How does your immune system work?
If you understand how the immune system works, you will recognise the importance of optimal functionality and how you can best support it. It is fascinating and complex body system that is vital to our well-being.
When functioning normally, your immune system fights off intruders before they cause damage. These foreign invaders are pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes, such as viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. Recognition of such pathogens puts your immune system into defence mode. A healthy immune system continuously eliminates potential intruders without us knowing. The immune system has two different levels of defence:
- Innate immunity
- Adaptive Immunity
Your innate immune system is what you are born with. It is your first line of defence against any foreign substances and is non-specific in its reactions. This means that your body reacts the same no matter what the invader is.
There are two arms of the innate immune system: physical barriers, and inflammation.
Keep your barriers up
The first line of your immune system’s defence are the physical barriers in your body; your skin, the respiratory tract and mucous membranes.
Your mucous membranes are the thin line of cells which line your digestive tract - all the way from mouth to anus. This is essentially one long tube, open to contact with our environment via food and beverages. Because of this external exposure, this barrier is vital for keeping the viruses and harmful bacteria out of your body and allowing nutrients from food and plants in.
When pathogens try to penetrate your skin, respiratory tract or mucous membranes, the body attempts to remove them mechanically - by coughing it up, sneezing or vomiting it out, or expelling through the urine or faeces. This is one of the reasons that your skin and mucous membranes are replaced so regularly - so that any pathogens are removed with the old cells.
These barriers have a chemical arsenal as well. Tears, mucus, sweat, and saliva are designed to trap invaders. They contain enzymes which can attack the pathogen, or create an environment in which the pathogen can’t survive.
Things like ulcers, inflammation, allergies, and previous infection can all compromise our skin and mucous membrane barriers. If these barriers are compromised, it is much easier for pathogens to get into the body.
Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury or infection. The four signs of inflammation are redness, swelling, heat, and pain. Its role is to bring blood, fluid, specialised cells and chemicals to the area so that your body can heal this area quickly
Inflammation is responsible for many of the symptoms we feel when we have a cold or flu, including a fever. Fevers purposefully raise the body temperature to make the environment inhospitable to viruses and bacteria.
An inflammatory response should be quick and efficient. Suppressing your body’s natural inflammatory response can prolong illness. This is especially true for a fever.
Adaptive immunity is your second line of defence. This part of your immune system is specific and has memory. It protects you against microbes which you’ve previously had contact with. Chemicals such as antibodies, and certain white blood cells, called T Cells, are all part of the adaptive immune response.
When you have contact with a specific pathogen, the adaptive immune system “tags” it. Then, if the same pathogen attempts to invade the body again, the adaptive immune system recognises it and can target a specific attack very quickly. Because it takes time for this part of the immune system to develop, it is important that the Innate Immune System is intact.
Why are we more likely to get sick in the cooler months?
There’s always a balance between bacteria, viruses, fungi or parasites - and our immune system, no matter what season.
The most common infections are upper respiratory. This is because our nose and mouth are open to the environment. There are many theories as to why it seems that there is more sickness in winter, however most agree that exposure to cold temperatures can weaken our bodies and further because we spend more time indoors, in close quarters, this increases the chance of contamination. Other factors that may influence winter illnesses are; a lack of exposure to sunlight and vitamin D (deficiency in vitamin D is associated with an increased susceptibility to infection), less clean oxygen and a tendency to reduce exercise as we then to spend less time outdoors.
Putting it all together
When the immune systems is coordinated and working properly, you are completely oblivious to these attacks.
It makes sense that in colder conditions with more personal contact (hibernating inside), your immune system has to work that much harder. It doesn't take much for the extra threats to put strain on your immune system cause dysfunction.
Luckily, there are many things that you can do to support all the areas of our immune system!
How to build a strong immune response for year-round resilience.
Now that you know how your immune system works, it's time to look at some strategies to keep it strong.
The more you do daily to support your immune system, the better it will function. And you’ll be more resistant to circulating viruses and bacteria. But when you do get sick, you recover faster and more completely.
Our four daily self-care practices are:
- Use plant medicine preventatively (and acutely, as required)
- Hydrate and eat well
- Move more and rest more
- Stress less
Plant Medicine for Prevention
Just like nutrient-rich whole foods, whole-plant medicines contain a wide variety of nutrients and unique phytochemicals which support the immune system. Unlike nutrients and supplementation, that builds nutritional deficiencies, plant medicine works on helping and improving the fundamental functions of the body. For prevention, take plant medicine, specifically formulated to modulate your immunes system, daily during autumn and winter. If you are prone to getting sick, take them all-year round.
It’s important to understand your dose. The same plant medicine combination can prevent and treat, changing the dosage to suit the severity. A low dose works well as a preventative. Whilst a higher, more regular dose, can deal with acute symptoms.
Medicinal plants to incorporate:
We use these plants (and many others) in our winter immunity products. We rigorously research each plant and combination and have vast experience and expertise in plant medicine.
For the common cold, catarrh (stuffy nose or sinuses), bronchitis, whooping cough and asthma
A powerful natural antimicrobial: thyme’s essential oils fight bacterial, viral and fungal infections
Expels stubborn phlegm
Great for both dry and wet coughs
Clinical trials indicate it is as effective as Bromhexine (a common pharmaceutical expectorant) for coughs
Other research shows that Thyme is effective against antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and also improves the efficacy of antibiotics against resistant bacteria .
For the common cold, feverish conditions, sinusitis and catarrh
Dries up runny mucus (acutely or in post-nasal drip)
Shortens recovery time in colds and influenza
A great source of anti-inflammatory antioxidants which modulate the innate immune system
Antiviral, antibacterial, immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory
Plantain’s soothing and healing properties make it great for sore throats and colds
Ideal for coughs as it soothes the mucous membranes, calming the coughing reflex
Want to know more about Plantain? Check out our Plant 101 article
Enhances and modulates (balances) the immune system
Reduces the risk of complications from infections such infections
Clears catarrh, sinusitis, bronchitis and gland inflammation
Traditionally used as an antidote for poison
A 2015 clinical trial compared Echinacea to Tamiflu, the pharmaceutical anti-viral medication; the study found that Echinacea was as effective, with fewer side-effects.
We recommend a daily dose of ViroGone for adults and Kids ViroGone for children 0-6. This formulation doubles as a preventative and an acute treatment.
Hydrate and Eat Well
We know that you really are what you eat! In the case of your immune system, certain nutrients are required to produce the cells and molecules and ensure the system is working optimally.
Antibodies, for example, are protein compounds. We need enough protein in our diet to keep our muscles working properly and keep our immune system charging. Eat a small amount of protein with each meal or snack. Good sources include nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, eggs, fish, and meat and poultry (organic, free range is best).
Nourishing foods high in vitamins and minerals will help keep the immune system working well. Vitamins A and C and the minerals zinc and selenium are just a few of the nutrients required for a healthy immune system.
The best way to get these nutrients is to eat a wide variety of brightly coloured plant foods. The different colours in fruits and veg indicate that they contain different nutrients and phytochemicals such as anti-inflammatory and immune-supporting antioxidants. Some of our favourite immune-boosting foods include carrots, capsicum, kumara, broccoli, leafy greens, citrus fruit, and kiwifruit. Zinc is found in pumpkin seeds and oysters. The best source of selenium is Brazil nuts.
Reduce refined sugar in your diet (as opposed to naturally occurring sugars that are found in fruit) to help keep your immune system healthy. Some studies show that sugar can reduce the function of your white blood cells. Also, some pathogens (eg, the fungus candida) feed on sugar. Eating too much can cause an overgrowth of these bugs.
Fluids are vital. Fluids help to flush out infective microbes. When our mucous membranes in our throat, nose, and sinuses are moist, they act as a physical barrier against infections. Amplify your fluid intake by incorporating medicinal plants through hot water extraction (tea) or tonics.
Move More and Rest More
Good rest and sleep are also necessary for your immune system. Sleep is the optimal time to repair and heal the immune system, as you are not using your energy for other bodily functions. If you're having trouble falling and staying asleep, try Deep Sleep Tea which is traditional plant medicine to support a good night's sleep.
Chronic stress is detrimental to our immune systems. While short-term stress is a vital protective mechanism, long-term stress can suppress or alter our innate and adaptive immune responses. It can promote chronic, low-grade inflammation, which is linked to many prolonged immune conditions, including autoimmune diseases and cancer.
While we can’t always control the stressful situations in our surroundings, we do get to choose how we respond to them. Importantly, our bodies react the same whether the stress is real or perceived. Plant medicine is an excellent option to help balance your body during stressful times; see what we have to help in our stress and sleep category.
Research is on file, please request if you’re interested.
Barry, A., Cronin, O., Ryan, A., Sweeney, B., Yap, S., O’Toole, O., Allen, A., Clarke, G., O’Halloran, K., & Downer, E. (2016). Impact of exercise on innate immunity in Multiple Sclerosis progression and symptomatology. Frontiers in Physiology, 7(194). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4889582/
Braun, L., & Cohen, M. (2010). Herbs & natural supplements: An evidence-based guide (3rd ed.). Sydney, Australia: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
Craft, J., Gordon, C., Tiziani, A., Huether, S.E., McCance, K.L., Brashers, V.L., & Rote, N.S. (2011). Understanding pathophysiology. Sydney, Australia: Elsevier
Daly, J., Reynolds, J., Sigal, R., Shou, J., & Liberman, M. (1990). Effect of dietary protein and amino acids on immune function. Critical Care Medicine, 18(2). Retrieved from http://journals.lww.com/ccmjournal/abstract/1990/02003/effect_of_dietary_protein_and_amino_acids_on.2.aspx
Hechtman, L. (2012). Clinical naturopathic medicine. Chatswood, Australia: Churchill Livingstone Elsevier.
Nielsen, H., øktdalen, O., Opstad, P., & Lyberg, T. (2016). Plasma cytokine profiles in long-term strenuous exercise. Journal of Sports Medicine, 2016. Doi: 10.1155/2016/7186137