead to long term diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimers. The spices work by interrupting the formation of harmful colonies of cells.
If we look at other cultures, the rate of those affected with cancer is three times less in India than in the United States. Indians are notorious for consuming large amounts of spices daily.
Spices also aid in digestion by their ability to help produce bile and calm indigestion-causing bacteria. When the body isn’t working so hard to digest food, energy is cleared to heal. Our immune cells can move to areas of the body where their help is needed.
Common spices that are easy to incorporate into our diet are:
- Cayenne peppers
They work great in desserts, juices, salad dressings, and more!
5. Get enough sleep
While we sleep, our bodies are hard at work repairing and restoring the whole time. Without at least 7 – 9 hours of sleep per night, our immune system suffers. Certain types of little messenger proteins, cytokines, peak in production during nocturnal hours. Because they are the immune system’s communicators, we need all the cytokines we can get to keep our immune response strong and optimal.
To paint a small picture of what is at work here, the cytokines are helping our bodies grow new cells, repair harmed cells, direct cell traffic, and destroy target cells.
Sleep also aids in our immune system’s memory. Memories of foreign invaders and our response to them are formed and stored in the immunological memory bank. When we stop getting enough sleep, this crucial time for healing and memory formation is lost. We become more susceptible to getting colds, viruses, and other infections in the future.
One way to get more sleep is to keep our phones out of the bedroom at night. There are numerous studies on the negative effects of the blue light from your phone before bed. We can also establish a healthy nighttime routine that involves turning off electronics, reading, and taking a few deep breaths while lying in bed. Yoga Nidra is an excellent resource for better sleep as well.
6. Exercise and sweat it out
The last way to boost immunity that we’re going to talk about is sweating. Get outside, move around, and work up a sweat. The benefits are incredibly supportive to the immune system.
The barrier of the skin is our first line of defense against pathogens. It keeps them from entering the bloodstream. The sweat glands found on the skin secrete a wide range of antimicrobial compounds that stop harmful microbes from hanging around.
For instance, during exercise, we release a specific antimicrobial peptide that is salty and slightly acidic. These properties kill any microbes they come in contact with, essentially causing them to explode. Sweat’s main role is to regulate our skin’s microbial flora. It kills the bad guys. Hence, sweat’s “detoxing” effect. All the more reason to get out there, and start working up a sweat.
Remember diversity is key.
The immune system has a remarkable ability to reboot and begin functioning optimally if we give it the fuel it needs. With these six ways, there is no doubt we can begin to feel better. We may find ourselves happier, more energized, mentally sharp, have clearer skin, and prevent ourselves from future diseases.
You can check out my cookbook, Heal and Ignite: 55 Raw, Plant-Based, Whole-Food Recipes to Heal Your Body, and Ignite Your Spirit. It’s full of fun, easy, and delicious ways to create probiotic-rich foods right at home as well as how to use digestive spices.
We eat to fuel the mind, body, and spirit. We can start to see our immune system as a reflection of our connection to spirit and life on earth.
It’s a beautiful, complex dance. And quite easy to maintain when we step into the rhythm of life.