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Supporting a Healthy Immune System

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Supporting a Healthy Immune System

If you suffer from frequent infections, such as sinus and ear infections, this could be the sign of a weakened immune system, one in which could include your lymphatic system. Ryan Harris, MD, Cooper Clinic Preventive Medicine Physician, says signs of a weakened immune system are when “infections are occurring more often, are lasting longer and/or are harder to treat."

The lymphatic system is a vital part of the immune system that is dedicated to cleaning and destroying any unwanted pathogens that may have entered your body. It creates a clear, watery liquid—lymph—that travels throughout the body, sweeping away bad bacteria and viruses into lymph nodes where they are discarded. The lymph then empties into the blood to start the cycle again. The lymphatic system is composed of multiple organs, tissues and glands responsible for fighting and cleaning out harmful substances in their own ways.

Immune System Disorders

In general, immune system disorders come in two varieties—weakened and overactive states—and both cause health issues. Some of the most common types include:

  • Primary immunodeficiency: This refers to a group of more than 400 genetic diseases (e.g., CVID, DiGeorge syndrome, ataxia telangiectasia, etc.) that compromise the immune system. Some mutations are severe and are diagnosed soon after birth, while others are milder and show up in adulthood.
  • Secondary immunodeficiency: This category encompasses anything that adversely affects an otherwise normal immune system, including malnutrition, severe burns, infection (e.g., HIV), leukemia and medical treatments (e.g., chemotherapy or radiation). Even common medications like acid reducers, antibiotics and steroids can make us vulnerable by disrupting the balance of “good” and “bad” bacteria in our bodies.
  • Overactive immune system: This occurs when the immune system reacts to normally harmless antigens, causing inflammation. “Inflammation occurs when cells release messengers (cytokines) to the rest of our body as a cry for help,” explains Dr. Harris. Asthma, allergies and eczema are examples of an immune system in overdrive.
  • Autoimmune diseases: These are where one’s immune system mistakes one’s own tissue as foreign and harmful. Chronic inflammation is the common pathway and causes the destruction of normal, healthy tissue. Below are examples of such diseases:
    • Rheumatoid arthritis: The immune system attacks the joints, resulting in pain, swelling, stiffness and deformities.
    • Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis: Both diseases cause inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract.
    • Hashimoto and Graves diseases: Hashimoto’s thyroiditis causes decreased thyroid hormone production, while Graves causes an overactive thyroid.

Antibodies, which are normally protective, are called autoantibodies when they attack our own bodies. Most autoimmune diseases have known associated autoantibodies that can be detected through a blood test.

Building Healthy Immune Systems and Preventing Infection

Having been exposed to many viruses and bacteria from an early age, our bodies have built up so-called “natural immunity.” To promote an even more robust immune system, Dr. Harris recommends adopting common practices, including “healthy eating, high-quality sleep, adequate exercise, some sun exposure and refraining from smoking and drinking.” These foundational practices are also found in Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper’s 8 Steps to Get Cooperized™, guidelines for a healthy lifestyle. Learn how to Get Cooperized™ by visiting our Health Tips section.

Dr. Harris also advises the following to support a healthy immune system:

  • The act of breathing through the nose as opposed to the mouth can have a significant impact. He explains “the mucus and cilia in our nose helps filter pathogens, and consistently inhaling oxygen is good for the nasal microbiota.”
  • Stay up-to-date with the latest standard immunizations (so-called “passive immunity”). This includes getting travel vaccinations well in advance of flying abroad.
  • Include 2-4 servings of low-sugar fermented foods into your meals each day, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles.
  • Staying socially active and engaging with others “is a great practice for the immune system” says Dr. Harris.
  • Make sure you’re consuming enough vitamin D via diet/supplements. Your doctor can tell you if your body has enough vitamin D with a simple blood test.
  • Sleeping with your feet above your head may enhance the activity of our “glymphatic system,” a recently discovered waste-clearance system of the central nervous system.

“There are numerous ways to prevent illness,” says Dr. Harris. “These include washing your hands regularly, avoiding touching your face, keeping up with your dental hygiene, avoiding crowded places and trying to avoid undercooked meat.” Maintaining a healthy hygiene regimen and focusing on eating healthy foods (see below) are keys to preserving a healthy immune system as you age.

Pro-Inflammatory vs. Anti-Inflammatory Diets

Watching what you eat is incredibly important, especially when talking about the effect of diet on inflammation. According to a study by the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, a pro-inflammatory diet can even increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Anti-inflammatory diets contain foods that help lower inflammation with elevated levels of vitamins and fiber. Harvard Health shares examples of pro-inflammatory foods to avoid and anti-inflammatory foods to include in your daily diet.

Pro-Inflammatory:

  • Red meats, processed meats and organ meats
  • Refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice and desserts
  • Sweetened beverages such as soft drinks and sports drinks

Anti-Inflammatory:

  • Green vegetables such as kale, collard greens and spinach
  • Dark yellow vegetables including winter and summer squash
  • Whole grains such as whole grain bread, quinoa and oatmeal

For more information about creating a healthy eating plan to help achieve your goals, schedule a nutrition consultation with a Cooper Clinic registered dietitian nutritionist. Call 972.560.2655 or visit cooperclinicnutrition.com.

To learn more about preventive care and your overall health, schedule a comprehensive preventive health exam at Cooper Clinic by visiting cooper-clinic.com or call 866.906.2667.