Jayney Goddard tells us how we can build resilience and stay healthy
On the whole, your immune system does an amazing job of defending you against disease-causing microorganisms but, occasionally, it fails: you develop an illness because a pathogen (such as a bacterium, virus or fungus) has entered and colonised the body. I have to admit to being a bit ‘immune obsessed’ as I have the autoimmune condition rheumatoid arthritis and I have written two bestselling books on pandemic flu. So, as you can imagine, I receive a lot of questions about this fascinating topic. Here, I answer the questions I’m most frequently asked relating to immune function, nutrition, stress, exercise and optimal immune health. But first, I address a pervasive immune system myth.
The idea of ‘boosting’ your immunity is seductive but the reality is that it might not really be possible in practice. The immune system is precisely that — a system, not a single unit. It is indescribably complex with potentially billions of intricacies and interactions occurring throughout the body every second. While researchers still don’t fully understand just how it works, they do know that in order to function optimally it requires balance and harmony.
So, while ‘boosting’ the immune system sounds like a really good idea, our immune system is so intricate that, if we boost one part of it, there is a real risk of unbalancing the response in other parts. This would make us sicker, potentially dangerously so. For example, in illness pandemics (including coronavirus, plus the bird flu and swine flu pandemics in 2005 and 2009 respectively), one of the biggest complications was that some sufferers experienced a massive boost to the immune system causing a phenomenon known as a ‘cytokine storm’ – the immune system misidentified everything as ‘the enemy’ and completely overreacted, killing every cell in its path and leading to total system breakdown. From this, you can see that taking herbs that are touted to ‘boost’ the immune system could be highly dangerous.
In autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis, there’s a similar but slower-moving up-regulation of immune function, during which the body misidentifies healthy cells and attacks them. That’s why people with these conditions should exercise extreme caution when taking ‘immune-boosting’ herbs. Similarly, people undergoing conventional cancer treatments designed to suppress immune response should take care, and people who have had organ transplants and are on antirejection drugs should work with their medical team alongside an experienced herbal medicine practitioner.
So, instead of thinking in terms of ‘immuneboosting’ we should think of ‘immune modulation’ to balance things out overall. I have written extensively about herbs you can safely use to modulate and balance your immune response in my latest book Rewind Your Body Clock (£14.99; amazon.co.uk). I cover many wonderful herbs that really can support and protect your immune system – particularly the system-balancing adaptogens, including rhodiola rosea, varieties of ginseng and ashwagandha. Overall, your first line of defence for optimal immune balance is to choose a healthy lifestyle and do the following.
Although so much is unknown about the entire immune system and how it fully functions, we do know that healthy immune systems need good, regular nourishment. The epigenetic research thus far, which looks at factors that influence our genes (positively or negatively), suggests that a wholefood, plant-based diet is best for us from a general health standpoint and also from an immunological perspective. Micronutrient deficits such as inadequate levels of zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, the B family, C, D and the E family, compromise our immune response. Furthermore, it is crucial to ensure that your essential fatty acid levels (think: omegas 3, 6, 7 and 9) are optimal – a simple finger prick test ordered online will help you ascertain this.
There is an undeniable connection between the mind, stress and the immune system. A wide variety of ailments, including stomach upset, hives, and more serious illnesses including some cancers and heart disease, are linked to the effects of emotional stress. It is crucial to find ways of managing your response to stressors and one of the best ways to do this is by learning the ‘Relaxation Response’ pioneered by Dr Herbert Benson of the Benson Henry Institute at Harvard Medical School. I learned this thoroughly researched technique directly from Dr Benson and have made an instructional download for you at jayneygoddard.org.
I recommend two 20-minute sessions of the Relaxation Response, twice daily – based upon the Harvard research, but Professor Ellen Langer’s work also shows that as little as 12 minutes daily has a positive effect. As an added bonus, it also lengthens telomeres (those little caps on the ends of your chromosomes that are related to biological age), so stress response management through meditation can actually make us biologically younger, too!
Regular exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. Even more directly, it promotes good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently. Over-exercise can have the opposite effect and one of the symptoms of overtraining in athletes is a susceptibility to opportunistic infections. Exercise has a role in maintaining a healthy body composition and there is evidence to show that being overweight severely compromises immune function, so healthy lifestyle choices play a crucial role in maintaining a robust, optimally balanced immune system.
Jayney Goddard is president of the Complementary Medical Association. Find out more at the-cma.org.uk
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