All living systems are part of a whole. Our bodies, while they are whole and independent unto themselves, depend on resources from the environment to survive, such as air, food, water, sunlight, and in a more abstract sense, information, art, and relationships. However, there are many things in the environment that the body must protect itself against. Thankfully, our bodies have an exceptional capacity to differentiate between what is good and bad for us. This inherent capacity for selection and protection from the environment is called the immune system, and consists of multiple lines of defense, starting with skin, mucus membranes, cilia, stomach acid, and excretion of urine and feces, and on a deeper level, our lymphatic system, specialized blood cells, an organ called the thymus, and our spleen. Our body’s immune system creates a healthy boundary between our bodies and the environment, allowing us to act freely as closed organisms which are open to our environment. We must eat, we must breathe, and we must eliminate waste to maintain balance in life. To be alive, our bodies must continually process resources from our environment, and in this sense, must remain open to the environment; this risks the integrity of our whole system at every moment. Therefore, to be open is to live, and to live, our immune system must exist to protect us.
The immune system is vigilant to identify what is self vs. non-self. If something is non-self, it identifies if it is a threat vs. a non-threat. The immune system has a number of “postures” it can hold. One posture it can hold is tolerance, meaning something is non-self but is also non-threatening (ambient air, fresh water, the apple you ate for lunch) or beneficial (gut bacteria, non-digestible fiber)—so the response is benign or non-reactive.
The other posture it may hold is one of defense and attack. This is how we tend to think of our immune systems—the good guys that are fighting off the bad guys. But this is only a fraction of what the immune system does—most of its activity is screening and tolerance.
Think of the TSA at the airport: it is not often they actually need to respond defensively and “attack” when screening passengers, but if they need to, doing so keeps the airport (i.e., whole system) safe, and operations can then return to normal. Most of their activity consists of screening for who (and what) should and should not be entering the airport. If something is deemed a cause for concern, such as setting off a metal detector, or noticing a suspicious object when screening luggage, it is investigated until it is determined not to be a threat.
Naturopathic medicine offers strategies and expertise in keeping the response of your immune system appropriate—not “boosted” or “suppressed”, but appropriate.
Viruses, bacteria, other bugs, and even allergens like gluten, pollen, or dust, are simply existing in this world, as well as on or in your body. But your body regards them as separate, i.e., non-self. So when your immune system screens for them (non-self), the response of your immunity can either be harmless and below your awareness (carrying a virus/bacteria/gluten without symptoms) or exaggerated and very uncomfortable (illness, allergies, etc).
Ultimately, the question we are asking is not how bad the bug or allergen is, per se, but rather how appropriate is the individual’s immune system in response to its cycle of vigilance, screening, tolerance, defense/attack, and returning to normal functioning. Being unable to respond as compared to responding to the point of life-threatening symptoms or destructive pathology are two sides of the same coin. It is all about the appropriateness of the immune response.
Naturopathic doctors tend to approach each patient as a unique individual, despite often having exposure to the same viruses, bacteria, and various triggers as their other patients. Therefore, naturopathic doctors utilize an extensive toolbox tailored to their patient’s unique situation in order to help their patient’s immune system respond appropriately. There are a number of variables that factor into the state of our immune system—our diets, lifestyle, sleep patterns, where we grew up, how we grew up, the number of siblings and pets we had, previous illness, medications, our microbiome/gut bacteria, vaccination status, and so on. With all these factors, the ongoing modifiable foundation of a balanced immune system is how we go about living our lives, i.e. lifestyle measures. Lifestyle is a necessary component of health and immunity, but is not sufficient to be the only approach. See our other posts on diet, nutrition, herbal medicine, homeopathy, hydrotherapy, and other basic practices.
Foundational Lifestyle Measures for Appropriate Immune Response
- Now is a perfect time to nourish your body with whole foods, with the majority coming from plants, fruits, healthy fats, and whole grains, with minimal lean meat if desired.(1)
- During social distancing, the tendency to stock up on processed/refined packaged food is easy and tempting.
- With all the time at home, this is a chance to prepare whole food meals for yourself and/or your family. Recipes abound on the internet that are heavy in plant-based whole foods!
- Avoid: Refined sugar (soda, juices, candy, cereal), refined grain (white bread & flour), processed oils (especially fried foods), and alcohol.
- Alcohol especially compromises your immune system’s ability to respond appropriately.(2)
- Though “junk” foods are convenient and fast, they will leave you hungrier sooner, venturing to the grocery store sooner (not ideal during social distancing), and potentially more susceptible to immune imbalance.
- Rule of thumb: don’t eat a single product with more than five ingredients or containing anything you can’t pronounce.
- Consume food and drinks that are cultured (fermented) to support a healthy microbiome.
- If you are feeling tired, allow yourself to nap as you are able.
- Go to sleep at roughly the same time each night and wake roughly the same time each morning.(3)
- Rule of thumb: At a minimum, aim for going to bed before midnight each night.
- Remember to exercise, even in quarantine. Online classes or Youtube can be done with minimal space. Exercise and movement help support appropriate immune function.(4)
- Decrease or discontinue smoking cigarettes AND vaping as any viral-like symptoms (including COVID-19) will be worse in smokers. You also help protect loved ones from the impact of second-hand smoke.(5)
- Try to reduce your stress level. As stress increases, cortisol levels go up, which negatively impacts immune function.(6) Use this time at home to start a new mindfulness/gratitude/meditation routine–there are abundant options on the internet and in app stores. During these unique times, being grateful for what we have and mindful of the systems that we rely on puts our stress into context.
- It’s also essential to continue addressing any underlying illness or chronic disease. Often it is those who are chronically ill, the very young, and the very old who have worse outcomes with various influenzas or viral infections, including early data on COVID-19. Coordinate with your healthcare team to continue monitoring and managing your existing conditions.
- Cooper EL, Ma MJ. Understanding nutrition and immunity in disease management. J Tradit Complement Med. 2017;7(4):386–391. Published 2017 Jan 16. doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2016.12.002
- Myles IA. Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity. Nutr J. 2014;13:61. Published 2014 Jun 17. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-13-61
- Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012;463(1):121–137. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
- David C. Nieman, Laurel M. Wentz,The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system, Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 8, Issue 3, 2019, Pages 201-217, ISSN 2095-2546, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jshs.2018.09.009.
- COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders. National Institute of Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/noras-blog/2020/03/covid-19-potential-implications-individuals-substance-use-disorders
- Segerstrom SC, 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. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601