Often a personal loss or someone suffering from an illness around us serves as a wake-up call for all to re-evaluate the value of life and health. When sick, waiting for and depending on medicines to protect you from a dreadful illness can make you feel helpless and wonder what to do to protect yourself.
This is where your understanding of the immune system, how it functions, and what you can intake and do to boost your immunity comes to aid. Through this article, we will be discussing the same.
The Immune System and its Functions
The immune system, in simple terms, can be referred to as the body’s defense system. Made up of a network of tissues, cells, and organs that work together, it protects us against pathogens that are disease-causing microorganisms such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, and fungi.
Infections are caused when pathogens enter the body and multiply. Diseases, in turn, occur when these infections start to damage your body’s cells, which is also when signs and symptoms of an illness appear. The immune system protects the body from infections by identifying the pathogens that try to invade the body and initiating an immune response to help fight this invasion.
There are several types of White blood cells, also referred to as leukocytes, which are cells of the immune system responsible for protection against foreign invaders. These immune cells are produced in the bone marrow, stored in several locations throughout the body, travel through the bloodstream, and help in easy communication between different body parts.
The cells and organs of the immune system are located throughout the body and allow for a quick response to infections. Each part plays an important role in recognizing pathogens, communicating with other body parts, and fighting foreign bodies off.
Organs of the Immune System
The two main parts of the immune system are the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system or acquired immunity.
Innate immunity is the genetic one. The natural immune response is quick and non-specific, meaning it does not respond differently based on the specific pathogens that it detects. This type of immunity is what you’re born with and offers lifelong protection.
The innate immune system includes physical barriers such as skin and eyelashes, chemical defenses like tears, stomach acid that destroys harmful agents, and cellular defenses, which are non-specific and work to identify and neutralize pathogens.
The components of the innate immune response can also be categorized as external and internal defenses. Outer defenses provide the first line of defense against pathogens, while internal defenses offer the second.
Adaptive immunity is one’s acquired immunity to a specific virus, bacteria, or foreign body. Whenever the immune system first encounters a foreign body, it initiates a response known as the primary immune response. B lymphocytes or B cells that discover a pathogen create specific antibodies to neutralize or destroy the antigen.
Simultaneously, memory cells are created by B cells that survive for decades and can detect the pathogen with exposure. It takes the body time to develop pathogen-specific antibodies the first time, and therefore this response takes longer than subsequent responses.
Adaptive immunity can be categorized as active immunity, which occurs following pathogen exposure, and passive immunity, when an organism receives external antibodies that protect against disease. This protection can occur from mother to baby via breast milk or injection to defend against a specific disease.
Immune Function and Supplements: How Can the Immune System Go Wrong?
The immune system prevents pathogens from going inside your body, and even if these invaders do manage to get in, it sends outlines of defense, whether in the blood, organs, bones, or muscles.
This internal policing by the body is vital for life, but sometimes it becomes superfluous and starts working against us. This can affect our immune health and cause allergic reactions or autoimmune disorders. Other times, it weakens and can increase the risk of infection, also called immunodeficiency. This can be acquired after a disease or medical treatment, or you can be born with it.
Often unhealthy lifestyle practices like not following a healthy diet and not having enough sleep can lead to weak immunity. Thus people often rely on supplements to help boost immunity.
Signs of a Weak Immune System
If you’ve often found yourself sick or feeling tired or with certain nagging symptoms you can’t find a cause for, you’re likely to have a weak immune system. Few other symptoms that can be used to identify a weak immune system include:
Leukocytes or white blood cells are cells of the immune system that work to protect the body against infections. High stress levels lead to low immune cell development in the body and thus can be both a cause and a sign of a weak immune system.
Always Have a Cold or Flu
While it is normal for adults to catch the flu or have a common cold two to three times a year and recover within a week, those with low immunity tend to have a common cold a lot and take a lot of time to recover.
Feel Fatigued Most of the Time
Individuals with low immune function also feel exhausted or tired more often. While it is normal to feel fatigued after a long day, individuals with weak immunity feel tired even after doing nothing all day.
Face a Lot of Stomach Issues
Low immunity can lead to a weak digestive system. If problems like constipation or diarrhea are frequent for you, then this should also be a sign.
Delayed Wound Healing
If your wounds tend to heal slowly following inflammation, that is also a sign of low immune function in your body.
Frequent Infections and Dependence on Antibiotics
If you also have certain infections frequently and are often dependent on antibiotics to feel healthy, you will have weak immunity.
If you have these symptoms, then you should think about your immune health. Whether it is boosting your immune system by taking supplements or simply maintaining it through other measures, it becomes important that you take the necessary measures to have a healthy immune system. Some ways to do the same have been discussed below.
Measures to Maintain Your Immune Health
While supplements are a great way to boost your immunity, it is wise only to take them when healthy lifestyle practices to maintain a strong immune system don’t seem to work. Health professionals advise implementing the following practices into your lifestyle before relying on supplements, as they help develop and maintain your immunity.
Stress can come quickly or accumulate over time and become harmful to your health. During chronic stress, our body releases a stress response that suppresses our immune system and, in turn, slows down our immune functioning, increasing the risk of infection.
Hence, Stress management by identifying your stress and neutralizing it becomes important to boost immune function.
It is essential for proper immune functioning to get adequate sleep, as even though it may not seem like an active process, this is when infection-fighting cells are created. People who don’t get enough sleep have proven to be more prone to catching infections. Adults are suggested to get at least 7-9 hours of sleep in a day.
Having a healthy diet is key to a strong immune system. Your body absorbs vitamins more efficiently from the food you eat than from supplements, so it becomes important to have a diet that provides your body with plenty of nutrients like consuming lots of fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, protein, and healthy fats.
Exercising regularly helps you boost your overall circulation, thus ensuring easy movement for the immune cells throughout the body to fight pathogens. Physical activity is also important as it enables you to destress and focus. Doctors advise you to engage in at least 30 mins of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity a day to boost your immunity.
The liquid which carries immune cells through the body is called lymph and is mostly made of water. We tend to lose water through simple acts of sweating or urination. Adequate hydration hence becomes important.
Doctors advise adults to intake at least 3-4 liters of water in a day. When we lose a lot of water without replacing it, the circulation of immune cells becomes slower and, in turn, affects immune functioning.
Different Supplements You Can Take
While mostly these healthy habits ensure a strong immune system, people rely on supplements as they are an easy way to provide your body with the necessary amount of certain vitamins required to have strong immunity. That being said, let us look at some of the popular supplements advertised as immune boosters.
Vitamin C is one of the most important supplements to boost immunity. It supports various functions of immune cells and is proven to work as a powerful antioxidant, protecting against damage caused by oxidative stress resulting from accumulated reactive molecules known as free radicals.
Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the duration and severity of upper respiratory tract infections and other respiratory virus infections, even the common cold. It also helps in cellular deaths, cleaning out old cells and making room for new ones.
Vitamin C supplements can be attained through sweet potato, peppers, kale, broccoli, citrus fruits, berries, and more. It is advised to intake about 250 mg to 1000 mg of vitamin c in a day as more can also be harmful to the body.
Among vitamins that may help fight off illness, vitamin D is another important one. Vitamin D is known to have powerful anti-inflammatory properties. It promotes immune response by enhancing the antigen-fighting ability of immune cells. This study suggests that people low on vitamin D are also prone to respiratory infections, especially children.
Vitamin D has also proven to expedite healing as well as increase immune response to antiviral activity. It is also known as the ‘sunshine vitamin,’ whose most readily available source is the sun.
Vitamin E serves as a highly effective antioxidant and is one of the most important nutrients to regulate immune functioning. Its deficiency can impair the activities of the immune system and increase the risk of infection, especially in older people. Vitamin E supplementation also suppresses inflammatory response.
It can be consumed through several food sources like vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables, nuts, seeds, breakfast cereals, and fruit juices.
Echinacea is a part of the daisy flower family, which has increased immune function and antiviral effects against respiratory system infections. Echinacea is also effective in preventing colds. An extract of echinacea in drop form three-five times a day is suggested to avoid the common cold.
Zinc is an important mineral and nutrient that is required for several functions in the body. It supports the immune system by helping produce and activates T-lymphocytes or T cells, which trigger the body to respond to infections.
It has also been shown to prevent the rhinovirus or common cold and decrease its severity like cough, sore throat, or nasal congestion.
Glutathione is an antioxidant produced naturally by the body, boosts a good measure of immunity when taken as a supplement. It increases lymphocytes, a major part of the immune system, including a subset of lymphocytes known as natural killer cells.
Although, Glutathione requires more research to understand its beneficial properties completely.
Propolis, also known as bee-glue, is a resin-like material produced by honeybees from mixing saliva, beeswax, and trees’ buds. It is an antioxidant and also works as an anti-inflammatory agent as well as an immune booster. Propolis also has been proven to help prevent or reduce the duration of respiratory infections.
Black elderberry (Sambucus Nigra) has long been used to treat infections. Elderberry extract is a folk medicine favorite and has shown antiviral and antibacterial properties against pathogens responsible for respiratory infections. It also effectively shortens the period of the common cold and decreases the severity of its symptoms.
But elderberry has also proven to produce excess cytokines, which can damage healthy cells.
A mineral with a variety of uses, Selenium is a potent antioxidant. It can boost immune function, except in those with autoimmune disorders, who could experience a negative impact on their immune system. It is essential for immune functioning and has even proven to enhance antiviral defense against influenza strains.
Golden Root Extract
Golden root extract comes from the Rhodiola plant, and one strain was found to increase the number of memory T cells and B cells, which are important parts of the immune system. However, it gives protection from seasonal colds or any other infection that remains to be researched.
Astragalus is an effective cure for the common cold, upper respiratory infections, and seasonal allergies is a herb used for its root, which helps strengthen the immune system. It also helps to fight bacteria and viruses.
Liquorice root contains glycyrrhizin which prevents viral infections. It can be used as a gargle to soothe the pain of a sore throat. Liquorice root can also loosen congestion and has anti-inflammation properties. You can chew a piece of liquorice root or drink it as tea.
Curcumin, also commonly known as turmeric, is derived from the Curcuma longa plant. It is used for its analgesic, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Curcumin can help aid the body’s immune response because of its medicinal properties.
Andrographis is a plant used in medicines for various illnesses, often works as a cure for fever, flu, or common cold, and even a painkiller.
B Complex Vitamins
B complex Vitamins including B6 and B12 are essential for a healthy immune response. As part of your daily diet, you can easily get it from fortified cereals. Be sure to get enough when taking vitamin B as a supplement; it is also available multivitamin.
Garlic has antiviral properties that help reduce the severity of symptoms in common colds or flu. It increases the development of immune cells, in turn boosting immunity. It may also shorten the duration of a cold and reduce the risk of infections. You can intake garlic in the form of a supplement or eat it naturally.
Acai berry is a stimulator of the immune system and also works as an antioxidant. It is also being studied as a potential treatment for all kinds of conditions, and it’s also proven to maintain general health and immune function.
Following the healthy lifestyle habits suggested in the article can help you maintain a strong immune system and intake of the listed supplements is like an added help to boost your immunity. It is also important to note that the supplements consumed in other forms than through food sources should only be taken after consultation with a health care provider.
If you wish to improvise your immune health, you can also check out this article about the ten best tea for the immune system.
Any information found on the site does not constitute legal or medical advice. Should you face health issues, please visit your doctor to get yourself diagnosed. Icy Health offers expert opinions and advice for informational purposes only. This is not a substitute for professional medical advice.