The Immune System 101: There are so many misconceptions about the immune system. Today, we’re here to demystify the immune system and highlight applicable tips to boost your immunity. We will explore the immune system, how to increase your natural immunity, and what role supplements play in generating a thriving immune system.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD
What is the Immune System?
The immune system protects your body from outside invaders, such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and toxic chemicals produced by these microbes. It comprises different organs, cells, and proteins that work together.1
But the immune system is much more than the sum of its parts or what it does. Another component of the immune system that you cannot ignore is how it operates, which is essentially the communication between your cells and the bacteria that make up your body.2 Without this ability, none of the moving parts that make up the immune system would matter. Of course, the outcome of defending your body from outside invaders would not even occur.
Therefore building real immunity requires a multifaceted approach that addresses not only the health of the parts that make up your immune system but also ensures that your cells, the bacteria, and their capacity to communicate with one another are working optimally.
How to Build Real Immunity?
So what does building real immunity look like in application? Let’s explore that, one puzzle piece at a time.
1. Boost Microbial Diversity
Increasing your microbial diversity can be seen through two scopes: the things to do to avoid. For example, some things that harm microbial diversity include taking antibiotics, using antibacterial soaps or gels, chronic stress, drinking chlorinated tap water, and eating a high-sugar diet.3-4
Another, perhaps surprising, thing to avoid for microbial diversity is probiotics. No, probiotics aren’t always harmful; but using one brand chronically (months or years at a time) will narrow the spectrum of your overall biome. This is because a thriving biome will have 20,000 – 30,000 bacterial species in its gut, whereas most probiotics will have billions of only a few strains. 5 So if you’re taking probiotics, cycle the kind every 2-3 months and stick to a spore-based or soil-based probiotic.
Boosting microbial diversity is supported when you eat a highly diversified diet, especially in the fiber department. When we repeatedly consume a very narrow range of the same foods, this can narrow our gut microbiome diversity. Consuming probiotic-rich foods like ferments (sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir) helps introduce good microbes into the gut.
Another great tip for boosting the diversity of your microbiome is to spend more time outside in nature. We can increase our diversity by breathing in the vast microbes found in nature. Exposing your body to natural environments, like the beach, the forest, and especially pristine air and dirt in national parks, will significantly improve your microbiome diversity.
Fasting benefits the immune system for multiple reasons. First of all, it boosts gut diversity! Fasting has been shown to reset the microbiome.6 Both the good and bad bacteria will diminish during a fast. Still, since good bacteria are much more resilient and adaptable, they come back stronger than before, whereas typically, harmful bacteria do not. Fasting can also help when there is gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance of good to harmful bacteria.
Fasting is also considered to ‘reset’ the immune system in as little as three-day water fast. This is because fasting induces autophagy, which promotes the recycling of old, weak, or damaged cells. Some of the cells destroyed during a fast include immuno-senescent cells, which have stopped performing their immune-protecting cells correctly.7
Fasting also helps fix the gut barrier, which is incredibly important for autoimmunity.
3. Diet Variation
Just like fasting, changing your diet forces your body to adapt. It does so by changing your microbial diversity. These changes in the diet include high-carb, low-carb, and straight-up fasting. Our DNA is primed for variation; our ancestors did it naturally based on seasons and periods between hunts. Today, we have such easy access to food 24/7 (not to mention highly processed foods) that this variation has become almost unheard of.
Three kinds of variation include:
Weekly variation changes up your diet on a seven-day schedule. This may look like five days of keto, one high-carb day, and one fasting day. For someone dealing with adrenal or hormonal issues, perhaps you may need two or three high-carb days. Someone who is more metabolically flexible could fast more than one day per week.
Monthly variation works particularly well for women who will carb-load the week before and during their menstrual cycle. Women need more carbs around this time of the month to support their hormonal fluctuations.
Seasonal variation is very ancestral and natural; it means eating in season for what grows in your climate. Shopping at the farmer’s markets is one of the easiest ways to eat in season and also promotes more variety which helps with microbial diversity! Typically winter months might be lower in carbs, and heavier on animal proteins and fats, while summer may be higher in carbs, feasting on seasonal fruits.
Keeping with a similar message, exercise is another way to force this adaptation in the body. Continuing to keep the body ‘guessing’ with different weight loads, routines, and movement styles is what keeps you from hitting a plateau.
Exercise has so many benefits to the immune system when done correctly. Some of the many benefits that movement has on your overall health include:8-10
- Boost in autophagy
- Increase in growth hormone
- Increase in norepinephrine
- Increase in insulin sensitivity
- Increase in luteinizing hormone and testosterone
- Increase in mitochondrial function
- Help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways
- Boost your white cell count
The key is not to overdo it and to switch it up. More is not better when it comes to anything that stresses the body. Although it’s “good stress,” it only remains so if in balance with rest and an overall healthy lifestyle. Eating enough nutrient-dense foods and sleeping enough quality sleep are essential factors in recovery from exercise.
Besides balance, switching up your routine to force adaptation is essential. This can include a progressive-load program, cross-training weight lifting with HIIT, swimming, cycling, and yoga.
5. Cellular Detox
Your cells have hormone receptors that become impaired when they are toxic. Hormones play a massive role in generating immune health because they are the messengers between our cells, microbes, the brain, and the functions played out in the body.11
You can’t be healthy when the cell or cell membrane is impaired through toxins. The cell is at the root of the problem, and anything else downstream won’t fully fix your symptoms if you don’t return to the cell. For example, taking hormones may alleviate some symptoms, but you can’t regain full immune function without asking why the hormones need supplementing in the first place. More often than not, it’s a cellular toxicity issue.
Many people go further downstream and work on detoxing the liver, which doesn’t go all the way back to the source. You have to fix the cell to get well!
Foods to Avoid
The foods you eat alone are not enough of an approach in our modern toxic world. The multifaceted healing methods mentioned above are vital to dealing with the cellular level’s deep-rooted imbalances and toxicity. The foods you eat, however, matter too. The top three foods to avoid are:
Adulterated Omega 6 PUFAs
Although Omega 6 fatty acids can often get a bad rep because they are polyunsaturated fat (PUFA), the truth is we need these fats. Omega 6 fatty acids are crucial in generating, restoring, and maintaining cellular membrane health.13 The key is knowing what makes a PUFA problematic or healthy. The problem with PUFAs is that they are very unstable and sensitive to oxidation. Therefore, avoiding all adulterated (highly processed) PUFAs is imperative. This differentiation is crucial because not all Omega 6 fatty acids are healthy and can be some of the most inflammatory foods on the planet.14
You want to avoid adulterated Omega 6 oils, including highly processed vegetable oils (including canola oil, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil). Fish oil is another processed PUFA to avoid. Vegetables and fish oil are great, as long as you’re eating them in the whole food form.
Healthy Omega 6 fatty acids include:
- Cold-pressed, organic seed oils like black sesame, pumpkin, or sunflower (like Andreas Seed Oils)
- Raw nuts
- Pureform capsules are made from evening primrose oil, flaxseed oil, sunflower oil, pumpkin seed oil, and coconut oil.
Believe it or not, sugar can be less problematic health health-wise adulterated polyunsaturated acid. Although you don’t want to consume it daily (or even weekly), the impact of sugar on the body does not cause long-term systemic chronic inflammation as PUFAs do. However, regular sugar consumption will lead to insulin sensitivity and chronic inflammation in the body over time.15
Sugar is not your friend; limiting your sugar intake is paramount for cellular health and adequately functioning hormones. Sugar is a perfect food to consider a rare exception, knowing that if you are generally healthy and metabolically flexible, the impact will not be as bad as a single serving of adulterated PUFAs, in which a single dose can lead to months of inflammation!
Modern-day grains are problematic for many reasons, including genetically modified seeds and how much glyphosate is used in their growth and processing.16 Grains are not a problem when appropriately grown, processed mindfully, and prepared correctly (soaked and fermented). However, in the United States, grains are a lost cause for health. This is because there has been too much intervention in the growing process, and glyphosate is such a huge problem that your best bet is to omit all grains, especially wheat and other glutinous grains.
What About Supplements?
Supplements are often the first topic of discussion regarding boosting the immune system. This simply is not true. Without addressing your stress adaptation that comes through microbial diversity, fasting, dietary adaptation, and exercise will not truly transform your immune system. Supplements can be very beneficial, but you can’t out-supplement lifestyle problems.
Supplements That Do Help
Like diet, you can’t out-supplement cellular toxicity. But there are a handful of supplements that do support the immune system. Our top picks include:
- Zinc, especially in chelated form
- Fat-Soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K
- CytoDefend, contains bupleurum, elderberry, echinacea, astragalus, licorice root, vitamin C, and zinc.
- AHCC, a shiitake mushroom capsule
Like forced adaptation that occurs with fasting, diet variation, and exercise: supplement cycling is key to getting more benefits from them. Taking a supplement year-round is not ideal for the body. Taking a break and cycling on and off for about three months enhances the efficacy in both on and off periods.
Remember: the body thrives on change, on adaptation. So switch things up, take a break, and keep the body guessing so that when you do introduce a supplement, your body gets the most out of it.
A healthy immune system hinges on cellular health, microbial health, and clear communication between your cells and your body’s microbes. Some of the pillars to achieve this include microbial diversity and various tactics to promote adaptation in the body, like exercise, fasting, and dietary variation. Healing from cellular toxicity is another non-negotiable for immune health. Although you can’t get out of the diet or supplement cellular toxicity, avoiding certain foods (like adulterated omega 6 fatty acids, sugar, and grains) and including certain supplements (like zinc, fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, CytoDefend, and AHCC) can help.
Medical Disclaimer: The information on this website is not intended to replace a one-on-one relationship with a qualified healthcare professional and is not intended as medical advice. It is intended as a sharing of knowledge and information. This article has been medically reviewed by Dr. Charles Penick, MD, for the accuracy of the information provided. Still, we encourage you to make your own healthcare decisions based on your research and in partnership with a qualified healthcare professional.
- “The Immune System.” Johns Hopkins Medicine, www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/the-immune-system.
- Zheng, Danping, et al. “Interaction between Microbiota and Immunity in Health and Disease.” Cell Research, Springer Singapore, 20 May 2020, doi.org/10.1038/s41422-020-0332-7.
- Zhang, Sheng, and De-Chang Chen. “Facing a new challenge: the adverse effects of antibiotics on gut microbiota and host immunity.” Chinese medical journal vol. 132,10 (2019): 1135-1138. doi:10.1097/CM9.0000000000000245
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- Burton, D G A. “Cellular senescence, aging the cause of disease.” Age (Dordrecht, Netherlands) vol. 31,1 (2009): 1-9. doi:10.1007/s11357-008-9075-y
- Terra, Rodrigo, et al. “Efeito Do Exercício No Sistema Imune: Resposta, Adaptação e Sinalização Celular.” Revista Brasileira De Medicina Do Esporte, vol. 18, no. 3, 2012, pp. 208–214., doi:10.1590/s1517-86922012000300015.
- Andreotti, Diana Zukas, et al. “Effects of Physical Exercise on Autophagy and Apoptosis in Aged Brain: Human and Animal Studies.” Frontiers in Nutrition, vol. 7, 2020, doi:10.3389/fnut.2020.00094.
- “Exercising to Relax – Harvard Health Publishing.” Harvard Health, 7 July 2020, www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/exercising-to-relax.
- “Hormones: Communication between the Brain and the Body.” BrainFacts.org, www.brainfacts.org/brain-anatomy-and-function/cells-and-circuits/2012/hormones-communication-between-the-brain-and-the-body.
- “Essential Fatty Acids and Skin Health.” Linus Pauling Institute, 1 Jan. 2021, lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/health-disease/skin-health/essential-fatty-acids.
- Zoli, et al. “An Update on Omega 6 PUFAs – What Is the Real Problem?” Chris Kresser, 29 May 2019, chriskresser.com/an-update-on-omega-6-pufas/.
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