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Author: Tero Isokauppila

You don’t really need to understand most of the functions of your body in order to appreciate how they work. Endocrine system? Yeah, it’s important, but having a better understanding of all the glands in your body won’t change your day-to-day living.

The same can’t be said about your immune system. Far from simply fighting off the cold and flu, your immune system is going to bat for you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for as long you’re alive on this planet. That means it’s likely to get overworked, and there’s a lot you can do to keep your defense system from failing.

Here are 9 ways you serve as a safety valve for your immune system to ensure that you stay healthy and threats are more potential than real.  

How the Immune System Works (And Why It’s Important Even When You Aren’t Sick)


The immune system is a vast network of cells, organs, proteins, and tissues. Together, these parts of the body collaborate to neutralize and remove a variety of nasty pathogens (i.e. bacteria, fungi, parasites, or viruses), abnormal or infected cells, harmful substances from the surrounding environment (e.g. cigarette smoke), invading microbes, substances that provoke an allergic reaction in the body, and tumors.

 

[Warning: we’re about to get 7th grade technical. If you just want to know “How do I make sure I don’t get sick?” skip to natural ways to support your immunity.]

 

That’s a big job, and it requires that the immune system accurately differentiate between malicious actors and the friendly microbes, cells, and other substances that make up our internal landscape. They do this by distinguishing “self” versus “non-self” substances. “Non-self” substances (such as invading bacteria, fungi, and viruses) typically contain proteins on their surfaces that are dubbed “antigens”. When any kind of antigen binds onto a receptor on a cell that’s part of the immune system, this triggers a series of alerts and responses throughout the entire system. In contrast, the proteins on the surface of “self” cells don’t trigger this reaction.

Leading the immune response are a variety of cell types, each of which take care of a unique set of tasks. Your body makes approximately 1,000 million white blood cells every day, which then patrol your body and activate the immune response whenever they encounter potential threats. These cells include:  

  • Macrophages, which travel around the body hunting for foreign pathogens, break down these substances when they’re encountered, and trigger activity in the T-cells (More on those below)
  • Lymphocytes, which are white blood cells that target foreign substances in the body. They also send out cytokines, which trigger activity in other immune system molecules. Some of the most powerful lymphocytes include T-cells, different types of which target diseased cells, destroy harmful invaders, and maintain communication between various parts of the immune system; and B-cells, which produce antibodies that neutralize antigens and further alert the immune system that it’s time to kick into high gear
  • Dendritic cells, which ferret out intruders, gobble them up, and trigger the lymphocytes to kick into action
  • Phagocytes, which destroy intruders after B-cells cover them with antibodies
  • Natural Killer (NK) cells, which annihilate a broad range of foreign microbes and tumor cells
  • Neutrophils, which travel to the sites of infections and work to minimize damage by engulfing and destroying invaders

 

These different cells generally work for one or both of two categories: the innate immune system or the adaptive immune system.

The innate immune system is a generalist. It consists of a variety of immune cells that tend to focus their efforts on neutralizing bacterial infections. The adaptive immune system (aka the “learned defense” or “specific immune response”) is much more targeted in its efforts. It works by responding to the presence of specific pathogens. It’s called the “adaptive” immune system because it’s constantly adapting to and learning how to respond to new pathogens so the immune system can respond as effectively as possible. The two systems work in concert to inform and elevate each other’s efforts.

When our immune system is working properly, we don’t even know that it’s doing its job.

If all of the body’s immune cells and systems weren’t in place, things would get pretty nasty pretty quickly. Our bodies are constantly bombarded with potentially harmful pathogens in the food we eat, the liquids we drink, and the air we breathe. Without an immune system, we’d be powerless to the consequences these pathogens could inflict on our bodies. Even with the immune system in place, we can still fall sick as a result of exceptionally aggressive or foreign pathogens.

Bottom line? Your immune system is working for you at all hours of the day and night—so no matter whether you haven’t been sick for years or you’re just getting over a cold, you have your immune system to thank.

What Happens When Your Immunity is Compromised


While all of us benefit from the function of our immune system, some people have it better than others. A huge number of people suffer from compromised immune systems, which may be the result of a variety of factors.

No matter the cause of someone’s compromised immune system, the consequences are often similar. Signs of a weakened immune system include chronic fatigue, frequent infections (such as the flu, colds, and urinary tract infections), allergies, prolonged healing of injuries, weight loss or gain, anemia, hair loss, joint pain, digestive issues, and a greater propensity toward chronic health issues such as allergies or asthma. The immune system may respond to stressors in either hypo- or hyper-active ways, neither of which is conducive to overall health.

On the other hand, a strong immune system will ensure that you rarely get sick, you rarely get fatigued, and you’re generally able to maintain a vital existence. That’s why it’s so important to commit to strategies that can help keep your immune system firing on all cylinders.

 

Natural Ways to Support Immunity


No two immune systems are alike. Immune system function can vary for a number of reasons, both genetic and environmental. The non-genetic factors seem to play the biggest role in determining the quality of a person’s immune system function, and that’s good news: It means we have the power to influence and maybe even bolster our immunity. If you’re looking to support your immune system in its tireless efforts to support you, it’s a good idea to adopt the following strategies.


Consider the help of herbs.


A variety of herbs and spices—including astragalus root, Echinacea, elderberry, garlic, ginger, ginseng, oregano, thyme, and turmeric—have been shown to have an immune-supporting effect. Each herb brings its own unique benefits to the table. For example, garlic helps the immune system destroy harmful microbes, while ginger has antiviral properties and turmeric has a generalized immune-supporting effect.


Use mushrooms. And repeat.


Functional mushrooms (including reishi, shiitake, maitake, lion’s mane, cordyceps, and chaga) have all been shown to contribute to the immune system in a number of ways.

For starters, they’re adaptogenic, which means they help regulate and stabilize the immune functions  to give it the best chance of working properly. They’re also loaded with polysaccharides, which act as immunomodulators—a fancy name for the fact that functional mushrooms may help balance out the immune system so it doesn’t behave in hypo- or hyper-active ways. And they’re packed with essential vitamins and nutrients including vitamins B, C, and D, copper, iron, potassium, and selenium, all of which have a role to play in sustaining a healthy body.

These various properties help explain why studies have found shiitake mushroom consumption may increase the production of immune cells; reishi may provide antiviral support and stimulate the production of T-cells. All told, these benefits add up: One study found the immune-supporting benefits of mushrooms may not be matched by any pharmaceutical drug on the market. (If you want to learn more about the potential benefits of mushrooms, check out Healing Mushrooms: A Practical and Culinary Guide to Using Mushrooms for Whole Body Health.)

 

Watch your bar tab.


While a drink isn’t inherently bad (glass of wine, anyone?), consuming excessive amounts of alcohol does not do your immune system any good. High amounts of alcohol have an immunosuppressive effect and increase the risk of a variety of infections. To improve your immunity, consider kicking these unhealthy habits to the curb.


Get a move on.


Study after study has found that regular, moderate exercise stimulates immune system activity and even increases the quantity and efficacy of white blood cells. There’s just one caveat: Engaging in exceptionally strenuous physical activity (especially without adequate rest days) can actually have an immunosuppressive effect. That’s good news for the couch potatoes among us—you don’t have to go crazy; you just have to get moving for approximately 30 minutes on most days of the week.

Embrace high-quality sleep.


Sleep deprivation doesn’t just make you cranky; it also compromises your immune system by decreasing T-cell activity and provoking inflammation. This helps explain why perpetually sleep-deprived people are more likely to get sick and may even be more likely to develop chronic diseases. So for the sake of your loved ones and your immune system, aim to get the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep every night.


Get outside.


Sunlight deprivation is a common cause of immunosuppression, so it probably isn’t shocking to learn that people who don’t get outside on a regular basis are more likely to get sick. On the other hand, getting plenty of exposure to natural sunlight has the opposite effect: The vitamin D production stimulated by sunlight charges up the immune system and improves the function of immune cells. Simply spending 15 to 20 minutes outside every day can have a positive effect.

Commit to stress relief.


Yoga, meditation, spending time with loved ones, journaling, exercise, massage, even singing and laughing—all of these activities have been shown to reduce stress, which is great news for your immunity. Chronic stress releases the hormones adrenaline and cortisol into your bloodstream, where they can have a suppressive effect on the immune system. Taking steps to alleviate stress will reduce the presence of these substances in your bloodstream, which gives the immune system a better chance of operating at full capacity.


Researchers are still trying to figure out all the ways that our daily habits can influence immunity, but they do know this: Adopting a healthy lifestyle with the help of the preceding strategies is the best way to support your immune system, which works tirelessly on your behalf every day of the week.

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