What is low immune function?
Low immune function refers to an under-active and poor performing immune system. The immune system’s prime function is to protect the body against infection and the development of cancer. Support and enhancement of the immune system is perhaps the most important step in achieving resistance to disease and reducing susceptibility to colds, flu’s, and cancer. Supporting the immune system involves a health-promoting lifestyle, stress management, exercise, diet, and the appropriate use of nutritional supplements and herbal medicines.
If you answer “yes” to any of the following questions, it is a sign that your immune system needs support:
Do you catch colds easily?
Do you get more than two colds a year?
Are you suffering chronic infection?
Do you get frequent cold sores or have genital herpes?
Are your lymph glands sore and swollen at times?
Do you have now or have you ever had cancer?
Recurrent or chronic infections-even very mild colds-only occur when the immune system is weakened. Under such circumstances, there is a repetitive cycle that makes it difficult to overcome the tendency toward infection: a weakened immune system leads to infection, infection causes damage to the immune system, which further weakens resistance. Enhancing the immune system can provide the answer to breaking the cycle.
What causes low immune function?
The health of the immune system is greatly impacted by a person’s emotional state, level of stress, lifestyle, dietary habits and nutritional status. Nutrient deficiency is the most frequent cause of a depressed immune system. An overwhelming number of clinical and experimental studies indicate that any single nutrient deficiency can profoundly impair the immune system.
What dietary factors are important in low immune function?
Optimal immune function requires a healthy diet that is (1) rich in whole, natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, seeds, and nuts, (2) low in fats and refined sugars, and (3) contains adequate, but not excessive, amounts of protein. On top of this, for optimal immune function, an individual should drink five or six 8-ounce glasses of water per day (preferably pure); take a high potency multivitamin-mineral supplement; engage in a regular exercise program of at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise and 5-to-10 minutes of passive stretching daily; perform daily deep breathing and relaxation exercises; take time each day to play and enjoy family and friends; and still get at least 6-to-8 hours of sleep daily.
One of the more damaging food components to our immune system is sugar. In one study, the ingestion of 100 gram (roughly 3-1/2 ounces) portions of carbohydrate as glucose, fructose, sucrose, honey, and pasteurized orange juice all significantly reduced the ability of white blood cells (neutrophils) to engulf and destroy bacteria. In contrast, the ingestion of 100 grams of starch had no effect. These effects started within less than 30 minutes after ingestion and lasted for over 5 hours. Typically, there was at least a 50% reduction in neutrophil activity two hours after ingestion. Since neutrophils constitute 60-to-70% of the total circulating white blood cells, impairment of their activity leads to depressed immunity.
Some of the most important food components to enhance immune function are the carotenes. Many of the immune-enhancing effects of carotenes, as well as other antioxidants, are due to their ability to protect the thymus gland from damage. The thymus is the major gland of our immune system. It is composed of two soft, pinkish-gray lobes lying in a bib-like fashion just below the thyroid gland and above the heart. The thymus gland shows maximum development immediately after birth. During the aging process, the thymus gland undergoes a process of shrinkage or involution. The reason for this involution is that the thymus gland is extremely susceptible to free radical and oxidative damage caused by stress, drugs, radiation, infection, and chronic illness. When the thymus gland becomes damaged, its ability to control the immune system is severely compromised.
The thymus is responsible for many immune system functions, including the production of T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. The thymus gland also releases several hormones, such as thymosin, thymopoeitin, and serum thymic factor, which regulate many immune functions. Low levels of these hormones in the blood is associated with depressed immunity and an increased susceptibility to infection. Typically, thymic hormone levels will be very low in the elderly; individuals prone to infection; cancer and AIDS patients; and when an individual is exposed to undue stress. Carotenes and other antioxidants may ensure optimal thymus gland activity by preventing damage to the thymus by free radicals and pro-oxidants.
Beyond protecting the thymus gland, carotenes have been shown to enhance the function of several types of white blood cells, as well as increase the antiviral and anticancer properties of our own immune system mediators, such as interferon. Simply stated, carotene-rich foods and drinks appear to be able to boost immunity.
Foods high in carotenes include colored vegetables, such as dark greens; yellow and orange squash, carrots, yams, and sweet potatoes; and red peppers and tomatoes. Also important for proper immune function, including protecting against cancer, is the inclusion of cabbage family vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbages, cauliflower, collards, kale, and greens from mustard, radish and turnip), flavonoid rich berries, garlic and Jerusalem artichoke in the diet.
Yogurt and probiotic supplements have the ability to boost immune function, particularly when made with large amounts (billions per serving) of Bifidobacterium lactis. Consuming yogurt with Bifidobacterium lactis increases the proportions of total, helper, and activated T lymphocytes and natural killer cells. Other effects include an increase in immune cells’ ability to phagocytize or engulf and destroy invaders as well as the tumor cell killing ability of their natural killer cells.