The immune system is responsible for fighting off invading bacteria, viruses, and other microbes that may pose a threat to your health. This has become increasingly more important with the current global pandemic. While there is value in “boosting” your immune system at certain times, it’s just as important to maintain a balanced immune system to support total body wellness. We talked to some experts to learn the importance of balancing the immune system and practical steps you can take to maintain a balanced immune system. Read what they had to say below.
Why a Balanced Immune System is the Key to Total Body Wellness
Your immune system is highly evolved and comprises a complex network cells, molecules, tissues, and organs, all of which require balance and harmony for proper function, according to Kathleen DiChiara, a researcher, functional nutrition practitioner, and author of End Chronic Disease: The Healing Power of Beliefs, Behaviors, and Bacteria. “On the whole, the immune system does a remarkable job around the clock to protect you from infectious bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites that could cause disease, suffering, and even death,” DiChiara says.
Amy Lewis, a registered nurse with a certificate in whole health education, suggests that a balanced immune system is important as a holistic approach to health. “The strength of our immune system determines how our body will react to foreign invaders and viruses,” Lewis says, “The stronger, the better chance we have at fighting the virus.”
However, the human immune system is not the same for every person, and according to Dr. Len Lopez, a nutrition and fitness coach, your immune system fluctuates on a daily basis. Dr. Lopez also states that, even with “good genes,” your immune system can still suffer or become imbalanced from a bad diet, stress, sleep problems, a lack of physical activity, and other factors.
This gets at the idea of total body wellness. “When we look at the human body as an interconnected network of vital communication pathways, we understand that everything is connected,” DiChiara says, “A breakdown in one system—immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive, and so forth—will adversely affect the strength of the others.”
What is the Difference Between Balancing and Boosting the Immune System?
While “balancing” and “boosting” the immune system may seem similar, there is a distinct difference that is worth understanding. “Boosting your immune system is the act of taking in natural compounds to literally boost immune activity,” says Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and the author of The Candida Diet, “Balancing your immune system can be done through modulators that neither decrease or heighten the immune response.”
While boosting your immune system can be beneficial, it can also contribute to an overactive immune response. “A heightened immune system can actually cause harm by creating chronic inflammation,” Richards says, “An overly active immune system can begin attacking non-foreign substances rather than viruses and real threats making balancing it ideal.”
This is not to say that inflammation is unhelpful or unnecessary, but it plays a part in a balanced immune system. Dr. Barry Sears, an authority on anti-inflammatory nutrition and author of the Zone Diet book series, says that “you need both inflammation and resolution to survive, but they have to be balanced.”
Alicia Galvin, a registered dietician, goes even deeper and suggests that the immune system depends on a balance between Th1 and Th2 helper cells. Imbalances or overproduction of either of these cells may contribute to the development of diseases and general health issues. “Balancing our immune system requires us to keep the Th1 and Th2 cells in equilibrium so that one side isn’t stimulated more than the other,” says Galvin, “Boosting our immune system enhances the immune cells’ ability to protect us from pathogenic foreign invaders.”
How to Balance Your Immune System
Your lifestyle has a significant impact on your immune system, meaning that some small changes and additions can help to balance your immunities. However, as Dr. Carrie Lam states, the effects of any vitamin, mineral, herb, or other factor depends partly on your body and current health. This includes your adrenal glands and your detoxification circuit. Jody Bergeron, a critical care nurse and expert in nutrition, also mentions the importance of a functioning spleen, which “filters out foreign material from our blood.”
Maintaining gut health is one of the keys to keeping your immune system strong and balanced. According to Dr. Lopez, more than 50 to 60 percent of your immune system involves your gut. The diverse community of microbes within the gut, known as the microbiome, supports a wide range of potential functions. “The microbiome is involved in energy homeostasis, prevention of microbial colonization and in the regulation of the mucosal immune system,” states Bergeron. “The microflora is needed in immune system stimulation and production of B vitamins and vitamin K. It is also involved in gastrointestinal motility, digestion, nutrient absorption, pathogen inhibition, metabolism of plant compounds/drugs, and production of short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which help to keep our colon cells healthy.”
However, the gut microbiome can become imbalanced by a poor diet, environmental factors, and certain types of medications. One of the best ways to replenish and rebalance the gut microbiome is probiotics. “Probiotics can both boost and balance the immune system by restoring the gut’s microbiome,” says Richards, “When this area is in balance, the immune system is better able to work efficiently and effectively.”
Probiotics can be found in a variety of fermented foods, including yogurt, kimchi, and kombucha, but they are also available as dietary supplements for more convenient use.
Dr. Lam recommends turmeric to both boost and balance the immune system. The main active component in turmeric is curcumin, which is known to possess powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Dr. Lam also states that curcumin may help with “improving brain function (which is good for those with AFS-induced brain fog), lowering heart disease risk, helping in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, reducing arthritis symptoms, and even improving mental health and mood.”
To use turmeric, Dr. Lam recommends sprinkling a spoonful of the spice into your foods or adding fresh turmeric to smoothies and juices.
Dr. Lam also recommends echinacea. A member of the daisy family, echinacea possesses immune-boosting properties and may help to combat cold and flu symptoms and reduce the risk of general infections.
While best known for its digestive effects, Dr. Lam recommends cat’s claw as a natural immune booster. “It contains oxindole alkaloids that have a stimulatory effect on the immune system,” says Dr. Lam, “The most immunologically active alkaloid in cat’s claw is called Isomer A. Cat’s claw is also a good antioxidant and has other compounds that can help fight off bacteria and viruses.”
Olive leaf is believed to help boost energy and act as an antioxidant. According to Dr. Lam, olive leaf may also support cardiovascular health, regulate blood pressure, and reduce viral infections.
Along with natural immune boosters, maintaining good overall nutrition can play a significant role in balancing your immune system. While there are plenty of specialized diets out there, you don’t have to overthink this. Lewis says to “eat a well-balanced whole foods diet (fruits, lots of vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean meats and healthy fats)” while also reducing your intake of refined sugars.
Regular exercise is key to managing your weight and your general health, including your immune system. “Exercise causes the body to release endorphins that reduce stress levels,” says Lewis, “With exercise our body also releases a hormone called cortisol.” Cortisol is the main stress hormone, and while too much of it can be harmful, short bursts of it can support your immune system.
You can try a wide range of exercises. Lewis recommends moderate exercises, including brisk walking, swimming, dancing, biking, gardening, yoga, and tai chi.
Stress and Emotional Health
As mentioned, stress can suppress or weaken the immune system and damage overall health. Chronic stress can also contribute to sleep problems. Lewis says, “Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus.” Find constructive ways to relax and decompress. This can include exercise, meditation, and regularly hanging out with people you love.
Balancing your immune system is essential to your health, and it thankfully does not require much. “The first three priorities of defense in keeping our immune system in a healthy balance include frequent hand washing, hydration with plenty of water, and keeping immunizations up to date,” says Bergeron.