written by: Dr. Elijah McCarthy, ND | September 28, 2018
As the summer season comes to an end, and the fall season appears on the horizon, the topic of supporting your immune system creeps into our collective awareness. Many lifestyle factors play into the resiliency of your immune system and a firm understanding of how to support your immune system as we move into the next season can help you avoid spending uncomfortable days on the sidelines.
Immune System and the GI Tract
Your immune system consists of a collection of lymph tissues and immune cells that perform 24 hour cellular surveillance in an effort to protect you from the elements and foreign bodies.
Although the skin plays this rather obvious role as a barrier between the external world and the internal environment of your body, it is not your body’s primary interface with the external world—that is the role of the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract).
Stretching from the mouth to the anus, the GI tract is one long and contiguous convoluted tube. Since the “tube” connects the entrance to the exit, the lumen of the GI tract is considered a part of the external environment similar to a tunnel through a mountain.
It is here in the GI tract where we interface with the external world to the greatest extent. The GI tract has the surface area equal to approximately 30-40 square meters, or the size of an average studio apartment. That’s a lot of surface area upon which the body must manage 24 hour surveillance and it is for this reason that roughly 70-80% of the body’s immune system is found in the gut.
Top 3 Lifestyle Factors that Increase your Risk of Illness
Factor #1: Gut Health
The GI Tract is ground zero for much of the body’s immune activity. The first line of defense is the acidic environment of the stomach.
The acidity of the stomach not only helps to digest foods but it is also responsible for disinfecting foods before they move lower in the GI tract. A diet high in processed foods combined with poor eating habits (such as eating on the run) often leads to weak digestion and insufficient production of stomach acid. Low acid levels can allow pathogens to pass through into the lower GI tract where the immune system is stimulated causing some uncomfortable GI experiences.
Furthermore, these same conditions deplete the good bacteria in the gut and promote the growth of “bad” bacteria leading to change in the ratio of good bacteria to bad bacteria which further stresses the imbalances in the immune system.
Factor #2:Continuous Stress
Continuous stress causes the frequent release of the stress hormone cortisol. In short-bursts, cortisol acts as an anti-inflammatory, and can boost immune function; however, as acute stress turns to continuous stress, the immune system becomes resistant to cortisol and much of the short term benefits that come with cortisol are lost.
Physiological and psychological stress have been implicated in altering immune function. Altered immune function can lead to a worsening of both physical and psychological health.
In a nutshell, continuous stress can significantly disrupt the healthy functioning of the immune system as well as other biological systems in the body. Like most physiological imbalances, the consequences are not beneficial to your overall health.
Factor #3: Sleep Deprivation & Sleep Rhythm
Sleep and the circadian rhythm exert a strong influence over immune function. In fact, many immune functions synchronize with the regular 24-hour sleep-wake cycle reflecting the synergistic actions of sleep and circadian rhythm on immune function.
A healthy circadian rhythm is characterized by low cortisol and elevated melatonin levels during sleep. Under the influence of this biochemical environment the body dives deep into restorative activities which involve the repair and regeneration of tissues as well as immune cells going to work throughout the body.
Without a healthy circadian rhythm, sleep is compromised which causes an imbalance in overall immune function.
3-Steps to a Healthier Immune System
Step # 1 Restore the Gut
It should be noted that 70-80% of the immune system is located in the gut and as a result, correcting GI imbalances can have a profound effect on the immune system. Adopting a healthy diet and practicing good eating habits can go a long way in restoring balance to the gut. My two most basic rules of dietary guidance are: 1) avoid eating foods that come in a box or a bag; and 2) take time to sit, relax and connect with your food when you eat.
Supplemental considerations in the process of restoring the gut include supporting healthy gut flora with probiotic and prebiotic supplementation.* Furthermore, if digestion is sluggish, helping to support digestive function is a must. You can support digestion with digestive herbs such as Milk Thistle, Dandelion extract, Artichoke Extract, and Turmeric, and/or supplementing with digestive enzymes to support the proper breakdown and absorption of nutrients.*
Step #2 Stress Management
One of the great disruptors of immune and digestive function is chronic stress. Finding ways to better manage daily stress is essential to health in general, and more specifically in maintaining a healthy immune system.
Foundational to effective stress management is the topic of maintaining healthy boundaries with others in your life. Highly permeable boundaries tend to cause us to over-extend ourselves which depletes our energy, and scatters the mind leading to feelings of fatigue, incompetence, frustration, and overwhelm.
Furthermore, practicing regular “grounding exercises” such as breath-work, or walks in nature have a calming effect on the nervous system and can help you better cope with a stressful day.
Finally, if you lead a stressful lifestyle, then daily supplementation with Adaptogenic herbs such as Ashwagandha, and Rhodiola, along with targeted nutrition is essential.* Irwin Naturals Products that can support you in this step include: Stress-Defy®, Stress-Defy Extra™ with Ashwagandha, Extra Strength Ashwagandha Mind & Body, Ginza Plus®, Sunny Mood®, and Sunny Mood® with 5-HTP. *
Step #3 Get Sufficient Sleep and Restore the Circadian Rhythm
We all love sleep, so why not get more of it!? Often, a wrecked gut, and chronic stress play into the development of sleep imbalances. Therefore, addressing Steps 1 & 2 will also help to resolve any existing sleep difficulties. However, supplementing with Melatonin can be the missing element when attempting to reestablish a healthy circadian rhythm.*
Fortunate for you, we at Irwin Naturals love sleep and developed some powerful sleep aids including: Melatonin plus 5-HTP & Rhodiola and our three Power to Sleep PM® formulas that feature various doses of melatonin, including a melatonin free formula.* For general immune support, don’t forget our immune support formulas such as Immuno-Shield®, and Vita-C Plus Urgent Rescue®.*
The immune system is a complex biological system that is influenced by various environmental and lifestyle factors. Gut health, stress management, and restorative sleep are three of my top considerations when helping patients boost their immunity. In way of addressing the various influences on our immune health, Irwin Naturals has developed targeted products to assist you in maintaining your immune health.*
Start making changes today so that you can continue to be well tomorrow and each day thereafter. Here’s to a beautiful fall season ahead!
*These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.