Our current global health climate has propelled the human immune system into the spotlight. At the same time, the average person has a limited understanding of how the immune system works or how it can be supported through dietary and lifestyle interventions. While people may think they are at the mercy of health threats, the reality is that there is much you can do to support the health and resilience of yourself and your loved ones.
While the immune system is vastly complex, it is important to understand some key fundamentals about how it works and can be supported. In this article, we will dip our toes into the ocean that is immunology, touching on key aspects of immune health that everyone should consider during these unsettled times. Additionally, you will learn:
- How to support immune resilience through detoxification
- How to optimize metabolic health to support immune strength
- The best nutraceutical support and lifestyle strategies to improve immune function
How the Immune System Works
The immune system is arguably the most sophisticated part of the human body, outside of the brain. It is an intricate network of cells and signaling molecules elegantly attuned to our internal and external environments. These components communicate, activate, inhibit, and synergize with one another, ultimately protecting our bodies from threats while minimizing negative responses. For the sake of simplicity, it helps to look at the immune system as being composed of two primary branches: the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system.
The innate immune system is the body’s first line of immune defense, responsible for generating the initial reaction to health threats. Physical and chemical barriers are important components of the innate immune system. For example, the epithelial cells of your throat and gastrointestinal tract are critical sites of innate immune activity. When the innate immune system is activated in response to a threat, it produces molecules called cytokines, which summon immune cells that subsequently target invaders.
The innate immune system is quick, but not precise; this is why we also need our second “branch” of immunity — the adaptive immune system. The adaptive immune system leverages “immunologic memory” to recognize foreign invaders and launch a corresponding immune response via T and B cells. Research indicates that both the innate and adaptive systems are at play in how our bodies are responding to the current global health situation, making it more important than ever to further understand how to support the immune system as a whole to safeguard ourselves from harm.
The Crucial Link Between Metabolic Health and Immune Function
Metabolic health is defined as having ideal levels of blood glucose, triglycerides, and cholesterol, along with a healthy blood pressure and waist circumference, without the use of medication. Unfortunately, as a society, we have significant room for improvement when it comes to our collective metabolic health: Shocking statistics indicate that a mere 12% of U.S. adults are metabolically healthy, with the remaining 88% of adults suffering from features of metabolic dysfunction! (1) This statistic is particularly concerning in light of recent research demonstrating that metabolic health and immune function are intricately intertwined. For example, people with pre-existing metabolic health challenges are more susceptible to environmental immune threats. They are also more likely to suffer severe complications in response to these threats. (2,3)
Improving your metabolic health is a critical step you can take toward supporting your immune system, allowing it to efficiently target foreign invaders with minimal collateral damage to your body. The good news is that improving your metabolic health need not be a daunting task! There are specific, actionable steps you can take to support your metabolic wellbeing and your immune resilience.
So Where Do We Start?
There are three major steps you can take to support your immune system and optimize your resilience in the face of the global pandemic:
- Detoxify your body of toxins that hinder healthy immune function.
- Support your metabolic health with diet and lifestyle strategies and targeted supplementation.
- Support robust immune function with nutrients, botanicals, and proactive immune health strategies.
Step 1: Detox
A variety of toxins, including air pollution, plasticizers, and heavy metals, hinder healthy immune activity. (4) An elevated body burden of toxins hinders metabolic health and corresponding immune function. Clearing these accumulated toxins from your body may allow your immune system machinery to function more effectively.
Your body has four primary detoxification organs: The gut, liver, skin, and kidneys. Supporting these pathways of toxin elimination, as well as your levels of glutathione(your body’s master antioxidant) can support your immune system and help you stay well.
Here’s how you can fortify your internal detoxification systems:
- Gut: The gut contains an array of beneficial microbes that aid in digestion, immune function, and detoxification. Environmental toxins, such as pesticides and plastics, disrupt beneficial bacteria. Keep your beneficial bacteria happy and healthy by eating a plant-rich diet and fermented foods, which provide probiotic bacteria.
- Liver: Through an elegant multiphase process, your liver captures and metabolizes toxins, preparing them for excretion in bile and stool. To support healthy bile flow, try incorporating bitter vegetables and herbs, such as arugula, broccoli sprouts, dandelion, and milk thistle into your diet.
- Kidneys: Your kidneys filter and cleanse your blood an amazing 60 times a day, flushing toxins generated internally and those acquired from external sources. Despite their amazing filtration capacity, your kidneys are delicate and vulnerable to the harmful effects of mercury, bacterial endotoxin, the herbicide glyphosate, and medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen. (5,6) To support your kidneys, drink half your body weight in ounces of filtered water every day. By keeping your liver and gut health in check, you will ensure that your kidneys don’t contribute more than their fair share to the overall burden of detoxification.
- Skin: Your skin is technically your body’s largest organ, and a surprisingly effective detox route. Sweating is an innate cleansing and healing modality that capitalizes on the large surface area of the skin to release toxins such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. (7) Facilitate detoxification through the skin by regularly breaking a sweat, either through sauna use or high-intensity exercise.
- Glutathione system: Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant and its most important detoxifying molecule. Without adequate glutathione, toxins cannot be efficiently neutralized and transported out of cells. Glutathione deficiency is linked to impaired immune function, with reduced resistance to infection. Glutathione also maintains healthy immune cell function and supports respiratory health. (8, 9, 10) Unfortunately, glutathione levels naturally decline with age and in response to environmental stressors, such as an unhealthy diet and toxin exposure. Supplementation with highly bioavailable forms of glutathione may counteract age- and environment-induced declines in this crucial molecule, supporting the interconnected pathways of our detoxification and immune systems.
A safe, comprehensive detoxification protocol that touches on each of these crucial elements of detoxification can help you gently flush environmental toxins from your body and simultaneously support your immune system.
Step 2: Optimize Metabolic Health to Support Immune Resilience
Once you’ve reduced your toxic burden, you can take the next crucial step towards a resilient immune system by fine-tuning your metabolic health. Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and body composition may be crucial in the face of our current immune challenges. Diet, lifestyle, and targeted nutraceutical strategies can help balance blood sugar and fine-tune body composition for resilient immune function.
When it comes to diet, a high-fat, low-carbohydrate or a very-low-carb ketogenic plan can be helpful for supporting healthy blood sugar levels and reduction of excess body fat, which can hinder healthy immune function.
Regular physical activity supports balanced blood sugar levels and a healthy body composition while also facilitating the movement of immune cells throughout the body. (11) When we engage in physical activity consistently over an extended period of time, we can even improve our body’s ability to regulate the immune response to foreign invaders. Engaging in 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both throughout the week may support your metabolic health and immune function.
AMPK and mTOR are two cellular signaling pathways that play essential roles in metabolic health. Emerging research suggests that modulating the activity of these essential pathways can positively impact our metabolic wellbeing and immune defenses. (12,13) Intermittent fasting is a powerful lifestyle strategy for balancing mTOR and AMPK signaling. (14,15) Targeted nutraceuticals and botanicals such as resveratrol, milk thistle, berberine, quercetin, and diindolylmethane (DIM) also influence mTOR and AMPK activity and may support healthy metabolic function.
Step 3: Incorporate Targeted Supplementation for Your Immune System
Specific nutrients and botanicals offer multifaceted supportive effects for healthy immune function. Some of the nutraceuticals and botanicals that may support immune health include:
- Vitamins A, C, D3, K2
- Milk thistle
- Molecular hydrogen
Step 4: Protect Yourself with Actionable Immune Health Strategies
Detoxifying, building better metabolic health, and replenishing your body with nutrients and botanicals that support healthy immune function will go a long way toward supporting your resilience and well-being during these unprecedented times. However, we shouldn’t forget about the simple but essential lifestyle strategies that can facilitate resilience to seasonal immune threats.
Personal hygiene: Take the advice of the CDC and other public health authorities and follow basic methods for safeguarding yourself and your loved ones — from longer, soapier hand-washing, to methodically covering coughs and sneezes, to plain old avoidances of potentially dangerous surfaces, crowds, and non-essential travel.
Prioritize Sleep: Sleep has an underappreciated but essential impact on our metabolic and immune health. (16) Prioritizing your sleep now will support your resilience going forward, as we continue to navigate our global health situation. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night in a completely dark room free of light pollution from digital devices and outdoor sources.
Move your body: As we touched on earlier, habitual exercise improves metabolic function and immune regulation. (17) Consistency is crucial, so create a plan in your calendar outlining a weekly exercise routine that fits within your schedule.
Reduce stress: Chronic stress dampens immune system function. (18) Regardless of the season, it’s helpfulto incorporate stress-reduction practices into your life daily, such as listening to music that suits you, meditating, walking in nature, playing with a pet, or supplementing with calming compounds like hemp extract and GABA to promote parasympathetic nervous system activity to ease body and mind. (19,20)
The health of your immune system is not something to leave to chance. By combining a comprehensive detoxification protocol with targeted supplements and lifestyle upgrades, you can positively impact your immune system to support your health during these challenging times.
- Araujo J, et al. Prevalence of optimal metabolic health in American adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016. Metab Syndr Relat Disord. 2019; 17(1).
- Pettersson US, et al. Increased recruitment but impaired function of leukocytes during inflammation in mouse models of type 1 and type 2 diabetes. PLoS One. 2011; 6(7): e22480.
- Muscogiuri G, et al. Commentary: Obesity: The “Achilles heel” for COVID-19? Metabolism. 2020; 108: 154251.
- Tsatsakis A, et al. COVID-19, an opportunity to reevaluate the correlation between long-term effects of anthropogenic pollutants on viral epidemic/pandemic events and prevalence. Food Chem Toxicol. 2020; 141: 111418.
- Jayasumana C et al. Drinking well water and occupational exposure to herbicides is associated with chronic kidney disease. in Padavi-Sripura, Sri Lanka. Environ Health 2015 Jan 18; 14(): 6.
- Hörl WH. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the kidney. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(7):2291–2321.
- Sears ME, et al. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: A systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012: 184745.
- Rahman I et al. Oxidative stress and regulation of glutathione in lung inflammation. Eur Respir J. 2000 Sep;16(3):534-54.
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- Nieman DC, et al. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J Sport Health Sci. 2019; 8(3): 201-217.
- Zheng Y, et al. Immunoregulation with mTOR inhibitors to prevent COVID‐19 severity: A novel intervention strategy beyond vaccines and specific antiviral medicines. J Med Virol. 2020. https://doi.org/10.1002/jmv.26009.
- 16 Sharma S, et al. Metformin in COVID-19: A possible role beyond diabetes. Diabetes Res Clin Pract. 2020; 164: 108183.
- Rynders CA, et al. Effectiveness of intermittent fasting and time-restricted feeding compared to continuous energy restriction for weight loss. Nutrients. 2019; 11(10): 2442.
- 18 Arnason TG, et al. Effects of intermittent fasting on health markers in those with type 2 diabetes: A pilot study. World J Diabetes. 2017; 8(4): 154-164.
- Irwin MR and Opp MR. Sleep health: Reciprocal regulation of sleep and innate immunity. Neuropsychopharmacol Rev. 2017; 42: 129-155.
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- Segerstrom SC and Miller GE. Psychological stress and the human immune system: A meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004; 130(4): 601-630.
- Blessing EM, et al. Cannabidiol as a potential treatment for anxiety disorders. Neurotherapeutics. 2015; 12(4): 825-836.
- Hepsomali P, et al. Effects of oral gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) administration on stress and sleep in humans: A systematic review. Front Neurosci. 2020; 14: 923.