Your immune system is comprised of several different organs and structures within the body, all designed to protect you from damage and disease caused by foreign microbes. When it works properly, the immune system can adequately discern between your own healthy tissue and any invading bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites. Important components of your immune system include the lymph nodes, spleen, bone marrow, and white blood cells (both lymphocytes and leukocytes).
Unfortunately, your immune system can have trouble staying strong and protecting you from harm. Stress, poor diet, smoking, UV exposure, and not getting enough sleep can all contribute to a weakened immune system. Furthermore, as you age, your immunities tend to decrease.
The good news is that you can enhance and optimize your immune system with some natural supplements and simple lifestyle changes. Read on to learn more.
Colostrum is the milky fluid produced by humans, cows, and other mammals in late pregnancy and the first few days of giving birth, prior to the appearance of true milk. It is packed with all three macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) along with a variety of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and antibodies). Those antibodies are responsible for regulating bacteria, viruses, and other microbes responsible for causing disease. In fact, antibody levels in bovine colostrum have been found to be up to 100 times higher than antibody levels in regular cow’s milk and forty times higher than human colostrum.
Colostrum has also been used as a supplement for balancing and enhancing digestive health. It does so by addressing the factors contributing to a leaky gut and by acting as a prebiotic to feed the beneficial gut bacteria. The potential benefits of colostrum come from its diverse range of bioactive components known to help optimize immune function. Some of the most prominent components include:
- Glycoproteins – Glycoproteins are proteins bound to sugars. Their primary function is to inhibit pathogens by competing for binding sites on the intestinal wall or by binding directly to pathogens.
- Cytokines – Colostrum contains several cytokines, including interferon, interleukins, and lymphokines. These compounds possess antiviral and anti-tumor activities and play roles in intercellular communication and the regulation of immune responses. Cytokines have also been found to increase the production of immunoglobins and T-cell activity.
- Immunoglobulins – Immunoglobulins are antibodies that can help to neutralize bacteria, viruses, and other harmful pathogens, which helps your immune system combat infections and allergies. High-quality colostrum is composed of at least 25 percent immunoglobulins, including specific antibodies to fight off salmonella, E. coli, and other common food-borne pathogens.
- Lactoferrin – Lactoferrin is an iron-binding protein with multiple physiological properties (anti-microbial, anti-inflammatory, and immunomodulatory). Bacterial pathogens can use iron to multiply and spread. By binding to iron, lactoferrin can inhibit the spread of potentially harmful microbes. Lactoferrin may also destroy pathogens on contact.
2. Vitamin C
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is an essential vitamin that your body cannot produce on its own, meaning that it can only come from foods and supplements. While it plays a prominent role in the biosynthesis of collagen, L-carnitine, and various neurotransmitters, vitamin C is also an active component in a well-functioning immune system.
Studies show that vitamin C can help stimulate the production and function of leukocytes (white blood cells), particularly lymphocytes, neutrophils, and phagocytes, which can protect cells from oxidative damage. Phagocytes have also been shown to help produce and release cytokines. Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, helping to neutralize cellular damage from harmful free radicals.
Vitamin C is water-soluble, meaning that excess amounts are excreted via your urine and not stored. This is also why you need a constant supply of it every day. Fortunately, vitamin C is readily available in a variety of foods, both naturally and fortified. Some foods rich in vitamin C include:
- Oranges, grapefruit, and other citrus fruits
- Brussels sprouts
You can also get your vitamin C via oral supplements, but it should be noted that many supplements contain forms of vitamin C that are not well-absorbed by the body. Taking a supplement with liposomal delivery is ideal because it transports the vitamin C further down the G.I. tract so that (1) it will not upset the stomach and (2) the antioxidant capacity will not be expended before it can reach the small intestine. The result is better absorption and increased bioavailability.
The recommended daily amount of vitamin C in adult women is about 75 milligrams, and about 90 milligrams per day for adult men. Research suggests that a higher intake of vitamin C is required for optimum reduction of chronic disease risk in nonsmoking men and women. Researchers have suggested that the RDA be revised to 120 mg vitamin C per day. According to the Linus Pauling Institute, higher doses can be therapeutic and range from 200 to 1,000 mg/day. In times of illness, an even greater quantity is recommended as is intravenous vitamin C.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin found in a few foods but is mainly produced by the body when your skin is directly exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Vitamin D is best known for its synergistic relationship with calcium; it promotes calcium absorption in the gut and helps maintain calcium concentrations in the blood to keep bones healthy and strong. Vitamin D keeps bones from becoming porous and is necessary for normal bone growth.
Along with its function in bones, vitamin D plays a large role in modulating immune responses. Prior to the discovery and use of antibiotics, vitamin D was commonly (and unknowingly) used as a treatment for infections. Lower vitamin D levels have frequently been linked to an increased rate of infection.
The best food sources of vitamin D are the flesh of fatty fish and fish liver oils, but you can find it in smaller amounts in beef liver, egg yolks, and cheese. Because vitamin D is fat-soluble, it has a harder time leaving your body and is stored for later use. Generally, the average person gets enough vitamin D from sun exposure and fortified foods. However, like vitamin C, it has been suggested that in times of illness, higher levels of vitamin D are required; thus, necessitating supplementation.
Probiotic supplements and probiotic-rich foods introduce live bacteria into the microbiome (a community of microorganisms) of your gut. Unlike disease-causing bacteria, probiotics are beneficial to your health and help the digestive system break down foods, absorb nutrients, and fight off infections. Probiotics have also been found to potentially help support general immune functions and reduce inflammation.
It’s important to note that if your gut integrity has been compromised with increased permeability, taking probiotics without healing the gut wall first may result in the “leaking” of probiotics into your bloodstream. This could cause more stress on your immune system to ward off what the body thinks are foreign invaders. Ideally, leaky gut should be attenuated first before supplementing with probiotics.
While your gut generally maintains a balance between good and bad bacteria, certain environmental factors, like antibiotics, can reduce the number of probiotics in your system and cause an imbalance. The good news is that probiotics can be found in a variety of foods, mainly those that have been fermented or cultured with live bacteria. Common probiotic-rich foods include yogurt, kefir, kimchi, and sauerkraut.
5. Stop Smoking
Cigarettes have long been known to contribute to heart disease, stomach problems, and various forms of cancer, so it’s not a surprise to learn that smoking can also weaken your immune system. The tar and other chemicals in cigarettes can keep your immune system from effectively fighting off infections, making it easier for you to get sick. Nicotine also causes blood vessels to constrict, making it harder for oxygen, vitamins, and nutrients to reach parts of your body, which makes it harder for wounds to heal.
6. Manage Stress
While acute or temporary stress is fine (and in some cases good for you), ongoing research suggests that chronic stress actually has a profound impact on your immune system. Studies show that chronic stress is often associated with suppression of both cellular immunity and humoral immunity, contributing to an inhibited immune response. While the exact mechanisms still require further research, hypotheses suggest that chronic stress may alter patterns of cytokine secretion.
To counteract these effects, find constructive and healthy ways of managing and reducing your stress. This can include exercise, hobbies, meditation, breathing exercises, and consulting a counselor or therapist.
Along with these tips for optimizing health, make sure that you exercise regularly and maintain a diverse and balanced diet that is rich in fruits and vegetables to fuel your immune system. If you find yourself getting sick frequently, your immune system isn’t up to par – even with your best efforts –, check with your doctor to be on the safe side.