Fix Your Immune System
The Immune system is a group of a of cells, organs and tissues that work together to defend the body against infection, repair damage and maintain our overall health. Without our immune system we would die, killed by an infection, like the common cold in War of the Worlds.
***Coronavirus Update*** A healthy immune system deals more effectively with viral infections including coronavirus. For the latest medical advice please visit the NHS website here. For educational resources, not to be taken as a substitute for medical advice, on herbs that can support your immune system click here. Download our free guide on fixing your immune system at the end of the article. Follow us on instagram for daily educational tips for your health and immune system.
Read below to understand the signs of inflammation (a broken immune system) and download a sheet on fixing the immune system. A healthy immune system can defend you against infection more effectively. COVID 19 is most dangerous to those with underlying health conditions but the good news is that you can change your health, surprisingly quickly, with the right diet, nutrition and lifestyle changes.
Inflammation seems to play a big role in the serious and deadly COVID 19 complications - patients who become severely ill have a 'cytokine storm' which is a problem with the immune and inflammatory response. By supporting your immune system, optimising vitamins and nutrition (this is a time to keep sugar low and avoid processed food), reducing inflammation in your body and working on your health you can minimise the risk of developing complications.
The immune system also helps us deal with injuries, repairs damage to our cells, prevents cancer and lives in an amazing synergy with the trillions of bacteria and other organisms which live on and in us (mainly in our gut) and can have a huge impact on our health.
When the immune system goes wrong it can be catastrophic, resulting in fatal infections, aggressive cancer or autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or ulcerative colitis.
Most of us have experienced a problem with our immune system at some point in our lives. This can be allergies (the immune system reacting to the wrong thing), hayfever, skin problems like eczema or psoriasis (our immune system attacking our skin), joint pain (inflammation) or frequent infections (colds, coughs, urinary or skin infections).
What Is Inflammation?
When our body is injured by trauma, invading viruses or bacteria our inbuilt immune defense system kicks in. This might occur if you injure your knee, have a sore thoat or get a rash on your skin.
The immune system produces lots of chemicals, cells and a big system-wide response in order to defend the body and repair the damage. This is a healthy response that keeps us alive, but it can go wrong.
The defense system can fail to switch off, or get inappropriately triggered creating ongoing 'inflammation'. This immune response can create many symptoms and long term (chronic) illnesses.
Chronic inflammation is at the root of many diseases: autoimmune diseases, heart disease, eczema, diabetes, cancer, dementia, autism, obesity, premature ageing, asthma and arthritis.
This low level inflammation can be going on inside us for many years damaging our cells and organs and leading to the conditions above even though we think we are 'healthy.'
When we are suffering from low level inflammation (a broken immune system) symptoms can include:
- Felling very tired (fatigue)
- Stiffness and aching
- Joint pain
- ‘Brain fog’, poor memory
- Weight gain
- Depression & anxiety
- Hormonal problems
- Digestive symptoms
- Sinus problems
- Skin rashes
- Headaches & migraines
- High blood pressure
- Poor circulation
- Premature ageing
How Do We Diagnose Issues?
The immune system is so complex that there is no single test that can diagnose immune system issues and chronic inflammation. However these are some of the most useful tests:
- ESR - Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate. This is a simple blood test which has been around for a long time. It measures the rate at which your blood cells settle at the bottom of a test tube. If you have inflammation the blood cells clump together and settle faster in the test tube. If this test is raised >13mm/hr in males or >20mm/hr in females then it shows you have inflammation or an infection.
- hsCRP: High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein, this test is not widely done in the NHS (which does a less sensitive CRP), but is an excellent marker of low level inflammation. C-Reactive Protein is produced by the liver and raised in inflammation and infection. High sensitivity CRP is especially helpful in people who may not have a diagnosis but are suffering from the above symptoms. If this test is raised (>3.0mg/L) it can show you have inflammation and are at higher risk of heart disease in the future. Ideally it should be <1.5mg/L.
- IL-6: Interleukin 6 is a protein produced when the immune system is activated. It can be useful to show evidence of inflammation, infection, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease and some cancers.
- TNF: Tumor Necrosis Factor is another protein produced during inflammation. Drugs to block TNF alpha are used in some cancers and autoimmune diseases, however TNF has an important role in fighting infection and has been shown to play a role in Alzheimer's, depression, cancer, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease.
- Uric Acid: This marker is used to diagnose your risk of gout but can also be a good indicator of inflammation and your risk of developing heart disease. It can be raised with poor diet, obesity, with stress, certain diseases like hypothyroidism, psoriasis or kidney disease and genetics however it is also a marker of inflammation as it is part of the inflammatory response. Uric acid is produced by injured tissues but is not part of the infection pathway which can make it very helpful as a marker.
Raised inflammatory markers like those above have been shown to produce a significantly increased risk of developing cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It is also worth noting that raised blood sugar has a huge impact on inflammation and so getting your blood sugar and insulin levels checked (high insulin levels can be an early warning before diabetes) is very important.
If the above markers are all normal then there are some other tests that can be helpful to look at how healthy your immune system is:
Full Blood Count - This simple test measures the different amounts of some important types of immune system cells (known as white blood cells) if your overall white blood cell count is low, or you are low in a particular type of white blood cell called a neutrophil (when low this is known as neutropenia) then you can be at a higher risk of infection. Neutropenia can occur with certain medications, infections, with some diseases, vitamin deficiencies and in some cases the cause is unknown. If your white cells are low you should be under the care of a physician but you can also download our free Fix Your Immune System Guide for strategies to support a low immune system at the end of this article.
Neutrophil Lymphocyte Ratio (NLR): A simple ratio calculated from specific numbers in your full blood count above. You work out the ratio by dividing your number of neutrophils by the number of lymphocytes. It is a reasonable marker of inflammation and if high >3.5 can predict a higher chance of dying from certain diseases like heart disease. Cortisol and any type of stress are also shown to raise the NLR. Critically ill patients have an NLR >9 so it can be a good indication of how ill a patient and whether they may have sepsis.
NK Cell Activity: Natural Killer Cells are known to be important for killing cancer cells and viruses. This is an emerging test which will soon be more readily available in the UK and gives a good overview of your immune system health. If low it may show an increased risk of developing cancer.
There are other tests for specific immune system diseases like hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus in which antibodies specific to the areas involved can be measured in the blood. These tests can be discussed with your medical provider depending on your symptoms.
What Causes Inflammation (a broken immune system)?
Chronic inflammation (a broken immune system) is a root cause of many modern diseases and symptoms, it is caused by:
Diet: The typical Western diet is very unhealthy, sugar consumption is now 4 times higher than it was 100 years ago and sugar is the most important driver of inflammation. Refined flours - particularly wheat break down to sugar quickly and it contains gluten that can stimulate inflammation and 'leaky gut'(1) . Trans-fats like those in margerines and many shop bought doughnuts, biscuits, muffins, pastries or pies have been repeatedly shown to trigger systemic inflammation(2). Want help detoxing your diet? Sign up to our 30 Day Plan a fully explained and detailed programme with delicious recipes and structured meal plans, full of anti-inflammatory foods to change your health.
'Leaky' gut: Otherwise known as intestinal permeability. The cells that make up the barrier of the gut wall can become damaged and inflamed by alcohol(3), antibiotics(4), infections(5) and poor diet(6). Medications like ibuprofen, aspirin(7), the contraceptive pill(8), and antidepressants(9) can also have an impact on this barrier. When your gut wall becomes damaged it can allow toxins, bacteria and food particles to 'leak' through the gut wall, activating the immune system - 80% of which is in the gut. This can trigger inflammation, immune system problems and allergies(10). Our 30 Day Plan uses whole foods, excludes likely dietary triggers and gives you gut health bonuses and healing foods to help support your gut.
Stress: Short term stress can actually boost our immune system to protect us against infection when we are vulnerable (think fighting gladiators with lots of wounds and infection risk). However this effect is only 'short term', long term stress actually supresses our immune system, makes it less effective at fighting infection and killing cancer cells and can lead to dysbiosis (imbalances in the gut bacteria), inflammation and immune system problems.
Lack of Exercise: Busy, stressful and often sedentary lifestyles are leading us to gain weight and leave little time for regular exercise. Just one 20 minute session of moderate exercise has been found to reduce markers of inflammation (TNF) in the blood(3).
Vitamin, Mineral & Nutrient Deficiencies: Modern diet and lifestyle can actually leave us vitamin and nutrient deficient. Many processed foods do not provide the levels of key nutrients for our immune system. Deficiencies in Vitamin C, D, Zinc, B1, 6, 12, Omega 3's or Magnesium can make us less likely to fight off infection or calm inflammation. Even with a 'healthy' diet nutrient levels in our foods have decreased significantly with industrial farming practices, packaging and storage. Many multivitamins and minerals contain poorly absorbed ingredients or ineffective levels of nutrients. Consider a high quality multivitamin and mineral supplement. Read more about The Natural Doctors Ultimate Pro Multivitamin and Mineral.
Allergens & Toxins: The sharp rise in allergies and allergic symptoms may be due to both 'leaky gut' (see above) and also the number of environmental toxins we are in contact with in modern life. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (chemicals that affect our hormones) are abundant in modern industrial processes (in pesticides, plastics, solvents and air pollutants) and have been shown to have a dramatic effect upon the activity of the immune system (12). See a Functional Medicine Practitioner who can do specific tests if you are concerned about your allergen and toxin exposure.
Chronic (long term) infections: Including periodontal disease (gum disease and tooth abscesses), gut dysbiosis, HIV, glandular fever and chronic Lyme disease can cause ongoing symptoms and stress to our immune system weakening it. See your medical provider or functional medicine doctor if you believe you are suffering from any of these conditions. Chronic Lyme in particular can be difficult to diagnose and treat. Chris Kesser does a great podcast with more resources for this condition here.
How Do I Fix My Immune System And Reduce Inflammation?
By working on the causes above you can make a big difference to your immune system and reduce inflammation. Rather than dividing the body into diseases and symptoms (for example seeing a Cardiologist for high blood pressure and heart disease and a Rheumatologist for autoimmune diseases) look at your symptoms as a whole and work on the root causes of inflammation.
Dr Jess has been practising integrative and functional medicine for over 13 years, working with her patients, helping them make the changes to their diet and lifestyle and supporting them with the right supplements and herbs where appropriate. She has repeatedly seen the powerful healing that treating the underlying inflammation and fixing the immune system can make.
Chiropractic adjustments have been shown in research to boost the immune system by 48% for 4 days. Dr Xandra (Doctor of Chiropractic) has looked after thousands of patients, relieving and preventing joint pain (without drugs).
For the Natural Doctors specific immune system strategies download the free guide below: