Immune system health is a critical factor in human survival. Your immune system protects you from diseases and other illnesses by identifying and destroying pathogens, such as bacteria, fungi, parasites, biotoxins, and viruses. When your immune system is compromised, it can’t defend against these threats, which means you’re more susceptible to illness. In this blog post, I’m giving you a quick overview of how the immune system works and explaining the science behind three serious signs your immune system may be compromised so you can take action to boost immunity immediately.
What Is the Immune System?
The immune system is your body’s way of protecting itself from harmful substances. It’s a collection of proteins, cells, and organs controlled by more than 8000 genes1 that work together to recognize and destroy foreign invaders that enter the body as quickly as possible to minimize harm to your health. In order for your immune system to do its job properly, it must be able to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy cells so that it knows which ones should be destroyed during a process called apoptosis.2 The immune system is made up of two systems that work together.
What Is the Innate Immune System?
The innate immune system is your body’s first line of defense against pathogens. It includes:
- Physical barriers such as skin, mucous membranes, and tears
- Chemical barriers such as enzymes in saliva that destroy microorganisms
- Inflammatory responses that attract white blood cells from other parts of your body to fight off invaders more effectively
- Cells called phagocytes that “eat” pathogens by surrounding them and injecting digestive proteins into their outer membrane before sucking out the remains with a vacuum-like motion – leaving nothing but empty husks behind3
The innate immune system is also called the “nonspecific” or “general” immune system because it responds to all foreign invaders the same way. It is inherited and active at birth.
What Is the Adaptive Immune System?
In contrast, adaptive or acquired immunity creates specific weapons (antibodies) tailored for each pathogen you’ve encountered since birth. It includes:
- A sequence of proteins called cytokines that activate T lymphocytes (cells)
- T-cells (T from thymus where they’re produced) that either destroy infected cells or trigger the production of antibodies against specific pathogens
- Killer (cytotoxic) T-cells: destroy
- Helper T-cells: trigger B cells to start adaptive immunity
- B lymphocytes (B from bone marrow where they’re produced) that produce antibodies once triggered by helper T-cells
Antibodies work together with both helper T- and killer T-cells to recognize previously-recorded antigens (proteins on the surface of foreign cells) or to record new ones. In the process of recording and destroying pathogens, a portion of helper T-cells and some of the B-cells become memory cells. These are the cells that remember the pathogens, activating the adaptive immune system and releasing antibodies that make you “immune” in the event of re-infection.4
What Does It Mean If Your Immune System Is Compromised?
A compromised immune system can be temporary or permanent. Common infections like a cold or the flu can weaken the immune system temporarily. While most adults get two or three colds a year, taking seven to 10 days to recover5, if you have a compromised immune system, you may get sick more often. And when you do get sick, you probably stay sicker longer.
When immune cells are the target of an infection, as in the case of HIV, the immune system is permanently compromised. There are also inherited genetic disorders called primary immune deficiency diseases (PIDD) that may cause lifelong susceptibility to infection.6 But increased infection is not the only indicator of a compromised immune response. Consider the science behind these three warning signs that it’s time to boost your immune system immediately:
1. You Never Exercise
Research shows regular (moderate) exercise equals a stronger immune system.7 Exercise strengthens skeletal muscle, which can enhance immune system function by increasing glutamine and Interleukin-6 (IL-6) plasma levels and by strengthening the thymus.
Glutamine, Exercise, and the Immune System
Glutamine is a non-essential amino acid that fuels immune cells, including lymphocytes and macrophages (white blood cells). This optimizes phagocytosis, antigen adhesion, cell division, cytokine expression, and more within the immune system.9 If glutamine levels fall due to inactivity, the immune cells lose their primary fuel source and immune deficiency or dysfunction follows.8
However, overexertion of skeletal muscle from overly-intense exercise causes the tissue to actually consume the glutamine, leaving less for the immune cells. Less fuel results in a decreased neutrophil oxidative burst, fewer T-cells, impaired growth of remaining T-cells, and decreased phagocytosis by macrophages, which all lead to immunosuppression and susceptibility to infection. So it’s crucial to find a healthy balance when it comes to exercise.
Interleukin-6, Exercise, and the Immune System
IL-6 is a cytokine (chemical messenger) with pro- and anti-inflammatory properties that modulates immune cell behavior during the healing process. IL-6 plasma levels rise after physical exercise causing a healthy inflammatory response that draws immune cells from circulating blood and activates cells already in the tissue. Bone and mitochondria, in addition to muscle tissue, benefit from this upsurge of IL-6. Low-grade chronic inflammation is also better kept in check as IL-6 enhances lipid (fat) oxidization.
As with glutamine, IL-6 output is dependent on exercise intensity, frequency, and duration. So the next time you’re pumping iron or pounding the pavement, think about how you’re fueling your immune cells with glutamine and IL-6, but don’t work yourself to the point of exhaustion.
The Thymus, Exercise, and the Immune System
The thymus is a clump of heart-shaped tissue behind the breastbone where new T-cells are produced. It deteriorates with age at a rate of around three percent a year after puberty.10 And by the latter half of middle age, the thymus barely exists. Adaptive immunity suffers, which means the body is less protected from new pathogens, like Coronavirus, although the innate immune system can still fight off infection.
Regenerative medicine research suggests exercise may prevent and even reverse thymic degeneration, with athletes possessing higher T-cell counts and more youthful thymuses and, thereby, stronger immunity.11 So, go ahead and get moving to power up a compromised immune system. Find a new hobby like pickleball or cross-country skiing, join a gym, or connect with local hiking groups in your area.
2. You’re Super Stressed
Stress has a proven negative impact on your body, mind, and spirit.12 When it comes to your capacity to fight infection, stress compromises your immune system by significantly lowering your white blood cell (lymphocye) count as well as upregulating inflammation. And the longer and more severe the stress, the more white blood cell levels decrease.13
Stress triggers both the sympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. When these turn on, levels of the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine (catecholamines) as well as cortisol begin to rise in the bloodstream. This results in lower proliferation and circulation of white blood cells as well as a decrease in killer T-cell activity.14 As you now know, when there aren’t enough T- and B-cells to target pathogens, the chance of infection winning the battle against your body is much higher.
And when overly-stressed, you’re more likely to make lifestyle choices that can further compromise your immunity. The impact of late-night caffeine to finish a deadline, lack of sleep as a result, skipping your morning workout, that box of donuts on the way to the office, and drugs or alcohol to wind down from a stressful cycle can disrupt homeostasis of the immune system, impair innate immunity, and cause a decline in resistance to infection.15
What do you need to do to reduce stress in your life right now? Consider how an extra hour of sleep, staying off social media, or saying “no” to the Christmas party planning committee might ease the overwhelm and keep those stress hormone levels at healthy levels so your immune system is supported by the best possible conditions to keep you strong and healthy this season.
3. You Have Food Allergies or Sensitivities
Your gut is the primary gateway to your external environment. It’s bombarded with harmful pathogens every day. That might be why the digestive tract is home to over 70 percent of your immune system!16
If you haven’t heard of the gut (microbiome)-brain axis yet, it’s a mechanism whereby the nervous system, the gut, and its microbiome communicate back and forth, influencing the function of both systems. What this means is that what you think can impact your gut and, in turn, your immune health. And what you eat can affect your brain health.
Recall how the stress-induced release of cortisol lowers white blood cell count. Well, it can also weaken your gut barrier by lowering antibody Immunoglobulin A (IgA) levels. This increases the permeability of the intestinal lining and allows viruses, bacteria, and other foreign particles to more easily enter your digestive tract.17
This is called “leaky gut.” And it can lead to food allergies, intolerances, and even autoimmune conditions like coeliac disease. When the immune system is continuously responding to foreign substances entering the gut with an inflammatory reaction, it can lead to dysregulation, making you more susceptible to infection.
Watch what goes into your body this holiday season. Overindulging in fatty foods, sugar, or alcohol can lead to symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, irritability, or reflux, which may be a sign that your immune system is at risk.
If you recognize any of these warning signs, it’s time to take immediate action, especially if you’re experiencing some of these other common indicators of a compromised immune system:
- Yellow eyes
- Cold hands
- Slow wound
- Lasting low-grade fever
- Numbness or tingling in your fingers and toes
- Dry eyes
- Achy joints
- Hair loss
- Gagging or choking when swallowing
- Sun sensitivity
- Weight change
Read my article Coronavirus Protection: 20 Tips to Reduce Exposure & Boost Your Immune System Naturally for my top natural immune-strengthening tips. Or call the office for an assessment or to book an appointment for one of our Intravenous (IV) Infusions that’ll give your body the added nutrients and antioxidants it needs to boost a compromised immune system.