These days, you may have spared a thought to your immune system and whether it is strong enough to keep you healthy. Although many people are practicing more vigilant hand washing and social etiquette to stop the spread of germs, it’s also wise to work on building up your own internal defenses. That way, if a bug does come your way, you’re more equipped to fight it off, or at least reduce the length and intensity of symptoms.
Your immune system is a complex system involving many different parts of the body working together. Its in-built defenses range from physical barriers such as hairs and mucus in the nasal passage to trillions of immune cells in the gut and bloodstream. Research shows that nearly 70 percent of the immune system is located in the digestive tract. The beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that live there should defend the body from infection, but when immunity is compromised, it can leave us at risk for viruses, chronic inflammation, and even autoimmune disorders. On duty 24 hours a day and under fire from many modern lifestyle factors, it’s no wonder your immune system can become overworked at times.
Tell-Tale Signs Your Immune System Might Be Impaired
If you’ve noticed that you’re often sick, feel fatigued, or have other nagging symptoms, it may mean your immune system isn’t functioning as it should. Check out these potential warning signs and learn what you can do to give your immune system a much-needed boost.
You have trouble falling and staying asleep at night
If you have sleep issues, it could indicate higher-than-normal stress levels. Stress is one of the most common enemies of a strong immune system, causing a decrease in lymphocytes, which are the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte levels, the more you’re at risk for viruses like the common cold.
Increased stress levels and lack of sleep can work as a vicious cycle, each exacerbating the other. Plus, both cause a lower response level from the immune system. Without sufficient sleep, your body makes fewer cytokines to target infection and inflammation. This is because these compounds are only produced and released during good quality sleep.
If you wake up at weird times during the night, it could indicate that your immune system is encumbered by a parasite. Parasites in the intestinal tract are a potential cause of insomnia because they trigger the immune system, causing a spike in the “stress hormone” cortisol. This could cause you to wake up in the wee hours of the morning for no apparent reason. This, again, can cause a vicious cycle of immune impairment and lack of sleep.
You always seem to have a cold
It’s perfectly normal for adults to sneeze and sniffle through two or three colds each year. Most people’s bodies produce antibodies in three to four days, and they feel healthy again in seven to 10 days. But if you’re constantly catching colds and can’t seem to shake them, or are prescribed antibiotics more than once per year, that’s a clear sign your immune system is struggling to keep up. Other common recurrent infections include tonsillitis, ear infections, urinary tract infections, sinusitis, thrush, athlete’s foot, and fungal nail infections, all of which are tell-tale signs that the immune system isn’t functioning optimally.
You’re moody and emotional
Interestingly, research shows that mood and immunity have another feedback loop similar to sleep. Your emotional state can affect your immune response, and the state of your immune system can determine your mood. Negative mental states, such as when you are feeling lonely or depressed, can have an impact on gene expression, which in turn impacts immune response. Conversely, positive mental states may have the same effect by building a healthier response in our genes, which manifests through a more effective immune system.
On the flip side, the organisms in the immune system can control your mood. Scientists have found that gut bacteria produce many neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, acetylcholine, and GABA, which play a key role in creating the mental states we refer to as ‘moods’. The gut microbiome can cause changes in how our brains react to life situations and your resulting emotions.
If you find it difficult to deal with everyday challenges or find that your mood changes inexplicably throughout the day, this may be a sign of impaired immune function.
You have trouble concentrating
Do you feel like focusing on a task or thinking clearly has become a challenge? Science tells us this could be another sign of bacterial imbalance in the gut, resulting in low immunity. Many key vitamins and minerals are absorbed in the gut, and some are even produced by gut bacteria. A lot of these nutrients are critical for neurotransmitter production in the brain, and even a mild deficiency can contribute toward poor concentration, problems with memory, and sub-optimal brain function.
Increased levels of certain types of bacteria, such as Bacteroidetes, proteobacteria, and biophilia, can also cause the immune system to trigger a strong inflammatory response. Studies indicate this excess inflammation disrupts the natural balance of neurotransmitters leading to disturbances in cognition and focus. This explains how a troubled immune system can manifest as trouble concentrating.
You have persistent tummy troubles
Your intestinal tract, known as your gut, has bacteria essential to the wellbeing of your body. When this bacteria is balanced, your immune system is also balanced. Studies show that when your gut’s bacteria is out of harmony, your immune system suffers. Diarrhea, bloating, nausea, and digestive issues are all signs that your immune system may be impaired.
You get triggered by certain foods
Food intolerances happen when the immune system has inappropriately identified food components as harmful substances. Research has determined that this immune activation is caused by an imbalance in the gut microbiome. If you experience symptoms such as bloating, stomach pain, skin issues, or mood changes as a result of eating certain foods, this can indicate an imbalance in your gut microbiome and an impaired immune system.
You have allergies or skin reactions
Allergies and conditions such as eczema, asthma, hay fever, and hives are said to involve a malfunction of the immune system, in which usually harmless substances (such as pollen, dust mites, chemicals, or pet dander) are identified as dangers.
This leads to an increase in IgE antibodies and the release of inflammatory substances in the body, resulting in an unpleasant reaction. If you suffer from any of these conditions or allergies (or have recently developed one), it’s a sign that your immune system could be out of balance.
Injuries are slow to heal
When you get a burn, cut, or scrape, the healing process depends on healthy immune cells called neutrophils, monocytes, and macrophages. But if your immune system is sluggish, your skin can’t regenerate. Instead, your wounds linger and have a hard time healing. Researchers have found that slow healing can also be a sign of more serious immune impairment, such as underlying autoimmune disease – especially lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, or vascular disease.
Your eyes are dry
Too many late nights, too much screen time, long flights or menopause. These things and many others can cause your eyes to feel dry, gritty, and sore. But studies show that dry eyes could also be related to a medical condition that affects your immune system like diabetes, lupus, or HIV.
You get frequent headaches
Recurring migraine headaches have historically been a mysterious illness thought to stem from the central nervous system. However, newer research has found potential ties with the immune system and resulting inflammation, meaning that frequent headaches could mean your immune system is compromised.
You feel tired all the time
You know that burning the candle at both ends is bound to leave you feeling sluggish. But if you’re getting enough sleep and still suffering from exhaustion, it’s worth considering if your immune system is trying to tell you something.
Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is a long-term illness that is characterized by extreme tiredness. New research from King’s College London finds that an exaggerated immune response can trigger long-lasting fatigue, potentially explaining how chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) begins. If you can’t seem to shake the fatigue no matter how much you rest, this may be a sign of underlying immune issues.
What To Do About A Weak Immune System
If you’ve discovered that your immune system is showing signs of letting you down, don’t stress about it (that will only make it worse, after all!) There are many steps you can take to heal your natural immune defenses and encourage them to start working better.
A few lifestyle changes and new habits can usually help get your immune system strong and healthy again:
- Eat a balanced diet with lots of fresh, whole foods. Studies have shown that diets higher in fiber and fermented foods can improve immune tolerance and protect against allergies.
- Get enough sleep, at least 7-8 hours per night in a completely dark room.
- Exercise regularly, at least 30 minutes per day and get outside whenever you can.
- Wash your hands regularly with gentle natural soap to reduce exposure to common bugs.
- Don’t smoke.
- Reduce environmental toxins such as harsh cleaners. Try switching to natural alternatives.
- Try to minimize stress by practicing mindfulness meditation.
You can start rebuilding your immune system today, by merely being aware and taking simple steps to take better care of yourself. Check out this article for more tips to boost immunity fast.