To remain healthy and thrive in today’s world, you need a robust immune system.
Your immune system is really important and mostly responsible to keep you safe. It has to protect you physically against pathogens like viruses and bacteria, pollution and toxins, as well as psychologically against chronic stress and anxiety.
If you want to stay safe from physical and psychological attacks you need to do whatever you can to empower your natural armour – your immune system.
I’m talking about making yourself resilient, not just for now but over the long term. I’m not going to share advice like taking more vitamin C, eating more greens and blueberries or supplementing with zinc etc. These are all good and valid suggestions, but this article will go beyond these everyday tips.
I want to share lifestyle choices and strategies that will impact your body’s immune function over the long haul. This will have an enduring positive impact on your mental and physical health.
Contrary to what we previously thought, lifestyle factors and choices play a bigger part than genetics when it comes to diseases.
With these strategies we want to make use of our genes and our hormones to keep us healthy.
How our genes and Hormones affect us
Our genome responds to the signals it receives. These signals come from our diet, activities, actions and thoughts – our lifestyle choices. The response is the expression of some genes and the suppression of others. Your day-to-day lifestyle choices are hugely influential in the expression of your genetic predisposition. DNA is not locked or static. You can influence what is expressed and what stays suppressed. It’s a YOUR choice. You choose and control your genetic destiny.
Sleep, stress, nutrition and exercise can all change the expression of your genes.
Hormones and neurotransmitters
Hormones are responsible for internal processes that promote survival. Hormones give instructions to your body that regulate internal activities. There are no bad or good hormones; we need all of them in the right ratios at the right time to retain homeostatic balance.
Hormones mediate the autonomic nervous system and the innate immune response. Until recently it was considered impossible to voluntarily influence this system. Hence the name, autonomic that means unconscious or involuntary. However recent studies demonstrate that through certain techniques, the autonomic (sympathetic and para-sympathetic) nervous system and the immune system can indeed be influenced voluntarily. This can be done through what we do, feel, think and say.
Some of these strategies are “bio hacks” that in a way mimic an environment that causes little stressors over time. This helps you build up a strong and robust immune system that can then withstand and fight off major life threatening stressors, because it has been conditioned to do so.
Hormesis refers to adaptive responses of biological systems to moderate environmental or self-imposed challenges through which the system improves its functionality and/or tolerance to more severe challenges.
So see this as conditioning and optimizing your immune system. By applying these strategies you harness the elements that are within your control and you are able to manipulate your biochemistry for better health outcomes.
Autophagy is a catabolic process that slows down cellular aging. It’s an adaptive response to stress and helps to avoid cell death. When amino acid levels are low (when nutrients are restricted) in the blood, autophagy is activated.
This process helps cells to recycle dysfunctional cellular components that have been linked to: Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Hutchington’s, dementia, chronic infections, cancer, heart disease etc. It also helps your body respond to pathogens like viruses and bacteria.
Besides nutrient restriction, autophagy is also influenced by your circadian rhythm, your sleeping, eating and exercise cycles.
I am going to share with you 8 strategies to strengthen your immune system from within. It’s amazing to see how all of these strategies are inter-woven with one other. There is a positive feedback loop within this system which means the more you practice and apply some of these strategies, the easier the others become and the more benefit and greater the impact gained from each one.
Eight key strategies
- State management (emotions)
Before attempting to manage your states, you need to become aware of them. You are always in a mind-body state. PNE or psycho neuro-endocrinology is the study of how your mental activity – thoughts and feelings – affect your immune function. In other words the influence of mind-states, positive or negative, on health.
When you experiences negative emotions or mind-states like stress, depression, anxiety and hostility, those feelings exert a negative effect on the brain and body. Experiencing these emotions on a chronic level elevates certain pro-inflammatory hormones. This inflammatory state suppresses your immune function and is a precursor to cardiovascular disease (type II diabetes, heart attacks, strokes etc.), neuro-degenerative disease (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Motor neuron disease etc.) and cancer.
Dr Ian Weinberg, who pioneered PNE has illustrated when pro-inflammatory mediators (cortisol, adrenaline and pro-inflammatory cytokines) are high, this activates the amygdala (centre in the brain responsible for fear, anxiety, panic and rage), which in turn suppresses the immune system and lowers dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. This impairs the pre-frontal cortex (centre of the brain responsible for clarity, calmness, reason and focus) and kills cells in the hippocampus (centre of the brain responsible for short-term memory and stress buffering). This pro-inflammatory hormonal cocktail combined with other poor lifestyle choices contribute to a host of diseases.
A negative mind-state causes a negative feedback loop in the brain and body, in other words a negative downward spiral. This then leads to a cascade of events stimulating hormones, neurotransmitters and parts of the brain that in turn aggravate and worsen the subjective negative experience of the individual and causes disease.
The reverse of this is also true.
When we experience an optimistic or purposeful mind-state, it has a positive effect on the feedback loop in the neuropsychology of the body and brain. If we regularly experience positive feelings, it will cause a good chemistry in our body and brain, which will lead to an increase in neuroplasticity; the formation of new neural connections in the brain, which is the basis for all learning. This also gives us the ability to change through new insights and beliefs. These actions are brought about by the optimal ratio of hormones in the brain and body. This in turn stimulates the nucleus accumbens (the part of the brain responsible for motivation, memory, learning, attention, calmness, clarity and reason). The nucleus accumbens also happens to suppress the amygdala and it’s corresponding fear and anxiety.
All of these factors collectively produce more purposeful and optimistic mind-states and more hormones and neurotransmitters responsible for feeling good. So there is a positive feedback loop in place that brings about physical wellness and the absence of disease.
In order to create an anti-inflammatory hormonal profile you want to increase the release of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. This can be done through certain activities and exercises but also through cultivating the following mind states:
- Self-worth, self-esteem and self-efficacy
- Purposeful motivation
These mind states give rise to a hormonal profile that stimulates the prefrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the hippocampus while de-activating the amygdala. Activating these areas of the brain leads to improved memory, learning, attention, calmness, clarity, reason and interestingly a reduction in inflammation.
Your state can be influenced or changed via two pathways:
- Your body/physiology (actions and speaking) and
- Your mind (thinking and feeling)
You can change your state by changing your:
- Awareness of your state
- Posture/body position
- Facial expression (muscles in your face and neck)
- Movement (exercise)
- Thinking and feeling (internal dialogeu)
Emotional fluctuations are normal, healthy and what it means to be alive. Being aware of your emotional states and leveraging them to your benefit is what it means to be human.
The danger occurs when states become chronic or fixed. When they habituate and become your frames of mind or a paradigm. This is when they threaten your health.
Exercise has a tremendous affect on your endocrine system, really helping you to prime your hormones for survival and feeling good. Exercise also changes gene expression for the better and stimulate the release of BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor), which is really like growth hormone for the brain.
Exercise has a beneficial impact on your immune system through many pathways. It will improve your emotional state or mood, cognition, sleep and motivation. It will improve your body composition and blood sugar regulation through improving insulin sensitivity. It will also accentuate the benefits you get from a change in your diet. Exercise increases nutrient absorption, distribution and enhances autophagy.
Exercise improves muscle tone, joint health, bone density etc. so even protecting you from physical dangers like falling or accidents. Over time as we age, less physical activity leads to progressive deconditioning of the muscles. Weaker muscles lead to less physical activity, and the cycle repeats.
The list of benefits from exercise is endless. What is important is to get moving and keep moving.
Our breathing has a direct impact on our autonomic nervous system. Which has a direct impact on our endocrine system and therefore immune response. There are two ways in which you can influence your immune function through breathing:
Firstly, what is known as the Wim Hof method. This consists of taking deep and fast breaths in an almost intense manner. Take around 30 breaths and then exhale the last breath and hold for 30 seconds. Then repeat this once more. For a quick tutorial: https://youtu.be/0BNejY1e9ik
This type of breathing or hyperventilation followed by the retention activates the sympathetic nervous system or better known as “fight or flight” response. Which in turn release adrenaline and anti-inflammatory cytokines. This really mimics an acute stress on the body and teaches your body to reduce the inflammatory response. I would not recommend this type of breathing close to bedtime, as it will not be conducive to falling asleep.
Secondly you can do more meditative breath work or diaphragmatic breathing that reduces cortisol and adrenaline and makes you feel calm and relaxed. There are many options for this. For me an easy protocol to follow is 5-5-10. This stands for a 5″ inhale, a 5″ hold and a 10″ exhale. Place one hand on you abdomen and breath into your tummy so that it expands, not your ribcage. Do this for between 3 and 10 minutes daily. You will feel an immediate sense of peace. This type of breathing is best for when you feeling overwhelmed or stressed or even as you get ready for bed. This activates the para-sympathetic nervous system, or better known as your “rest and digest” response.
Just an increased awareness of your breathing during the day and the fact that you can control it is a big step in the right direction.
- Improve nutrition
Your diet changes the expression of your genes through your gut bacteria. What you eat directly impacts your hormones. Hormones tightly regulate your blood glucose/sugar to avoid excessively high or low levels.
Hyperglycemia or chronic high blood sugar occurs due to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is the precursor to type II diabetes. This stems from poor nutrition and normally too much sugar or refined, processed carbohydrates in the diet. Diabetes has the unique ability to devastate your entire body. No system is left un-affected. Atherosclerosis in your blood vessels causes inflammation throughout the body. Areas that are mostly affected are the eyes, kidneys, nerves, brain, heart and legs. This in turn can lead to blindness, kidney failure, neuropathy or nerve damage, loss of limbs, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and the list goes on.
Very importantly, this reduces your body’s ability to fight infections, making you more susceptible to viral, bacterial and fungal infections. High blood glucose and poor circulation, impairs your immune function. This also leads to poor recovery from disease and an increase in disease severity.
Through proper nutrition you can improve your blood sugar regulation and insulin sensitivity. How? Stop eating the crap; processed and refined carbohydrates, sugar etc. Fasting and lower carbohydrate diets can often improve blood sugar.
People often focus too much on the macros and forget about the micros. Whether you follow a plant based, low carb, keto, or carnivore diet; the important thing is to ingest the vital micro-nutrients, co-enzymes and co-factors from your food choices. These are organic molecules (a.k.a “helper molecules”) that are required by certain enzymes (which are proteins) to catalyze important biochemical reactions. If you’re not getting in the correct/sufficient nutrients, co-factors for the various metabolic processes, your nervous and endocrine systems won’t function optimally and will severely limit health outcomes, recovery, growth, performance and longevity.
Making sure you get enough nutrients is way more important than sticking to a specific carbohydrate, fat, protein ratio. Focus more on getting in your micros through food that’s easy to digest for YOU and not what the fad diets say.
Improving your diet will help improve your body composition. Exercise and sleep improves blood sugar regulation. Frequent eating affects blood sugar control, which leads us to the next tip.
- Time restricted feeding or fasting
By compressing your eating window you give your body the opportunity to direct more energy and resources towards recovery, repair, recycling and the immune response. Frequent eating/snacking causes fluctuations in insulin and diminishes autophagy. Fasting increases BDNF, which enhances neurogenesis and neuroplasticity reducing your risk for dementia like Alzheimer’s disease.
Evidence suggests resistance or endurance training in a fasted state is the best way to action autophagy. As this is when you amino acid levels are low and the demand for them is high, forcing your body to start the recycling process.
If you’re not used to fasting or restricting your eating window, start small by increasing the fasting window with an hour or two every day, until you eat only for example between 12 noon and 20h00(8pm). As you stretch this window you will increase your metabolic flexibility and before long be able to fast up to 24 hours and more. I can’t go into the details and full benefits of fasting in this article, but just know that time restricted feeding will improve immune function.
- Improve body composition/decrease overall body fat
Visceral fat accumulates inside and around the intra-abdominal organs like the liver, kidneys and intestines and is detected by an increased waist circumference. This pattern of obesity, where most of the fat is carried around the abdomen is called central obesity.
In contrast subcutaneous fat is the fat deposited directly under the skin. The reason I bring this up is because different fat distribution is associated with different health risks. 30% of obese adults are metabolically normal. In other words, these healthy-fat people carry more subcutaneous fat than the more dangerous visceral fat. On the other hand some normal weight people show the same metabolic abnormalities as in obesity because of excessive visceral fat. 30% of newly diagnosed diabetics have a normal BMI. The key clinical indicator is not total body fat but rather it’s visceral fat. I am not suggesting that normal obesity is ok or healthy, I am just highlighting the fact that some of us may think we are ok, while were actually at risk.
Your waist-to-height ratio is a simple measure of central obesity. It’s calculated by comparing waist circumference to height. Optimally, your waist should be less than half your height. Check for yourself by taking a measurement around the level of your belly button.
Fat accumulation is not only a problem of excess calories or energy, but a problem of energy distribution. Too much energy is diverted to producing fat as opposed to other bodily functions like growth, repair, heat production etc.
This energy expenditure is controlled hormonally. Dr. Jason Fung describes in his book the Diabetes Code that obesity is a hormonal imbalance, not a caloric one. Insulin resistance is behind this, which is caused by it’s overstimulation, which in turn is caused by poor food choices.
Atheroma is the development of plaque in the arteries. Atheroscelrosis is the disease of the narrowing and hardening of the arteries. As blood vessels narrow, circulation worsens. Wherever there is poor blood supply, things take longer to heal. Every step closer to obesity reduces mobility, which ultimately leads to permanent disability. Poor blood circulation decreases the ability of infection-fighting white blood cells to reach all the parts of the body.
Fat cells are very inflamed. Chronic inflammation is a problem, as your body cannot initiate an early robust immune response when it really matters. Research agrees that if you are obese or overweight you are more likely to be hospitalized, more likely to have disease severity etc.
Some ways to improve body composition is through exercise, improving diet, improving sleep and restricting your eating window.
- Hot and cold exposure (temperature stress)
Hot and cold temperature stress has a very favorable effect on the immune system.
Cold exposure increases sympathetic nervous system activity, inducing noradrenaline release and prompting a range of physiological responses.
It improves blood sugar regulation by improving sugar metabolism. Through moving lymph and stimulating the lymphatic system it improves circulation and reduces inflammation. Over time it increases BAT, also known as brown fat, which plays an important role in the immune system. BAT is a thermogenic tissue with the ability to oxidize or burn lipids (body fat) and to dissipate energy in the form of heat. To put that in laymen’s terms this mitochondria-rich BAT has the primary purpose of pulling ordinary white fat from storage and burning it to keep you warm.
Research has indicated that there is an increase in REE (Resting Energy Expenditure) of 31.7% when study participants were exposed to cold. Indicating that cold exposure seems to have an important role in counteracting body fat accumulation and in obesity related comorbidities. Exercise in the cold appears to turbocharge the creation of BAT.
Get some sort of cold exposure, it will improve lymphatic circulation, reduce chronic inflammation and improve immune function. I find it easiest to take a 3 minute cold shower each morning, afterwards I feel alive and revived.
Heat exposure on the other hand, like sauna bathing also activates the sympathetic nervous system leading to increased heart rate, skin blood flow, cardiac output and sweating.
Heat therapy dilates blood vessels that stimulate the flow of blood and nutrients through the body. Frequent dry sauna bathing improves a variety of health parameters and induces discrete metabolic changes that include production of heat shock proteins, reduction of reactive oxygenated species, reduced oxidative stress and inflammation and increases insulin sensitivity.
A research study showed a reduced overall mortality and reduced incidence of cardiovascular events and dementia from heat exposure. It improves sleep, is stress reducing and detoxifying. It has been suggested that heat stress induces adaptive hormesis mechanisms similar to exercise.
Alternating hot and cold will greatly increase blood flow in your body.
Lack of sleep slows metabolism, increases blood pressure, causes insulin resistance, increase cortisol and is linked to various diseases. Only one night’s poor quality sleep negatively impacts your body’s ability to fight infections and pathogens. Sleep improves repair and recovery from any stressor; lack of sleep does the opposite.
High levels of inflammation negatively affects sleep, being sedentary negatively affects sleep; poor blood sugar regulation negatively affects sleep.
From a circadian rhythm viewpoint, sleep is when your immune response operates optimally. Circadian biology is not just the quantity and quality, although that is important. It’s also about your sleep-wake cycle and your breathing. Be consistent about when you fall asleep and when you wake up. This cycle affects the release of neurotransmitters and hormones that influence your mental and physical state including your immune system.
Breathing affects sleep quality. Mouth taping is something to consider if you are having disturbed sleep due to poor breathing. Once again excess weight and obesity is often a cause for sleep apnea. Sleep disorders affect the hormone leptin; which is very important in the immune function as well as inflammation and hunger.
Autophagy is influenced by your circadian rhythm.
Decide which of these strategies you can start implementing today. If you are currently not doing any of these, why don’t you pick two or three and do them daily. If you cannot practice all of the strategies at least commit to a few. And increase it over time.
Remember as with anything and all things, consistency over time brings results. Making a daily habit of these strategies or doing some at least a few times a week will show results. As time goes by, from months to years etc. the return on your input will increase dramatically.
Most of us don’t like the idea of discomfort, but the reality is that some discomfort activates genes that promote survival. Comfort has a dark side. Our generation does not suffer from disease caused by deficiency, but caused by excess. We need acute physical stress, the sort of environmental and physical oscillations that invigorates our nervous systems, setting off a cascade of physiological responses which skip the conscious parts of our brains and help you thrive.
Please be responsible with these tips. As with all things, balance is key: too much fasting will lead to malnutrition and too much cold to hypothermia and frostbite. Don’t do intense breathing if you are walking up the stairs, as you may get lightheaded and pass out. At the same time don’t take cold showers if you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, as this may aggravate your condition. Don’t make sudden or severe changes to your routine if you have an existing health condition, check with your healthcare practitioner.
Taking just some of these steps will not only prime your immune system and protect you against pathogens like the flu and influenza virus but virtually all lifestyle related disease.
I think it’s worth it.