It fights our battles and heals our wounds. It tries its best in the face of sleeplessness, stress, and processed, fatty foods. It is our immune system and, according to both Western and Eastern perspectives, it signifies nothing less than the end product of our overall health.
How do we assess immune health? And what do we really need to do to keep our immune system in fighting shape (should we really be gulping green tea, spooning out probiotics and popping zinc)? I consulted the experts to boost my own immune know-how.
Immune System ABCs
Our amazingly complex immune system is able to recognize millions of different enemies and can enlist specialized cells to seek out and destroy each of them. Our white blood cells or leukocytes are the linebackers of the immune system, defending the body against both infectious disease and foreign materials. Scavenger cells gobble up and destroy infectious agents. Adaptive or "specific" immune cells enable the immune system to adapt to whatever is invading the system – to recognize and remember specific pathogens and mount increasingly strong attacks. A low white blood cell count can indicate the presence of serious health problems, such as leukemia, hyperthyroidism, anemia or infectious disease.
An improperly functioning immune system can result in a range of conditions, such as immune deficiency disease, allergy, asthma and autoimmune disease. Disease may be inherited, acquired through infection, produced through drug side effects or as a result of malnutrition, tobacco use or stress.
What does a healthy immune system look like?
According to New York Times veteran science writer Jennifer Ackerman, author of Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold, susceptibility to cold symptoms is not a sign of a weakened immune system, but in fact the opposite.
Ackerman suggests that strengthening your immune system may be counterproductive, aggravating the very inflammatory agents that cause the problems in the first place. In other words, if you are catching a lot of colds, good for you – your immune system is working! Let it do its job.
It is true that a healthy fight indicates that our immune system is working, said San Rafael immunologist Michael Rosenbaum. "If the immune system wasn't working, we might not even know we had an infection," he said. "Our immune system may be trying to tell us to slow down by making us feel sick."
Signs of Immune Distress
When does a healthy fight turn into a losing one? "If you wake up one day with a fast-evolving cold or flu or if you are repeatedly getting sick with little recovery time in between bouts, your defenses are definitely weak," said Anne Cabrinha, a licensed acupuncturist in Mill Valley.
Obvious signs of an unhealthy immune system include frequent infections, usually in the upper respiratory tract, or a sore throat. More serious signs of immunodeficiency problems may show up in infections such as fungal sinusitis, recurrent, severe oral herpes viruses, or diarrhea from parasites.
Eastern medicine considers the gut ground zero in terms of immune health. "I take digestive system changes seriously," said Cabrinha. "Don't ignore heartburn, bloating, diarrhea, or constipation."
In addition to assessing outward symptoms, medical doctors will often take a simple blood count to assess immune health if they suspect a problem. Chinese medicine evaluates skin and hair quality as well as the tongue, which is said to reflect an array of physiological changes in the body.
How do we maintain immune health?
Eat whole foods. Bay Area acupuncturist Amy Brooke Nelson tells her patients first and foremost to eat whole foods. "Don't eat something you from a box or a can that your great grandma wouldn't recognize."
Eat healthy fats and avoid refined sugar. We eat a lot of processed fats, but we need omega 3 fatty acids and can only get these from high quality oils: avocado, fish oils. Avoid high fats, which suppress immunity. "A lot of us consume too much corn, soy and safflower oils," said Rosenbaum; obesity also suppresses immunity. Rosenbaum warns against consuming refined sugar, which has been linked in studies to reduced white blood cell function.
Eat in a rainbow and balance your amino acids. Seasonal foods in a variety of nutrient groups will provide these. Consume a lot of antioxidents by eating leafy greens and an assortment of color (blue, purple, green, orange, yellow, and red).
Consume the right kinds of protein to build and maintain strong immune cell function. Fish is a great source of protein, along with lean chicken, beef, and eggs. Complete proteins, containing the range of necessary amino acids and found mainly in animal products like beef, chicken, fish and dairy, are thought to benefit the immune system most. Vegetarians can get sufficient protein by consuming a blend of vegetables, nuts, fruits, legumes, and grains.
Add nutritional supplements. Evidence suggests that natural supplements can boost immune health. Probiotics help to balance harmful intestinal bacteria and yeast, especially in people who have taken prolonged antibiotics. Zinc, an essential mineral found in almost every cell, supports immune health and wound healing (and also helps you maintain a sense of taste and smell). There is extensive evidence showing that vitamin D is critical for cell-mediated immunity and that it may help prevent conditions, including the common cold, influenza and tuberculosis.
There is evidence to suggest that herbs have a specific action on white blood cells, according to Cabrinha, and these may be given to raise or lower immune activity as needed.
Avoid stress. Stress raises the hormone Cortisol, which lowers T-cell immunity (a vital white blood cell that targets and destroys pathogens) and makes us more susceptible to infections. Long-term stress will damage the immune system by damaging the digestive system, said Cabrinha, and this is where we get 70-80 percent of our immune formation.
Go to sleep. A study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that people who sleep less than seven hours a night were nearly three times more likely to develop a cold. A solid night's sleep -- 7 to 8 hours – enables the body to regenerate and rebuild immunity.
Don't be too clean
Americans are too clean conscious, said Brooke-Nelson. Our skin is our first block to environment and it contains oils that are vital to our immune system. "We develop immunity to bacteria only by exposure to bacteria – if you kill it all off, your body can't build a natural defense." Brooke-Nelson advises us to not be quite so clean. "Don't bath the kids every night with lots of bubbles; don't slather yourself with antibacterial soap."
Immunization is a sure fire way to boost immunity (see and ). However, vaccines are only effective if you have a good immune system in the first place. Said Los Angeles-based internist and endocrinologist Jordan Geller (who happens to be my brother), "A healthy diet, stress reduction and proper sleep will prevent a broader array of illness than any specific vaccine."