Food isn’t like medicine; food IS medicine.
— Mark Hyman, MD, Founder of the Center for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic
Your immune system is your most powerful curative system—when it’s working properly. A well-functioning immune system is balanced and resilient, fending off infections as needed, not overreacting to foods and other harmless environmental factors like pollen, or attacking your own body in an autoimmune response. An under-active, weak, or poorly functioning immune system increases your susceptibility to disease, like colds, fungal infections, and cancer; whereas an overactive immune system produces too much inflammation in the body and is prone to hyperactive reactions like allergies and autoimmune conditions.
The Pathway to Problems: A Malfunctioning Immune System
The immune system acts as our armed forces, protecting us from harmful invaders. When it functions properly, we are resilient against infections like the common cold, Lyme disease, and the multiple variants of COVID-19. But modern lifestyle factors — like a diet of sugar and refined grains, poor sleep, minimal movement, excess stress, and environmental toxins — burden our immune system and make us more prone to immune dysfunction and autoimmunity.
It won’t come as a surprise to you that a malfunctioning immune system is party-time for infections. You may have noticed that following a stressful event, you’re more likely to catch a cold, have a herpes outbreak, or experience a reactivated Epstein-Barr virus (EBV). And once your immune system mounts a reaction to the infection, it produces a huge amount of inflammation, creating a prime environment for autoimmune conditions to emerge or worsen.
What Contributes to Poor Immune Function?
Years of chronic, low level inflammation from a poor diet, ongoing stress, lack of (or too much) exercise, aging, and a heavy load of environmental toxins causes your immune system to become weak and imbalanced—tipping to under or overactive. In short, unaddressed, toxic F.I.G.H.T.S.™ factors (Food, Infections, Gut health, Hormone balance, Toxins, and Stress) hasten the decline of immune function:
- Processed SAD, inflammatory Foods, and nutrient deficiencies
- Infectious burdens
- Poor Gut health
- A heavy load of Toxicants
- Hormone imbalances
- Chronic Stress
Addressing these F.I.G.H.T.S. categories head on will help you lower inflammation, fix and grow new mitochondria, and optimize your thyroid function, which in turn will boost your metabolism and optimize your immune function, allowing you to clear infections, beat autoimmune and improve your odds of beating infections like COVID faster too:
Strategies to Get Your Immune System in Fighting Shape:
We can look to ancient or primal cultures to learn from people who lived without infections, antibiotics, immunizations, and modern medicine. How did these immune-resilient cultures live and what did they eat? Taking a page from long-lived people who live(d) in the Blue Zones (book by Dan Buettner), like Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; and Nicoya, Costa Rica, we would do well to embrace these simple yet proven lifestyle strategies:
Remove processed foods, sugar, starchy carbs
Microbes love sugar; your immune system does not. Studies show that sugar in all forms (glucose, fructose and sucrose) suppresses immune function for five hours after eating it. (4) Our Paleolithic ancestors are reported to have enjoyed honey and fruit on the rare occasion they found it; not on a daily basis. Give it a try: To make yourself inhospitable to infectious microbes and improve your immune function, stop feeding infectious microbes. Start by lowering your daily net carbs (carbohydrates minus fiber) to fewer than 50 grams. If that feels good, take it down to 30 grams. Add healthy fats like avocado, olives, olive oil, ghee, coconut, and nuts and seeds. Keep your protein portions like wild fish, grass-fed meats, and pastured chicken the size of your palm.
Add immune-enhancing foods & spices
A wide body of scientific evidence shows that garlic and ginger offer powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties — even against drug-resistant pathogens. Coconut oil has been shown to control the fungal pathogen Candida albicans. Curcumin, the yellow-orange pigment from the turmeric root, has been shown to modulate the immune system and improve autoimmune conditions. Finally, fermented foods, like sauerkraut and kimchi, are antimicrobial and immune-enhancing. (5, 6, 7, 8) Give it a try: Add as many of these immune-enhancing foods and spices as you like to your meals every day.
Eat the rainbow
Phytochemicals are literally plants’ immune systems, protecting them from invaders, predators, and microbes like fungus. Our modern lives filled with processed foods devoid of vital phytochemical compounds mean we have lost a key part of our own immune function and resilience. Dr. Bland says those phytochemicals literally communicate beneficial messages with our own immune cells. Give it a try: Eat a variety of colorful vegetables to extract phytochemicals like carotenoids in red, orange, yellow, and green plants; flavonoids in berries, apples, and onions; sulforaphane in cruciferous vegetables and broccoli sprouts; and lutein and zeaxanthin in dark, leafy greens.
Studies show that following a Paleolithic (Paleo) diet is one of the best strategies to reduce obesity, diabetes, and beat an autoimmune condition. Unfortunately our soils have become depleted of key nutrients and we simply can’t expect to get all the necessary nutrients we need through food. Supplementing with targeted nutrients long-term is one of the best strategies to replenish your depleted stores and defend against infections like COVID-19. These supplements are known to improve resilience to infection: 1 ml liposomal methyl B-complex; 2 – 3 gr corn-free vitamin C; 5K IU liposomal D3 + K2; 5 mg zinc carnosine; 500 mg quercetin; 1 ml liposomal glutathione; 200 mg R-lipoic acid; 500 mg curcumin; 500 mg resveratrol; and 3-6 mg timed release melatonin. Give it a try: You can find these and other professional-grade supplements that help support your immune system and lower inflammation in my online supplement store, Fullscript.
Get more sleep
Your immune system functions best when you get enough sleep. Fewer than six hours of sleep per night suppresses immune function, turns on inflammatory genes, and increases risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease (CVD). Eight or more hours may be ideal for anyone with autoimmune issues. Give it a try: Can you mimic our ancestors who went to bed when it was dark, and woke with the sun? Consider getting in bed earlier so you’re asleep by 10 pm to get the most restorative deep sleep. Make sure your room is cool and dark and use eye shades and earplugs as needed. I recommend 3-6 grams timed release melatonin an hour before bed to help with both sleep and optimal immune system function.
Move more -- the NEAT way
A review of 18 studies found that those who sat for the longest periods of time were twice as likely to have diabetes or heart disease and had a greater risk of death compared to those who sat the least.(9) in the longest-lived places like the Blue Zones, for example, people moved throughout the day, walking to villages, climbing hills, doing chores, manual labor, and gardening. This daily activity is called “NEAT” for Non–Exercise Activity Thermogenesis, meaning the metabolic benefits from daily activities like gardening, housework, or even fidgeting. Give it a try: Moderate daily exercise, as in 40 minutes of walking most days, reduces systemic inflammation and incidence of upper-respiratory illness (URI). (10) Because sitting for two hours can undo 20 minutes of exercise benefits, make sure you stand and move throughout the day to get “NEAT” benefits.
Stress can be beneficial, as long as it’s short-lived. Chronic stress is toxic, and has negative effects on almost all functional measures of the immune system. Give it a try: Do what you can to let go of unnecessary stressors like worry and anxiety over things you cannot control. Find healthy ways to relax, like a daily 20-minute meditation practice, a gentle qigong session, soaking in a hot Epsom salts bath, laughing, and slow, conscious breathing, which have all been proven to reduce stress and lower inflammation.
Plant a garden
Gardening is a common activity among 80, 90 and 100+ year olds in the Blue Zones. Nearly all centenarians grew (or grow) a garden. It’s a beneficial form of exercise, it helps to reduce stress, it allows you to grow nutrient-dense food, and the beneficial microbes from the soil may have a beneficial effect on the human microbiome. Give it a try: Do you have a little space, even in pots outside? Perhaps there’s a community garden nearby. Or if you don’t have outdoor space, do you have a ledge on your kitchen window where you can plant herbs or sprouts?
Social isolation has been identified as one of the worse types of stress and studies show it may be worse for your health than smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity. Conversely, social connectedness promotes wellbeing and improved immune function. Do what you can to connect safely, whether that’s online over Facetime or Zoom or going for an appropriately-distanced walk. Give it a try: If you’re feeling isolated, consider joining uplifting online communities like local MeetUp groups or supportive Facebook groups. The plain old telephone is great too. Who can you reach out to today to brighten their day?
Optimize Immune Function to Improve Health Outcomes
One of the best ways to improve your immunity, reverse autoimmunity, and both strengthen your resistance to and ability to clear infections is to optimize your immune system. As you embrace these simple lifestyle habits, you’ll be shifting your terrain for the better and, as a result, your immune system will be renewed, revitalized, and more resilient.
There has never been a better time to get your immune system in good fighting shape. As you work your way to better lifestyle habits and see positive results, you’ll find the motivation to address other F.I.G.H.T.S. factors like gut health, toxins and stress, until you’re living a life you love, one of resilience and vibrant health.
Which immune system rejuvenation strategies will you try? If you have an autoimmune condition, I urge you to look for and clear infections naturally. Keep me posted on your experiments to renew, revitalize, and rejuvenate your immune system.
Take good care!
P.S. Want my personal help beating an autoimmune condition(s)? If you live in the continental U.S. (except N.Y. due to state laws) and are ready, willing, and able to invest in your best health, I offer Beat Autoimmune & Thrive Functional Medicine Programs over Zoom. I collaborate with skilled naturopathic doctors (NDs) who are experts in resolving root causes like gut issues, chronic infections, toxic burdens, and hormonal imbalances, which are almost always part of the autoimmune puzzle. Together we provide comprehensive, customized treatment plans, and collaborative, caring support. If you are ready to beat autoimmune and reclaim your best life please book a 30–minute consultation with me to gain clarity, confidence, and explore the possibility of working together.
Photo by Timothy Eberly