Home | Human Flourishing | Health and Fitness | Strengthening the Immune System
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | March 25, 2020 (edited February 12, 2022)
Our immune system can use a boost from healthy living. We strengthen our resilience to infection and disease through daily choices.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had an army of fighters to whip this nasty coronavirus? In many ways, we have just that, living inside our bodies. When microorganisms invade, a complex system prevents the dreadful microbial from advancing and interrupting the smooth functioning of our bodies. Our vast army of protectors stand ready, constantly renewing and adapting. We can boost this last line of defense through common sense preparatory measures.
The human world is under attack, a mass invasion by the coronavirus. Most of our immune systems are doing a remarkable job. Sadly, many are not. Our last line of defense—the immune system—needs support. We aide in the battle by preventative action. Once the virus contacts our body, immunity defenses jump to action, challenging the infection. I want to be clear, there is no panacea for preventing illness. The healthy, as well as the vulnerable, can contract COVID-19. We are beginning to see a large percentage of cases and some deaths in younger populations.
Infections are subject to the laws of nature. However, unknown factors prevail and the transmission, infection, and impact on individuals evades exact predictions. Many vigorous people have contracted the COVID-19 virus and suffer mightily from the infection. However, on average, health and vitality are valuable assets in this fight. Albert Einstein reminds that “occurrences. . .are beyond the reach of exact prediction because of the variety of factors in operation, not because of any lack of order in nature.”
Many vigorous people have contracted the COVID-19 virus and suffer mightily from the infection.
Our bodies protect through three notable mechanisms. The first mechanism is built in barriers that slow intrusion and summon help. A chemical reaction from the first mechanism stimulates a mass movement of cells. A pathogen fighting army of cells migrate to the irritation—the second mechanism. The third mechanism is adaptation. Memory cells create an adaptive immunity to that specific pathogen. (Kim, Shin, et al. 2019).
A simple pharmaceutical remedy to boost this complex interconnected system has alluded researchers. Many greedy solicitors present “natural” solutions, making unsubstantiated claims to temp the panicked public; but typically, the only benefit is the placebo effect. Modern-day medicine men continue to sell worthless snake oil to combat and aide wellness.
Our best immunity boosting chance is a whole body approach. A healthy lifestyle is typically better than adding another drug with a long list of frightening side-effects to our pharmaceutical diet of pills. Some drugs are necessary, others simply replace personal responsibility to live healthy.
Harmful Environments Stress the Immune System
Harmful environments increase demands on biological systems. Repeated harmful actions and exposures drain resources through the continuous stress on the protective system. A healthy lifestyle eases the burden through two approaches: avoiding harmful events and increasing beneficial behaviors. This list includes both.
Strengthening the immune system is a process—not an event (or a capsule). The immune system is constantly at work, generating cells that perform a function and then die. Just like all biological processes, the activity of the immunity systems requires energy. A healthy, homeostatic system performs most efficiently, managing and allocating energy to the most necessary functions. Heavy physical and psychological demands interfere, pushing a biological system to the edges. When an intruder invades a tired system, the additional stress challenges the overtaxed system that is unable to mount a substantial counter-attack.
The mind and body are closely related. Stress is a combination of both. Gabor Maté in his intriguing book When the Body Says No explains that stress is a normal response to the demands of life. Events knock us out of balance, and we mount a response. Acute stress is a normal cycle of a defined event that initiates a resolving response. “Acute stress is the immediate, short-term body response to threat. Chronic stress is activation of the stress mechanisms over long periods of time when a person is exposed to stressors that cannot be escaped either because she does not recognize them or because she has no control over them” (2011, location 684). Maté warns that chronic stress’s impact on the homeostatic balance is susceptibility to illness (location 752).
Chronic stress is a major adversary to healthy immunity. Bessel van der Kolk in his epic book on PTSD wrote that “Children who don’t feel safe in infancy have trouble regulating their moods and emotional responses as they grow older. By kindergarten, many disorganized infants. . . show more physiological stress, as expressed in heart rate, heart rate variability, stress hormone responses, and lowered immune factors” (2015, location 2190). I recently published an article detailing the stress breakdown. (see Burnout).
Whole body health is the goal. We can boost our individual immune systems by eliminating stressors and living healthy—physically and emotionally. Medical researchers are working around the clock to create an injectable anti-body that eliminates the COVID-19 threat. We will shortly add this scare to our history books and move forward. In the meantime, live healthy. The benefits of healthy living strengthen immune systems but also spill over into other important areas of our life, contributing to wellness, happiness and longevity.
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Kim, J., Shin, Y., Ha, L., Kim, D., & Kim, D. (2019). Unraveling the Mechanobiology of the Immune System. Advanced Healthcare Materials, 8(4)
Kolk MD, B. (2015) The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. Penguin Publishing Group.
Maté, G. (2011). When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Wiley; 1 edition