Catching a cold is bound to happen occasionally — it's also a natural part of building immunity. Our immune system is constantly at work to keep us healthy by avoiding germs, defending against them if they do get inside our body and minimizing the extent of possible harm they can cause. If you get ill frequently, it can be a sign your immune system needs additional support.
That's why it's important to understand how you get sick, how your immune system works to fight off illness, and what you can do prevent feeling unwell. Let's dive into some immune system basics.
Your body is exposed to billions of foreign invaders at any moment including viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi that can lead to illness, infections and more serious diseases. You are breathing them in and swallowing them. They are on your skin and located in your mucus membranes. However, this doesn't mean you get sick every time. It depends on the strength of the specific pathogen and how well your immune system can respond to it – this is immune system basics.
Your immune system responds in two ways when it comes into contact with foreign pathogens:
If it's the first time your body is encountering a foreign invader, your innate immune system will respond. But remember, this is just a general response and it's not as strong in fighting specific invaders.
Your specific, or secondary, immune response then gets notified of this invader, learns how to fight it, and makes appropriate antibodies. The first time it is exposed, it can take some time for your specific immune response to combat the invader and create antibodies. As a result, your symptoms may be more severe.
However, the next time your body is exposed to that specific invader (bacteria, virus, etc.), your immune system may be able to fight the pathogen more effectively. The antibodies created earlier will attach to the pathogen and inactivate it, allowing your immune cells to come in and destroy it faster. This time, you may just have minor symptoms or could avoid them altogether.
Your innate immune response uses white blood cells like neutrophils, phagocytes, macrophages, and basophils and sends them to the infected area. These immune cells can open up blood vessels, allowing more immune cells to come rushing in to attack the bacteria. Some white blood cells release chemicals to kill the bacteria; phagocytes can even enclose these germs and "eat" them.
Your specific immune response consists of the B and T lymphocytes. Your B lymphocytes produce antibodies when they come into contact with a foreign invader. When your B cells come into contact with that pathogen again in the future, they alert your T lymphocytes into action to destroy the pathogen quicker. This is why you may experience less severe or no symptoms the second time around.
While we all get sick from time to time, some people are more susceptible. Here are a few reasons why:
Micronutrient deficiency. Vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, and magnesium all play a vital role in supporting a healthy immune system. If your body doesn't have adequate stores of key nutrients, then the immune response may be impaired.
Hidden stressors. Your body could be putting its energy and resources into hidden stressors, like trying to overcome an infection, a traumatic event or injury, even digestive imbalances. This can weaken the immune system's ability to respond appropriately and effectively to foreign invaders.
Environmental toxins or food sensitivities. These could be constantly activating your immune system, using up resources, and leaving your body more vulnerable to other harmful invaders.
Now that you understand how you get sick, here's what you can do to help prevent your body from getting sick and how you can best support your body when you do.
Restore your micronutrient levels. For example, vitamin D is essential for the growth and function of immune cells. You can run a simple at-home lab test to assess your levels and work alongside a health practitioner on a personalized wellness protocol to ensure your body has the necessary components for optimal immune function.
Reduce and manage stress in your life. High levels of stress place a large demand on your nutrient stores. Taking a daily activated multi-vitamin and mineral and including additional supportive supplementation like magnesium, B vitamins and vitamin C, can help to buffer the demands of increased stress on the body.
Address underlying stressors. Underlying gut imbalances, infections, or high levels of inflammation could reduce the absorption of key nutrients needed for healthy immune function and overall health. Even if you are eating a healthy balanced diet, underlying issues could inhibit your body from being able to utilize the nutrients that support robust immunity.
Address underlying symptoms. Underlying gut overgrowth, infections, or inflammation could reduce gut absorption. Even if you are eating healthily, hidden issues could inhibit your body from receiving those nutrients needed for immune function.
Prioritize sleep. Studies show people who don't get enough quality sleep are more prone to sickness when faced with a virus. Less sleep can reduce natural killer cells and can promote inflammation, which can both inhibit proper immune response.
When you understand the basics of immune health, you'll feel confident in the power of your innate immune system to do its job of fighting off unwanted germs. It's also empowering to know there is so much we can do to support a healthy immune system and enable it to function at its best all year long.