Even though pathogens evolve rapidly—think every year’s new batch of flu viruses!—our wonderful immune system adapts to these changes and continues to recognize the newly developed pathogen whenever we run up against it in future again, keeping a body memory of those pathogens it defeated in its past.
Pathogens vary widely, from viruses, through bacteria, and to parasitic worms. All of them can maim or even kill the human body. Pathogens are so prevalent, that without immunity we would not survive even a simple paper cut. If our immune system becomes compromised, we have less protection against cancer, autoimmune diseases, and inflammatory diseases. A compromised immune system, or immunodeficiency, occurs when we are born without the correct genetic coding to bestow a healthy immune system, when we get sick with such viral illness such as HIV/AIDS that dismantle our immune system, or when we have to take medications such as chemotherapy that suppresses the immune system.
Although a great many of us do not have an immunodeficiency, we may develop a decreased immune response for a variety of reasons. Let’s look at seven of these reasons today. All of these can be managed or avoided, restoring our full immune response:
Cortisol is a chronic stress hormone, elevated in people with enduring stressful situations. As a result of this increase in cortisol, we have less production of ‘good’ prostaglandins. (‘Good’ prostaglandins are localized hormone-like cellular messengers that support immune function, dilate blood vessels, helps thin the blood and are anti-inflammatory). People with chronic stress will more easily get colds and the flu, as well as heart disease and diabetes.
Practice stress-reducing activities like yoga and mindfulness. Attempt to be grateful, make a decision even if it is not the perfect one, and connect with people. All of these activities help reduce stress and improve our immune response.
Several studies now confirm a strong link between a high consumption of sugar and the suppression of the body’s immune system. For instance, one study found that neutrophils (white blood cells) that would otherwise engulf bacteria are “paralyzed” for up to five hours after the owner of the neutrophils ate 100 gm of sugar, the equivalent of three cans of sweetened soft drink. (It was a small study of 10 healthy subjects, but nevertheless). Diabetes, a condition of chronically elevated blood sugar leads to easier bacterial invasion and infectious diseases, such as sepsis and vaginal candidiasis.
Avoid simple carbohydrates, such as cane sugar, glucose candy and fruit juices. Complex carbohydrates, such as that found in pasta, are alright in moderation. Focus on increasing the number of fruit, vegetables, and amount of low-fat milk.
- Lack of sleep
The immune system uses our sleep to rebuild itself. With poor sleep, our T-cells (lymphocytes that mature in our thymus) become fewer and become weak. People sleeping less than seven hours a night are more likely to get sick after contact with a virus, such as the common cold.
Make sure you have a great sleep hygiene. Most importantly, get up at the same time every day; and do not watch TV or read when in bed.
- Lack of exercise
Not only does moderate exercise flush toxic substances waste out of our bodies through an increase in blood flow, the improved blood circulation also promotes circulation of antibodies and white blood cells. A study showed that inactive people took twice as many sick days in four months than people who walked briskly every day.
Walking for as little as twenty minutes a day five days a week can help our immune system work at its peak.
- Too much sunlight
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun, through both the ultraviolet bands, first UVB then UVA not only is directly linked to skin cancer, but also suppresses cell—mediated immunity. (Transplant patients whose immune system is chronically decreased develops significantly more skin cancers than healthy people).
Avoid being in the sun without UV radiation protection sunscreen (SPF). Use “broad-spectrum” or “multi-spectrum” protection for both UVB and UVA. For the vast majority of people, SPF 15 is good, but those of us with very fair skin, a family history of skin cancer and conditions such as lupus with increased sensitivity should use SPF 30 or higher.
Dehydration is among many other factors decreasing immunity for a period of between three to 72 hours after marathon training. Good hydration improves our body’s oxygenation, helps flush toxins from our kidneys and helps produce lymph—that helps carry white blood cells from the thymus and bone marrow to the body.
The Institute of Medicine determined that an adequate intake (AI) for men is roughly about 13 cups (3 liters) of total beverages a day. The AI for women is about 9 cups (2.2 liters) of total beverages a day.
- Smoking and drinking
Cigarettes have more than 4,000 toxins, all of which weakens the immune system, even via second hand smoking. Alcohol taken in excess decrease the production of white blood cells. This leads to more infections and ultimately a higher risk of cancer.
Get help to stop smoking, and ask family members to stop as well, if they smoke. If we do not drink alcohol at all, it puts us at some higher risk for heart disease, but in addition to decreasing our immunity, too much alcohol intake causes increased deaths due to cancer and liver disease. It appears today that the “Goldilocks” level of alcohol use in adults is between two to four standard glasses of wine a week.