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Balancing Act

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Balancing Act

Boosting the immune system is as simple as getting regular sleep and reducing chronic stress. But natural supplements can also back up our immune health.

Our immune system is like a tightrope walker up on the high wire, constantly balancing, carefully navigating the fine line between under- and over-reaction to external challenges.

When functioning optimally, disease-causing organisms (pathogens) are disabled and prevented from causing harm. If an immune system is underactive, pathogens may access the body largely unchecked. An overfunctioning immune system will also result in illness. Our very survival depends upon immune balance.

The intricate immune system

The immune system is an intricate web of interdependent cells and chemical messengers. Immune cells specialized for bacterial, viral, or parasitic invaders all originate in the bone marrow. The players include macrophages, which engulf and digest foreign cells; aptly named natural killer (NK) cells, which eliminate infected or cancerous cells; helper T cells; and B cells, which produce showers of protein-based antibodies, labelling cells for destruction.

Our immune system’s elegance lies in its ability to recall previous encounters. Once an organism has been identified and subdued, future responses to the same invader will be more rapid and effective. This can work against us in the case of anaphylaxis, where an initial contact with an allergen such as peanut or a bee sting primes the body’s immune system. Subsequent exposure leads to an exaggerated overreaction that can be fatal.

In light of its potentially destructive power, immune activity is tightly regulated. The intricate dance between cells and invaders is chaperoned by chemical messengers that direct the development and behaviour of all cells. Known as cytokines, these tiny compounds are responsible for the harmonious orchestration of an immune response. Cytokines such as interleukins (IL-1, IL-4, IL-12) have become the subject of much study and speculation regarding their role in inflammation, allergy, and cancer.

As our knowledge of the immune system continues to evolve, so does our understanding of natural therapies and their influence on immune function. Although all mechanisms may not yet be completely clear, simple lifestyle choices can profoundly influence immunity.

Contrast showers for immune stimulation

  • Set shower to comfortably warm temperature. Stand under the water for one minute, ensuring water reaches all areas of the body.
  • After one minute, turn water to cool for 30 seconds and continue showering.
  • Repeat first two steps twice more for a total of three complete cycles. Be sure to end on cold, and follow with vigorous towel-drying to warm up.
  • Longer cycles may be used, but hot
    phase should always be at least twice
    as long as cold.
  • Warm and cool water may be used at first, but you should progress to hot and cold water as you become comfortable with this treatment.

Get zzzzzzz’s for immunity

The benefit of consistently sleeping well cannot be overstated. Poor quality or short sleep times are associated with decreased immune function. Adequate sleep of at least eight hours each night helps to balance the body’s processes by allowing for the normal cycling of hormones and immune cells. The hormone melatonin, produced during sleep, has been shown to increase the production of immune cells. Through consistent nightly production of this hormone, we can effectively support our immune system by simply counting sheep.

If a good night’s sleep is eluding you, start by creating a sleep sanctuary: prevent any light entry through windows or doors, remove light-emitting electronics, and ensure a comfortable sleeping temperature. Aim to retire at the same time every night, and avoid stimulants such as television, caffeine, or work-related activities before sleep. If supplemental support is needed, consider valerian, magnesium, or even melatonin itself in serious or long-term cases.

Reduce chronic stress

While sleep can independently affect the immune system, sleeplessness also appears to increase markers of stress in the body. Although short-term stress can improve immune status, chronic stress is known to have detrimental effects on the immune system. While its effect is generally dampening, chronic stress can increase the production of inflammatory cytokines, worsening allergic disease such as asthma.

The good news is that implementing healthy stress management practices can quickly and effectively turn things around. Techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), guided imagery, and mindfulness meditation can improve cytokine profiles, decrease stress-related hormone levels, and increase NK cell activity. Other stress-busting strategies such as laughter, deep breathing, and even spa-style foot baths have positive immune effects and quickly reduce levels of overstimulation.

Stress isn’t the only emotional factor in immune health. A study of anger management skills associated high levels of anger control with faster wound healing. Other researchers have found increased inflammatory cytokines in individuals with a higher incidence of negative emotions, while optimists enjoy improved immune function. The relatively new field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) explores these connections, highlighting the importance of caring for our emotional selves as much as our physical bodies.

Immune system workout

Regular aerobic exercise is a proven stress reliever, which also has its own positive effects on immune health. While long-term, intense exercise such as running a marathon may cause a temporary reduction in immune measures, shorter term but intense exercise of 20 to 60 minutes can improve beneficial cytokine production and increase the activity of immune
cells. With the added benefit of increasing energy and overall health, exercise is a favourite immune prescription for many practitioners.

Traditional wisdom

While perhaps not yet supported by rigorous trials, the benefits of traditional physical therapies should not be overlooked. Dry skin brushing using gentle, circular strokes and moving across the skin toward the heart, has long been proposed in alternative circles as a means of increasing detoxification and stimulating the flow of immune-cell-containing lymphatic fluid.

Contrast showers (see sidebar on page 65) work with similar principles, seeking to enhance immune cell activity through increased circulation. Massage may have the same stimulating effect while decreasing stress levels.

A recipe for good health

Finally, one of the most important foundations of good immune health is a whole-foods based diet, containing a high proportion of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Nutrient-rich diets have been shown to decrease the incidence of infection. Adequate protein intake is vitally important as well, as it influences NK cells, macrophages, T cells, and B cells. Protein is also required to make infection-fighting antibodies. High blood sugar levels impair immune function, making decreased sugar intake a wise choice.

Despite the complexity of the immune system, there are simple lifestyle, dietary, and supplemental strategies that can dramatically improve overall immune health.

Top 10 immune-boosting supplements

  • B-vitamin complex: essential for a wide spectrum of immune functions
  • Vitamin C: increases immune cell activity, may shorten common cold duration
  • Vitamin D: role in autoimmunity, some infections
  • Vitamin E: overall immune enhancement, especially in seniors
  • Zinc: supports T cell development, beneficial in numerous infectious diseases
  • Probiotics: increase antibody production and NK cell activity (depending on strain and dosage)
  • Fish oil: reduces inflammatory cytokines, role in allergic disease
  • Echinacea: helpful in upper respiratory tract infections
  • Astragalus: supports overall immune function, not traditionally given during illness
  • Reishi mushroom: numerous effects on many immune cells, benefits overall health
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