To stay healthy, we need to boost our immune systems, right? Not so fast, says Heather Moday, MD, an allergist, immunologist, and integrative and functional medicine physician. The immune system is incredibly complex, and an overactive immune system can be just as bad as one that’s underactive. (Rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, and allergies are just a few examples of what an overactive immune system can do to your body.)
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to optimizing immunity because we don’t all react to threats like viruses and bacteria the same way. Supporting the immune system, then, takes a combination of broad-stroke measures and indivualized attention. The first step is to optimize five key elements of your lifestyle.
Improve your sleep. Sleep is a busy time for your immune system. T cells in your lymph nodes are presented with new triggers that the innate immune system picked up during the day. Melatonin, a hormone that is released when it is dark, triggers the release of proinflammatory proteins and tells your immune cells to kill invaders. If you don’t get adequate sleep, these immune processes can’t work at full capacity.
Even a small amount of light can suppress melatonin production, particularly blue light from phones, computers, and tablets. Turn off all electronic devices 30 minutes to an hour before bedtime and keep your bedroom dark. If you need a nightlight, use red light.
Stress. Relaxing your mind doesn’t just improve sleep: Stress reduction can reduce the risk of illness overall. Try creating a daily mindfulness practice or talk to a therapist about cognitive behavioral therapy. Exercise is a stress reducer, as is going outside, so a walk, hike, or run on a nice day is especially beneficial. At least once per month, spend a whole day without social media, news, email, or television.
Gut health. The gut microbiome is a collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and parasites. The “good” gut bugs serve important roles like breaking down fiber, creating fuel, feeding and repairing cells, and protecting the immune system. But with age, the use of antibiotics, and poor diets, we can end up with too many not-so-friendly bugs in a condition called gut imbalance (dysbiosis). This can lead to chronic inflammation, allergies, and autoimmune disease.
To improve gut health, Dr. Moday tells her patients to start with an elimination diet to identify any food intolerances. Try avoiding wheat, soy, dairy, eggs, and corn for 30 days. (Some people add sugar, caffeine, and alcohol to the list.) At the end of the month, add in one food at a time and see if you experience any symptoms within 48 hours. If not, add that food back into your diet and try the next one.
Add fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kefir, to your diet to restore balance to the gut. You can also take probiotic supplements.
Nutrition. Eat more plants—beans, whole grains, vegetables, and fruit (organic when possible)—to feed the microbiome and fill up on antioxidants and the many plant compounds that have been definitively linked to better health. In addition, work on reducing your consumption of processed foods, sugar, and alcohol.
Toxins. The immune system doesn’t just fight viruses and bacteria: It fights foreign invaders of all kinds. When it comes across too many chemicals or heavy metals in our food, water, personal care products, and homes, it keeps the body in overdrive. Choosing organic food, then, reduces your exposure to one common toxin: pesticides. You can also use filtered water, avoid plastic food and drink packaging, and opt for less-toxic personal care and cleaning products. The Environmental Working Group (www.EWG.org) is an excellent resource to find safer brands. Many are available at regular stores. (Editor’s Note: I like the brand Method, which is available at Walmart and Target.)
Once you address these broad strokes, it’s time to target what Dr. Moday calls your immunotype. See the sidebar to the left to see if you recognize your own health patterns, and then follow the plan for your immunotype.
The following supplements help calm excessive inflammation.
- Curcumin. Take 1,000 milligrams (mg) in a bioavailable form (e.g., with black pepper) twice daily.
- Resveratrol has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Start with 500 mg per day.
- Specialized proresolving mediators (SPM) don’t prevent inflammation from occurring, but they block the continued recruitment of new neutrophils to the area. Take 2,000 mg daily.
- Berberine downregulates inflammation, reduces oxidating stress, and has antimicrobial properties. Take 500 mg three times per day.
Use these supplements to dampen Th2 activity.
- Quercetin interferes with Th2 cytokines and acts as an antihistamine. Take 500 mg twice per day.
- Astragalus root lowers IgE antibodies and eosinophils. Take 500 to 1,000 mg daily.
- Stinging nettle has antihistamine properties. Take 400 mg daily.
The following supplements can dampen excessive inflammation, block Th17 cell activity, and increase regulatory T cells.
- Vitamin D increases regulatory T cells. If your serum vitamin D levels are below 50 ng/ml, supplement with 2,000 to 4,000 international units (IU) per day.
- Vitamin A ramps up regulatory T cells. Take 5,000 to 10,000 IU daily.
- Skullcap blocks inflammatory cytokines and Th17 cells. Take 500 mg twice daily.
Try these supplements to shore up weaknesses in the immune system.
- Melatonin improves sleep and the immune system. Take 1 to 3 mg a few hours before sleep.
- Ashwagandha is useful when you have chronic stress and keep getting sick. Take 300 to 500 mg twice daily.
- Korean red ginseng increases T and B cells. Take 1,000 mg daily
- Colostrum powder protects against microbial infection and repairs leaky gut. Take 3,000 mg day.