If you have heard that it’s a good idea to boost your immune system, especially during “immune season,” you are not alone.
Let’s take a closer look because things may not be what they seem...
Myth 1: The Immune System Only Needs Support During Immune Season (Or When Sniffles Appear)
Fact: The immune system is active every day, all the time, all year round (aka, there is no immune season).
In truth, your immune system is challenged every single moment of every day by things like car exhaust (Glencross et al., 2020), indulging in a morning donut (Shomali et al., 2021), backyard pollen, and kitchen mold, just to name a few. Watching a horror movie before bedtime? Your immune system will feel it, even if you don’t (Lorton et al., 2006). Heavier emotional burdens? This too can affect the number and migration of your immune cells. Your gut microbiome—a key player in immune health—can shift moment to moment from medications, poorly managed stress, dietary imbalances, and other factors. If these disruptions affect the immune system, downstream effects will ultimately impact your quality of life.
On top of all that, your immune system surveils your body 24/7 for a steady stream of unseen internal challenges, like unregulated cell growth (Gonzalez et al., 2018).
As you can see, your immune system never rests (but it can get overly taxed).
With the profound ways that the immune system serves us every second of every day—plus the uncertainty of global events from climate change to novel immune challenges—I believe that now is the time to embrace a more compassionate and comprehensive way to support immunity. (I’ll share ways to do so in an upcoming blog, and you are also welcomed to join our free 14-Day Immune Wellness Journey.)
Myth 2: Boosting The Immune System Is Good...Right?
Fact: While it’s true that the immune system may sometimes need a hand—for example, during cold and flu season—boosting is a one-dimensional approach that one can easily imagine might lead to overstimulation and imbalance.
Despite good intentions, boosting may inadvertently cultivate a hyperactive or “fight-flight-freeze” immune system that can cause more harm than good to the body and its tissues, which can ultimately leave more for the immune system to clean up and repair (Lee & Werth, 2004). Products intended for short-term use are intended to stimulate immune activity, which can strain an already-active immune system, whereas a wiser approach would be to support the immune system for long-term balance—so that it is supported to optimally activate, balance, and repair to keep you healthier more easily.
On the other hand, boosting an already-exhausted immune system may increase its fatigue, ironically potentially making you more susceptible to immune challenges (Bi & Tian, 2017; Yi et al., 2010). Instead of standing guard against wintertime’s runny-nose season and other challenges, a depleted immune system may opt for a long winter’s nap instead.
And, by focusing on seasonal “boosting,” we overlook the fact that the immune system never gets a day to put up its feet, as it constantly works to neutralize challenges and restore harmony.
A properly functioning immune system is balanced, not boosted.
Traditional Medicinal Systems
“Boosting” the immune system is quite arguably a very Western, allopathic approach that sharply contrasts with traditional medicine frameworks like Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, Unani, and countless other Indigenous systems around the globe. It would be impossible to do justice to these sophisticated systems here, but it bears mentioning that rather than using a single, silver-bullet approach, traditional frameworks treat the whole person—mind, body, and spirit—and recognize the unique constitution and needs of the individual.
What’s more, traditional medicine protocols emphasize restoring balance, rather than approaches like “boosting,” which can backfire when the context of the whole person is unacknowledged. It goes without saying that Western medicine has brought humanity much good. Yet, I believe that the complex health challenges we currently face require more comprehensive approaches like those found in holistic medicine systems.
Exhausted and Impaired Immune Function
The immune system can be challenged in many ways. Chronic immune challenges can lead to “exhaustion” of natural killer (NK) cells and T cells—critical parts of the immune system—meaning they are “functionally inept” (Yi et al., 2010) and their protective potential becomes limited (Bi & Tian, 2017). In addition, challenges from everyday stressors like air and water pollution can lead to suppression of the immune system (Luster & Rosenthal, 1993; National Research Council, 1992). Exhausted immune cells and daily environmental stressors can lead to an imbalance in the immune response and increase vulnerability to challenges.
A Wiser Way: Balance, Don't Boost
A balanced and well-functioning immune system will optimally address challenges and return to homeostasis. I like to call this a “wiser” immune system.
So, how can you support a wiser immune system that is strong, balanced, steady, and calm?
The usual and all-too familiar suggestions like getting plenty of sleep and eating a nutritious diet all come to mind here. (This makes me think of a somewhat humorous quote by W.C. Fields: “The best cure for insomnia is to get a lot of sleep.”) Fortunately, nature offers a panoply of precious gifts like microbes, herbs, and mushrooms with proven expertise in supporting a wiser immune system.
I’ll share some of my favorite immune-wisening allies in my next blog—stay tuned!
Bi, J., & Tian, Z. (2017). NK cell exhaustion. Frontiers in immunology, 8, 760. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.00760
Glencross, D. A., Ho, T. R., Camiña, N., Hawrylowicz, C. M., & Pfeffer, P. E. (2020). Air pollution and its effects on the immune system. Free radical biology & medicine, 151, 56–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2020.01.179
Gonzalez, H., Hagerling, C., & Werb, Z. (2018). Roles of the immune system in cancer: From tumor initiation to metastatic progression. Genes & development, 32(19-20), 1267–1284. https://doi.org/10.1101/gad.314617.118
Lee, A. N., & Werth, V. P. (2004). Activation of autoimmunity following use of immunostimulatory herbal supplements. Archives of dermatology, 140(6), 723–727. https://doi.org/10.1001/archderm.140.6.723
Lorton, D., Lubahn, C. L., Estus, C., Millar, B. A., Carter, J. L., Wood, C. A., & Bellinger, D. L. (2006). Bidirectional communication between the brain and the immune system: Implications for physiological sleep and disorders with disrupted sleep. Neuroimmunomodulation, 13(5-6), 357–374. https://doi.org/10.1159/000104864
Luster, M. I., & Rosenthal, G. J. (1993). Chemical agents and the immune response. Environmental health perspectives, 100, 219–226. https://doi.org/10.2307/3431528
National Research Council (US) Subcommittee on Immunotoxicology. Biologic Markers in Immunotoxicology. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); (1992). 5, The Capacity of Toxic Agents to Compromise the Immune System (Biologic Markers of Immunosuppression) Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235670/
Shomali, N., Mahmoudi, J., Mahmoodpoor, A., Zamiri, R. E., Akbari, M., Xu, H., & Shotorbani, S. S. (2021). Harmful effects of high amounts of glucose on the immune system: An updated review. Biotechnology and applied biochemistry, 68(2), 404–410. https://doi.org/10.1002/bab.1938
Yi, J. S., Cox, M. A., & Zajac, A. J. (2010). T-cell exhaustion: Characteristics, causes and conversion. Immunology, 129(4), 474–481. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2567.2010.03255.x
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