We often talk about boosting immunity but, like so many biological systems, the immune system is tremendously complicated. Immune cells have to make difficult decisions from moment to moment: Friend or foe? Is this a pathogen that needs to be eliminated, or a cell that must be preserved? If it is a pathogen, how do we fight it?
How our immune cells behave and react has critical implications for health. Failing to identify a foe can lead to a serious infection. However, misidentifying one’s own cells, tissues, organs, etc. as an enemy generates a destructive autoimmune response. When healthy, the immune system is in balance, neither overreacting nor underreacting. And there are many ways to achieve this equilibrium naturally.
Food and Immunity
The first step toward balancing our immune response is to provide the right fuel. Remember, immunity is intertwined with virtually every other bodily system: gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, hormonal; they all work together.
The digestive system may be called “the second immune system” (in addition to “the second brain”) because of the powerful immune activity that takes place there. That’s why healthy eating is so critical to strong immunity. We need to make sure our defense mechanisms are well fueled and that our digestion is strong and efficient. Unhealthy ingredients, such as refined sugars, trans fats, and processed food additives, have been shown to significantly impair immune function—sometimes right after we eat them. Just think of the long-term damage they can do!
We need to start with the basics of healthy eating: lean protein, sprouted whole grains, nuts and legumes, lots of organic fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats like olive, coconut, and omega-3 oils. Brightly colored fruits and veggies are particularly important because the phytonutrient compounds that give them beautiful pigments also provide exceptional nutritional value in the form of antioxidant activity, anti-inflammatory support, sustenance for immunity, and much more. I recommend beets, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, peppers, mangoes, and blueberries, but there are countless options.
Cruciferous vegetables are also important. Broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower contain beneficial glucosinates. These molecules combine glucose, nitrogen, and sulfur and have been shown to protect against cancer and support immunity.
Cultured foods, such as yogurt, miso, and sauerkraut, are rich in probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria that play important roles in modulating immune activity—particularly in our digestive system. These friendly microbes work in ways we’re only beginning to understand, such as influencing gene expression to train the immune system for better responsiveness.
Don’t forget to drink lots of water! Immune cells travel and communicate through our circulatory and lymphatic systems, so hyperviscosity—a syndrome that restricts blood flow within the artieries—is the enemy. Stay well-hydrated with plenty of filtered water.
Immune System Enhancing Supplements
In addition to a nutrient-dense, unprocessed diet, there are many supplements that can help bolster immunity. On the most basic level, vitamins A, C, D3, and E all have been shown to support immunity. In particular, vitamin D3 is important to help activate T-cells and other immune components. This vitamin plays numerous critical roles in the body, but because it’s produced in response to sunlight, many people are deficient—most often those living in northern climates and those who work indoors.
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Another important immune-supporting nutrient is zinc, which is a key component in T-cells, B-cells, macrophages, antibodies, and other immune cells. A zinc deficiency is known to reduce immunity. Poultry, liver, whole grains, beans, raw nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), and wild seafood are all good sources of zinc.
Astragalus root has been used in traditional Asian medicine to support immunity, as well as protect against stress. Astragalus offers anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antibacterial activity, among other important benefits. I also recommend the nutrient selenium.
Modified Citrus Pectin: One Ingredient, Many Benefits
Pectin is a common ingredient in jams; it acts as a thickening agent. This complex carbohydrate has also been prescribed for its digestive health benefits as a soluble fiber. However, pectin molecules are too big to absorb into the circulation, limiting their effectiveness throughout the body.
Luckily, that problem has been solved by enzymatically breaking down these large pectin molecules into a much smaller, more bioavailable size. The result is an ingredient called modified citrus pectin (MCP). Once in the blood stream, MCP provides a number of benefits, including immune support.
MCP is also valuable because it controls the inflammatory protein galectin-3, which fuels metastatic cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic inflammation, and fibrosis of organs and tissues. When overexpressed in the body, galectin-3 generates inflammation and increases blood viscosity—both of which can impair immune response. According to published scientific literature in this fast-growing field of research, MCP is the best studied galectin-3 inhibitor. In addition to binding and blocking the harmful effects of excess galectin-3, MCP also supports natural killer cells and T-cells and safely removes heavy metals from the circulation without affecting essential minerals.
Can Medicinal Mushrooms Impact Your Immune System?
Another excellent and time honored way to improve immunity is with medicinal mushrooms, which work as powerful immune modulators. In other words, they both energize a weak immune response and moderate an overactive one. Essentially, they help train the immune system to function optimally.
Mushrooms contain beta-glucans, complex carbohydrates which energize macrophages and other immune cells. In addition, mushrooms support cell signaling, a critical immune function as first responders alert the rest of the body about a dangerous pathogen and coordinate an effective response.
Medicinal mushrooms provide countless health benefits; fighting cancer, lowering blood pressure and bad cholesterol, modulating blood sugar, improving neurological health, protecting the liver, and reducing inflammation are at the top of the list.
There are a number of ways to incorporate mushrooms into your diet. Culinary medicinal varieties, such as shiitake, oyster, and maitake, are particularly good in soups and sauces.
There are more than 270 medicinal species, but fortunately we don’t have to spend hours selecting specific varieties. I recommend a formula called MycoPhyto Complex that includes Coriolus, Ganoderma, Agaricus, Cordyceps, and others to maintain strong immune function during times of need. The beauty of MycoPhyto is that the mushrooms are grown on a blend of immune-supporting herbs, which helps to enhance their effectiveness.
One of the worst things we can do to our immunity is to sit for hours on end. This can be particularly challenging during the winter months, when inclement weather might make it unpleasant to go outside.
However, it doesn’t take much to energize both the metabolism and the immune system. A short 30 minute walk each day can do the trick. Even better, you can practice moving meditations such as yoga, t’ai chi, and qigong. A number of studies have linked these practices to improved immune response, right down to the genetic level. One study showed that even one session of yoga activated numerous genes related to immunity. These practices also calm us by reducing levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and other inflammatory hormones that, when elevated over time, weaken the immune system.
It’s also critical to get a good night’s sleep. Without good sleep, multiple systems begin to breakdown—immunity included.
Finally, do something that makes you happy. Numerous studies have shown that positive feelings are directly related to strong immunity. Happiness is great medicine and one of the best ways to achieve balance in your life. In that regard, simple meditation practice and/or other healthy stress relief techniques should be a key part of any immune-boosting program.
Our immune system works hard to take care of us. We can return the favor by adopting practices that help our immune cells function more effectively, fight infections and long-term illness, and support general wellness. As researchers continue to uncover new insights into this complex and fascinating system, we will likewise continue to learn more about how to maintain health and youthful energy well into old age. For now, these and other immune-supporting measures can go a long way toward boosting immunity and overall vitality, naturally.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc is a licensed acupuncturist, physician, and homeopath, has an MS in traditional Chinese medicine, and has done graduate studies in herbology. Dr. Eliaz has been a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine since the early 1980s, with a focus on cancer, immune health, detoxification and mind-body medicine.Visit him online at dreliaz.org.