Surviving Cold & Flu SeasonJan 07, 2020
The immune system is a complicated and amazing defense system that keeps us healthy and feeling our best. Occasionally it gets tested more than what it’s able to defend.
Catching a Cold
So how do we “catch a cold” or “pick up a bug” and suddenly become “under the weather?”
We are constantly being exposed to microorganisms. These microorganisms live on our skin and outnumber us 10:1 (read more about the beneficial bacteria that make up your microbiome here). We also inhale them and swallow them with our food and drink. When our immune system is in great working condition, we can fight off the pathogenic microorganisms without even noticing. It’s when our immune system is underactive or overactive that we begin to feel the effects. With cold and flu season upon us, let’s focus on an underactive immune system today.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is a host defense system comprising many biological structures and processes within an organism that protects against disease. To function properly, an immune system must detect a wide variety of agents, known as pathogens, from viruses to parasitic worms, and distinguish them from the organism's own healthy tissue 1. The immune system is then broken down into two categories - innate and adaptive.
The innate immune system is the one we are born with and is non-specific. It includes our first line of defense - skin, mucous membranes, skin, antimicrobial enzymes and peptides found in our tears, sweat, saliva, and nasal secretions, and hydrochloric acid in our stomach - and second line of defense - macrophages and neutrophils, natural killer cells, interferon, and the complement cascade to initiate inflammation (fever).
The adaptive immune system is specific. The body recognizes a pathogen, responds to it, and makes a memory of it so that when the pathogen is encountered again it can appropriately respond and destroy the pathogen. The body creates antibodies specific to that antigen. The adaptive immune system activates T-cells which destroy intracellular pathogens and B-cells to destroy extracellular pathogens. The adaptive immune system also consists of the commensal bacteria found in the microbiome and the neuroimmune system. We’ll save talking about the neuroimmune system for another day.
First Line of Immune Defense
So let’s go back to our first line of defense. The mucosal linings are loaded with immune cells - MALT cells (mucosa-associated lymphoid tissues). MALT cells are found in the GI tract, urinary tract, tonsils, and respiratory tract. Here you will find an abundance of phagocytes, T and B cells. So as you inhale air, eat food, and drink fluids, your super smart body takes inventory of who’s name is on the VIP list and who snuck in. This triggers your immune system to activate those phagocytes, and T and B cells to bounce those pathogens out of your body by destroying them.
Within the MALT cells are a subset that specifically lives in your GI tract - GALT cells (gut-associated lymphoid tissue). GALT cells make up a majority of your immune system. In fact, about 70% of our immune system is GALT cells. GALT cells are located in the tonsil, adenoids, small intestine, large intestine, stomach, and esophagus.
How Did I Get Sick?
Ok so now that we’ve gone over the key players in the immune system, how or why do I get sick? If you’re rolling into the cold and flu season with a depressed or inefficient immune system you are more likely to “catch” that cold that everyone in the office is getting.
An inefficient immune system can be linked to:
Taking steps to support your immune system BEFORE you get sick is key! These immune-boosting steps will not only help you fight off pathogens but also help with a quick recovery.
Sleep 7-9 hours each night
Your body goes into repair mode when you sleep. Ensure that you’re getting good, quality sleep by sleeping in a completely dark room and limiting screen time before bed. Aim to be in bed before 11 pm as your natural melatonin levels peak between 9 pm and 11 pm.
Stress is highly inflammatory! Inflammation triggers your immune system. Overworking that immune system with stress doesn’t allow it to fight off pathogens as efficiently. Another thing to note is your body doesn’t recognize the stress of being chased by a lion any differently than the stress of a deadline/excessively working out/financial stress/eating inflammatory foods/etc. Do a little self-inventory and find ways to provide self-care for yourself.
Take probiotics/eat foods rich in probiotics
We need to constantly replenish our microbiome with good bacteria. Did you know that 30% of your fecal material is bacteria?2 Bacteria live and die as well so we need to replenish them as they die off. Bacteria can also be destroyed with antibiotics, medications, processed foods/foods containing GMO’s, and stress. Yep, our “friend” stress affects our gut health too. If you’re not taking a probiotic, I highly recommend you start.
Reduce inflammatory foods
Whether you want to admit it or not, you may be reacting negatively to different foods that you consume every day that triggers the immune system. If we continue to eat the foods that are inflammatory, our intestinal lining can become compromised and undigested food particles, toxins, and bacteria can leak into our bloodstream. This will again trigger the immune response. It’s a vicious cycle! (Scoot on over to my blog about gas and bloating and food sensitivities to learn more).
Limit toxin exposure
The products we put on our skin, the food we put in our bodies, and the air we breathe around us can have a positive or negative effect on our bodies. Our skin is our largest detoxifying organ so what we put on it essentially gets into our bloodstream within 26 seconds. Choose clean formulations.
Buy organic! By buying organic you are limiting your exposure to pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics. Check out the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen for a guide to which produce has the most and least possibility of pesticides and my blog about organic vs conventional here.
Mold exposure can have a negative effect on our immune system as well. The most common black mold symptoms and health effects are associated with a respiratory response. Chronic coughing and sneezing, irritation to the eyes, mucus membranes of the nose and throat, rashes, chronic fatigue and persistent headaches can all be symptomatic of black mold exposure or black mold poisoning.3 There are tests available to test your home for mold. An Organic Acid Test (OAT) is a urine test that can determine if your body is battling mold exposure. Further testing to identify the severity of mycotoxins might be required.
Supplements for Immune Support
Supplements can also support your immune system if it has been compromised or is under attack. Some of my favorites are echinacea and goldenseal, probiotics, zinc, and vitamin C. (You can purchase those supplements at a discount through Fullscript using this recommendation). Whenever I feel the first hint of a cold coming on, these are my go-to’s!
No one wants to get sick. So let’s start implementing some of these tips to support your immune system and make the rest of the cold and flu season tolerable!
Supplements may interact with medications. Please consult your medical provider before starting a new supplement to ensure safety.
The information available on this website is for general health information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. You should not rely exclusively on information provided on the Website for your health needs. You can read more about our disclaimer here.
1. Wikipedia. “Immune System.” 7 January 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immune_system
2. Encyclopedia Britannica. “Feces.” Jan 08, 2015. https://www.britannica.com/science/feces
3. HGTV. “Black Mold Symptoms and Health Effects.” https://www.hgtv.com/remodel/interior-remodel/black-mold-symptoms-and-health-effects