By Dr. Justin Marchegiani
We know the dreaded feeling at the first sign of a back-of-throat tickle or first sneeze. But for some people, the colds seem to keep coming one after another. Why do some people get sick more often than others? Let’s take a look at that, as well as what we can do to build a stronger immune system, in today’s article!
Your immune system has two branches. You can think of it like a seesaw: as one goes up, one goes down. It’s important to understand the basics of how the immune system works so that you have context for implementing healthy changes and building up your health.
Simply put, the immune system has two branches, Th1 and Th2.
Th1: This side provides the frontline military defense for bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens trying to gain access to our bodies. These cells are typically known as natural killer cells.
Th2: This side is primarily responsible for making antibodies (soldiers that are specific to whatever is making us sick) to the various bacteria, viruses, and pathogens that have already invaded our body. In other words, this provides the backup defense for our body when we have already been compromised.
It usually takes about one week for our Th2 side to get ramped up (i.e., it takes about one week for the backup soldiers to get called into action to help us out). That’s why the average cold lasts about one week. In summary, Th1 prevents intruders from coming in, and Th2 is the backup there to help in case intruders break through the wall.
Sleep is the primary time where your immune system recharges. All the hormones in our body follow our internal clock called Circadian Rhythm, which is regulated by the light and dark cycle of the day. The prime time to tap into natural repair is right around 10 p.m. At this time our body is making human growth hormone (which helps repair our body) and is going through a process known as cellular autophagy, which is repairing our immune system. Sleep deprivation is considered by the World Health Organization (WHO) as the only non-substance carcinogen in the same league as cigarettes and asbestos. Action item: Sleep before 10 p.m., and make sure it’s in a dark environment.
Sunlight is how our body’s naturally make vitamin D, which is a very powerful immune system booster. If you live far from the equator, you won’t be able to make vitamin D year round. I recommend a quality vitamin D3 supplement during times of the year that you aren’t able to get outside and make vitamin D naturally. For those who can, be sure to get sun exposure on your skin (no sunscreen)–how much time in the sun? It will depend on your skin type and range from ~10 minutes to an hour. When you start to get a little color, you know you’ve had enough. Remember, the key is moderation. Avoid burning, we want to build up our vitamin D with incremental sun exposure each day.
According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 100 g of sugar will inhibit your immune system by 50% for up to five hours! The specific immune cells that are inhibited are known as neutrophils, the common immune cells in the body. Your neutrophils produce certain cells known as phagocytes that gobble and eat up bacteria. If the cells are not able to do their job properly, it’s going to be very easy for bacterial infections and immune suppression to occur (2).
Research also shows that other immune cells, such as lymphocytes (our second most common immune cells), are also reduced for 30 to 60 minutes after an acute ingestion of 75 g of glucose (3).
Do yourself a favor and avoid sugar, which includes grains, starches, alcohol, and wine. In the end all of these items are broken down by your body into sugar.
Action item: Healthy organic meats and vegetables, especially cooked in a Crock-Pot, can be really helpful. Try chicken soup minus the noodles; grandmas everywhere would be so proud!
Your body will tell you when it’s starting to get sick. Your energy will start to decline, and you may start to feel a slight twinge in the back of your throat as well. “If you can listen to your body’s whispers, you won’t have to endure its cries…”
This isn’t a time to be tough and power through it. Your immune system takes a lot of energy when it ramps up the Th1 side to fight an infection. Instead of fighting your immune system, try a more gentle approach, like a lite yoga session or a walk, or even take an off day and try to get some extra rest.
“If you listen to your body’s whispers, you won’t have to endure its cries…”
Your body will naturally try to increase its body temperature to increase the effectiveness of the Th1 side of the immune system. This is why a fever can be a very beneficial thing, as long as the fever isn’t going >105 F there really is no need to worry. Action item: You can mimic this state naturally with a sauna session, which can help get your immune system ready to go!
I recommend increasing your water consumption during these sick times. One-half your body weight in ounces is a good baseline, so even a little more can be helpful. Teas can be good, too; just avoid the ones with caffeine. Action item: Drink up! “The solution to pollution is dilution!”
Stress comes in many shapes and sizes: emotional, physical, and chemical. The above suggestions already address the chemical and physical, but the emotional is not something we have dealt with yet. Research has shown that after a fight with a spouse, your immune system can be weakened for up to two days (1). Action item: Avoid unnecessary stressful conflict with your significant other when feeling under the weather.
This is the main vehicle in which viruses and other bad guys are transferred. Washing your hands throughout the day can decrease the spread of these pathogens.
A real easy way to do this is start consuming sauerkraut or kimchi from your local health food store. The fermentation processes, the way in which these foods are prepared, produce beneficial bacteria (probiotics), which have an important role in your gut health. Seventy percent of your immune cells are located in your gut (MALT & GALT). The healthier your gut, the healthier your immune system. Antibiotics can destroy the beneficial bacteria that we get from probiotics and fermented food. That’s why antibiotics should be a last resort.
Fasting can help increase neutrophil activity, which in turn stimulates more phagocytes to gobble up more bacteria and potential infections. Many of the benefits of fasting seem to come from a reduction in glucose levels. I still recommend consuming protein when you’re sick, especially in the form of grass-fed whey protein, or if you are autoimmune, pea protein may be a better choice. These types of proteins are highly absorbable and very easy for your digestive system to break down.
Action item: While fasting and sipping on bone broths or various herbal teas, one of my favorites is ginger tea. Start off by grading some high-quality ginger, or purchase some ginger teabags, a small amount of wildflower honey, a lime or lemon rind, and a little bit of cayenne and combine to help support your immune system and even break down bacterial biofilms.
Your immune system requires high amounts of amino acids and proteins to mount an immune response (make antibodies). If you are not consuming enough protein, your immune system may be more susceptible to infection. Adding in some high-quality proteins, especially from whey or pea protein, can provide you with a valuable boost of amino acid while, at the same time, making it very easy for your digestive system to break down, absorb, and assimilate.
Antibiotics do not make your immune system stronger; they just kill the bad guys that are suppressing your immune system and keeping you sick. All of the suggestions mentioned in this blog post will increase your immune function thus helping your immune system to kill off all of these bad bugs on your own. A little help from supplements can’t hurt either!
Bernstein J, Alpert S, Nauss KM, Depression of lymphocyte transformation following oral glucose ingestion. Am J ClinNutr 1977;30:613.