Last blog I talked about how you can boost your immune system using kitchen ingredients. Now it’s time to discuss those things that weaken your immune system!
Immune System Refresher
So what exactly am I talking about when I say ‘Immune System’?
Your immune system includes all of the cells, compounds and organs associated with protecting you from invading pathogens (bad guys like bacteria, viruses, fungi and other biotoxins).
Your immune system has two main parts or arms to it:
- The first responders (or innate immunity)
- The long-term, memory cells (adaptive immunity)
When you have a cold or flu, you need those first responders to quickly react and stop the virus from growing in numbers and taking over the joint (aka you!)
But you also need cells to make a memory or antibody of the virus. These memories help if you get infected again. You can respond more quickly because your immune cells will immediately recognise the virus as a pathogen, rather than having to check it out in full again.
Don’t forget that the barriers and chemical secretions of your body – like your skin, mucous membranes, stomach acid, tears, saliva, and microbiome – are all part of your immune system too!
The Main Crew
White blood cells make up your immune system. You may have seen them written on a blood test. Think of them as your personal army who are solely focused on keeping you alive by stopping pathogens from taking over your cells. Pretty cool, hey?
White blood cells include:
- Neutrophils: They are the workhorses of the immune system and first on site if there is an injury or infection.
- Lymphocytes: Think of these as the ‘assassins’ of your immune system. Some produce antibody molecules to recognise & remove viruses & bacteria from the bloodstream. There are different types: B Cells, T Cells and Natural Killer Cells (this is their actual medical name!)
- Monocytes & Macrophages: These are both the same type of cells. They digest bacteria, viruses and old cellular debris. Think of them as Pacman in your bloodstream.
- Basophils & Mast Cells: These cells are present with inflammation, especially in an allergic response. Basophils circulate and mast cells settle down in the tissues and both release histamine.
5 things that weaken your immune system:
1. Stimulants Like Sugar, Alcohol, Caffeine
It’s tempting to perk yourself up with a hit to your energy levels or brain function with sweets, refined carbs, fizzy drinks, cola, coffee, tea or chocolate. But remember that this comes at a cost.
Alcohol, caffeine and sugar need a lot of nutrients to metabolise (process) them in the body. Many of these nutrients are the same ones that the immune system needs to mount a robust response.
Fun fact: eating 8 teaspoons of sugar a day reduces your white blood cell activity by 40%. They get all sleepy instead of aggressive!
Eight teaspoons isn’t a lot if you’re having flavoured yoghurt, milk on cereal, muesli bars, packaged snack foods, juices, dates (bliss balls) or fruit, let alone bakery goods, lollies or milk chocolate.
Did you know that alcohol suppresses white blood cell production, and makes them less able to do what they’re meant to – killing the invaders?
Getting rid of alcohol from your body is always a high priority for the body. Everything else comes second, even battling invading pathogens. So if you’re feeling under the weather, don’t make it worse – reach for a herbal tea or a cup of broth instead.
Alcohol also gives you a crappy quality sleep. So let’s talk about what poor sleep does to weaken your immune system.
2. The art of convalescence AKA rest
Ever wondered why you feel tired when you’re sick? Remember the mighty mitochondria I talked about recently – the energy factories inside your cells? Their focus is defence first, energy second. As soon as a battle arises, they make less energy for you and worry about protecting themselves and the cell from damage.
Our bodies are amazing, well-designed machines. Your cells want you to lie down and rest when you’re sick so they don’t have to do so much of the daily housekeeping. That way, they can focus their attention, energy and nutrients on the immune system and your army of white blood cells. So please, lie down and have a good quality deep sleep. 😊
3. Food sensitivities & intolerances
Eating foods that your gut and body don’t tolerate will trigger an immune response. You guessed it – if your immune system’s resources are tied up in the gut, it’s not able to make a solid response to those little buggers waging war with your cells. So eating irritating foods is another way you weaken your immune system.
When you eat foods that you don’t tolerate, you might notice reactions like fatigue, headache, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, burping, reflux or farting. Maybe some itchy skin, rashes, hives, red face or some gurgling and churning guts too. Awkward. 😊
Eating foods you don’t tolerate upsets the balance of your microbiome, and damages the intestinal wall. This leads to poor gut health and may weaken your immune system.
4. Poor gut health
Most of your immune cells are inside or just outside around your gut. This is a smart idea, because the gut is where many of the invaders try to get in! But it also means that if you have an unhappy gut, you’re more prone to illness, because your immune system is already busy and distracted.
“Ah, but Sarah, I never get sick!” – that’s not great either. Your immune system’s surveillance team are not on the ball, they’re misreading the situation. I bet when you do get sick, it hangs around for a long time or escalates quickly.
Your gut health is important because you need it to break down food and absorb the nutrients your immune system needs.
What’s my fave thing to talk about?! Uh-huh, you got it – stress. And guess what: when you’re stressed, your immune system and gut health are all wiggedy-whack.
Thanks to your stress response’s best buddy cortisol, your immune system will be suppressed and your gut’s defences are lowered. Because your body doesn’t have time to be sick thanks – you’ve got a deadline on that project, dinner isn’t made, and the kids are being homeschooled again. Ha!
It’s true that when you’ve been busy, busy, busy and feeling stressed for a long time that you may get every darn thing going around. (And hello, is there a mother who isn’t these things?!) This happens when your immune system breaks free from cortisol. But it comes out wildly swinging like a drunk person, but it isn’t hitting any targets.
The other thing that happens during stress is your digestive function and gut health are reduced. This means you’re less able to break down your food and absorb nutrients. This is a shame, because your adrenal glands and immune system use many of the same nutrients for the molecules they make. So right when you need it most – demand is high and availability is low.
BONUS #6! smoking and vaping
I realised after I wrote this that I hadn’t mentioned the obvious! I suppose I’m assuming most people aren’t smoking or vaping, but if you are, I’m also hoping you know what it does to your body.
A quick overview specifically for your immune system: smoking increases your exposure to heavy metals, chemicals, pesticides and other toxins. This weakens your immune system’s function by taking nutrients that the immune system needs, increasing oxidative stress, inflammation and damage to cells so they don’t function properly, and weakens mucous membrane function.
What can you do?
Last week I gave more info about what else you can do, here’s a quick summary:
- Eat soft, easily digested, nutrient-dense foods
- Drink plenty of warm liquids like herbal teas. Depending on what you drink, they’re antimicrobial, anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory.
- Go the humble superfoods like garlic, mushrooms, citrus and other fruits and veggies that are rich in vitamin C. Find out more.
- Avoid alcohol, sugar, caffeine – and processed foods in general
- Go to bed and get plenty of sleep.
- Try to reduce your stress levels.
When demand for nutrients is greater than what you can take in, supplementation may be needed. Speak with a health professional who has nutritional and herbal training and can develop a personalised prescription of supplements or herbs for you. It’s important to get the right herb or nutrient, in the right dose and form for it to have a therapeutic effect.
As you can see, immune health ties into many other areas of health – especially if you’re a stressed-out woman in her 40s!
Want to learn more about making it through menopause without it ruining your mood, hormones, immunity and life in general? Make sure you join my FREE Facebook group – The Chaos To Calm Community.