Today’s topic is…. You guessed it – the immune system! I’m coming at it from a slightly different angle because March is national autoimmune disease awareness month and so many people in my life are suffering from either autoimmune or immune deficiency. There is just so much misinformation and confusion about the difference between the two and what to do about them.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, autoimmune ranked #1 in a list of most popular health topics requested by callers to the National Women’s Health Information Center.
The immune system’s main responsibility is to protect your body from diseases, pathogens and infection, and to help respond to trauma. But it does not work alone. It works with every other system in your body from digestive, to endocrine, cardiovascular to reproductive, respiratory to skeletal, and so on… So, when your immune system is affected, ALL other body systems can become affected.
Especially right now with the coronavirus (but pretty much all the time) there’s a lot of talk about “boosting” the immune system, right?
But wait. We don’t want an overactive immune system either! Even though I prefer to use “inappropriately reactive” to “overreactive” (you don’t necessarily get sick less often because your body may be too busy fighting itself to fight a virus), people with autoimmune diseases get rightfully scared with talk about “boosting” the immune system because their immune systems are attacking their own tissues.
Since the immune system affects ALL BODY SYSTEMS, symptoms can present in all organs and cross many specialties. There are more and more autoimmune diseases being named all the time, and medical education about them is minimal. Well educated, good intentioned specialists are often inevitably unaware of interrelationships between the different autoimmune diseases or advances in treatment outside their own specialty, so misdiagnosis and/or tremendously painful and delayed diagnosis is common.
Because the immune system is often viewed as “over-reactive”, doctors often prescribe immunosuppressant treatment which can have devastating side effects.
I would never advocate coming off any prescriptions or trying to boost an immune system that is overreactive (inappropriately reactive). What I am hoping to do is inspire the consideration of a different mindset about the immune system: Less “boost”, less “suppress”. More “balance”.
The immune system is a tremendously complicated system and I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about cytokines like interleukins, interferons, TGFs and TNFs. I’ve read a fair amount, and there’s so much research that still needs to be done. I do know that inflammation is what lies at the root of the immune system, and so I’ll touch on that next.
Inflammation is the body’s normal protective response against ACUTE infection or injury involving immune system cells like lymphocytes, antibodies and proteins secreted from B cells, neutrophils, monocytes, eosinophils, and basophils. In healthy people, mild inflammation will disappear on its own after the body is adequately protected and the irritation has been removed.
However, with consistent consumption of inflammatory foods, chemical exposure, and various forms of stress, this chronic, low-grade, usually asymptomatic inflammation actually becomes the disease itself over time. Because systemic inflammation often doesn’t carry symptoms, it often goes unnoticed until pathologies like autoimmune, diabetes, fatty liver, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, depression, cancer, heart disease (the list goes on) occur.
I talk a lot about food being either medicine or poison and it’s true. You are either healing or harming (causing inflammation) by what you expose your body to. So, what causes inflammation and what gets rid of it? Like most things, it’s not always cut and dry because it varies from person to person. Common sources of inflammation are stress on the body in some form (physical, chemical, emotional). Physical stress can include acute injury or over-training, certain foods like dairy, sugar, gluten, alcohol, and caffeine. Certain people are more prone to inflammation from certain foods and that is an entirely different day!
What gets rid of inflammation? Well, OTC and prescription drugs of course! But those are just more chemicals causing more stress on the body, creating a spiral of small biochemical changes that you may not even notice until…. you guessed it; more inflammation pops up somewhere else! It’s like whack a mole! When we address the symptoms with medication, but we haven’t addressed the underlying inflammation (or we’ve added to the body’s stress through chronically managing it with chemicals), the inflammation will inevitably pop up somewhere else in time.
The science and published research on the positive impact of fruits and vegetables on inflammation is abundant. Fruits and vegetables, therefore, help balance all body systems (perhaps most importantly, the immune system) because at the root of all disease is inflammation. So, with consumption of medicinal quantities of fruits and vegetables, when the immune system needs a boost, it gets a “boost”, and where it needs a “suppression,” it gets a suppression. Which is to say, it becomes SUPPORTED and BALANCED, not really boosted or suppressed.
So, eat your fruits and veggies folks. As many as you can. ½ your plate every day, every meal. And if you can’t get in a MINIMUM of 13 servings a day with a rainbow on every plate, come talk to me. There is a way. Consider adding DEHYDRATED WHOLE FOOD PLANT POWDERS (not isolated, fragmented vitamins which can cause more oxidative stress) to bridge that nutritional gap.