Our biological armies are a mind-blowingly complex system as robust and varied as any nation’s military (with far less admin work involved). There are detector cells, special forces agents, field artillery gunners and everything in between. An army marches on its stomach. The success of your immune system is linked to the success of your dietary and lifestyle choices. Our internal defenses are also highly impacted by our microbiome health. The majority of our immune systems operate in and around the gut with the cooperation between our innate immune cells and helpful bacteria. It makes sense that a lot of your immune response would reside around the digestive tract. That is one of the crucial areas where the barrier between the outside world, (starting from your mouth) to your bloodstream is the thinnest.
By feeding the bacteria in our guts a steady stream of optimal nutrients, they will help us in return.
Some research suggests that the state of all those billions of bacteria in the colon has a greater impact on our ability to fight infection than our own immune system. (1,2) All our good bacteria have a vested interest in the health of their host. If bad bacteria try to interfere, they don’t take too kindly to the intruders. However, they can’t do their job as well if they’re not getting fed well.
Immunity boosting practices are often dumbed down to vitamin C sugar tablets and drinking orange juice (mostly refined sugar). This is extremely misguided information and in fact, high vitamin C dose alone has almost no impact on cold catching risk or on reducing its effects. (3) You can easily get your daily dose of vitamin by following a whole foods, mostly plant-based diet. For example, chilis, strawberries, broccoli and kiwi all have more vitamin C than oranges do. Makes you wonder the impact of the orange industry on marketing over the last few decades. Consuming lots of juice by itself could be doing more harm than good (4); juices are a little more than refined sugar drinks with a few micro-nutrients thrown in.
The idea of “immune boosting,” as with “detoxing,” eating and living in such a way that it sets your body’s ability to defend and detox as nature intended is the best protocol. Any Google search on immunity will reveal thousands of remedies for one thing or another. Sure, some may have seen benefits come from a celery juice cleanse or a silver solution protocol (though not necessarily recommended here), but the vast majority of positive results are going to come from sticking to the fundamentals of human healing and health. We’ve been doing it as a species for many thousands of years. Your caveman ancestors could survive the throes of a north European winter or South African drought without the help of essential oils.**
For now, let’s take a look at three simple preventative measures you can implement today and three to consider if you’re already sick.*
*None of these protocols and tips are claiming to prevent or reduce instances of sickness or disease, especially as it relates to COVID-19. They’re simply good practices for general immune health, which we can all use.
Before You’re Sick
1. Get Your Sun
We, unfortunately, live in a sun phobic society and it’s really a shame. Based on misleading information, we’ve linked small amounts of sun exposure to developing skin cancers and as a result, lather up our kids with sunscreens, which themselves often have toxic ingredients, like octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC). The truth is, far more people develop cancers from a lack of sunlight than from getting too much. (5) Sunlight is essential in helping us to make vitamin D, a compound so crucial to our body that it’s better categorized as a hormone than a vitamin.
Vitamin D’s function to boost our immune systems has been an aspect conserved in the genome of primates for an estimated 60 million years. It’s only in modern times that we suddenly have this unfounded aversion to sun exposure. This has led to nearly 77% of Americans becoming vitamin D deficient and many suffering from issues that stem from a lack thereof. Depression, fibromyalgia, and muscle and joint pain have all been associated with a lack of Vitamin D. (6)
While there are some decent supplements on the market for this vitamin as well as a few food sources, sunlight is a far superior source. Aim to get at least 20 minutes of direct sunlight on your skin per day. Stepping out in the morning is especially effective as it helps you stay on top of your sleep wake cycles. Direct sunlight signals to your pineal gland (which is linked to your photo receptors in your eyeballs) to convert sleepy hormones into alertness hormones. During the summer months, it’s a good idea to hold a mild tan. Darkening of the skin is the body’s natural response to sun exposure and as your skin gets more dark, it helps regulate how much vitamin D gets produced.
For optimal vitamin D production, a good rule of thumb is to spend half the amount of time in the sun as it would take to cause any reddening of the skin. Burning is never good. So, if it were to take you an hour of sun exposure to cause even a mild amount of red or pink coloration, cut that time in half. Any more than that and you would want to consider a zinc-based sunscreen for the rest of the day.
So long as you’re in a season of spending a bit more time in the kitchen, practice cooking with one of man’s most time-honored ingredients. Garlic’s repertoire of positive impacts of the human body deserves its own post. Garlic helps with circulation, helps slow down cancer cell proliferation, helps regulate blood pressure, and have tons of positive impacts on the immune system. (7,8) The list goes on.
To use garlic in your cooking, avoid microwaving it and charring it in a pan as it could deactivate the beneficial compounds. First, smash the garlic clove with your fist or a knife edge, second, let it sit for a few minutes, third, finely chop it up and lastly, add to your dish. Smashing the clove breaks open some of the cell walls, triggering an enzymatic activation that further increases the benefits. A bit of exposure to heat is okay and necessary to infuse your dish with its pungency. Too much heat renders it and is not as healthy or tasty.
Negativity and gratitude cannot hold space in the mind at the same time. Beginning and ending your day by writing down or speaking aloud just 2 or 3 things that you’re grateful for can displace toxic emotions, help you sleep, and cultivate a far healthier and happier outlook on life. Our contentment should never be on things we cannot control. We can control whether we are grateful or resentful in real time. Those who foster an attitude of gratitude report better health; those who are grateful to be alive tend to take better care of themselves which has spillover effects for our body’s ability to fight infection. (9)
When You’re Sick
1. Divert Energy to Immune Function
A great way to siphon off energy from the immune system is by eating a high glycemic meal, namely, a meal high in starches and refined sugars. Unfortunately, if you buy groceries from the center isles of the store, there’s a high probability that those products have added sugar. The only reason that sugar is there is to fire up your dopamine reward systems to crave more and more of the processed substances. While it’s best to heavily skew your diet towards food that’s as close to the Earth as possible, it’s especially important if you’re starting to feel sick.
Carb heavy, refined foods, like pasta, cereal, breads made from modern wheat, and low-fat dairy can actually feed pathogens in your body. (10) Invaders love sugar! Starve them out by replacing refined grain and sugar-based products with homemade versions of sauces, condiments, and snacks.
You might also consider going longer periods of time between meals when you’re sick. Digesting by itself is a costly process. By narrowing your feeding window, to say 10-12 hours per day, you’re giving your digestive system a break so the rest of your body can focus on tackling the invading pathogen. When you do eat, don’t eat tons of food all at once. The less strain you put on your gut, the better off your immune system will be while it’s fight off infection.
2. Avoid Antibiotics if at all Possible
While the advent of antibiotics has greatly reduced the number and occurrence of infectious disease spread, it turns out there are many negative side effects of their overuse. When antibiotics were first invented, the current thinking was that a sterile body was a healthy body. We didn’t really have a concept of “good” bacteria, thus antibiotics were the cure-all solution to infection. When the medical system prescribes antibiotics based on a standard procedure to a huge portion of the population, the bacteria begin to adapt to survive. We’ve overused antibiotics and created “antibiotic resistant” bacteria. (11)
Antibiotics absolutely wreck your gut microbiome and can cause an array of negative side effects. These drugs are not the best solution to every single infection. They work by inhibiting bacterial proliferation but they cannot distinguish between native gut bacteria and foreign, invading bacteria. Emerging research has unveiled just how profound an impact our guts have on the rest of our health, thus it’s of utmost importance to treat it well. After a round of antibiotic bombing on the gut, it can take well over six months to recover from the treatment.
While there may still be times to take antibiotics in extreme circumstances, ask your doctor if it is the only possible remedy. By feeding your body well, eliminating sugar, and getting adequate sleep, your body and the passing of time are most commonly the best solutions.
Respect Your Symptoms
We live in a culture of escapism. We often have a hard time facing and moving through real feelings and instead, reach for substitutes to abate sorrow, worry, or anxiety. These substitutes never work long term and is almost certainly why America’s rates of depression are so staggeringly high.
We see a similar attitude towards symptoms of sickness. If we get a fever, we immediately reach for some over the counter (OTC) meds. If our nose is runny, obviously the solution is to make it stop. But what if these symptoms aren’t symptoms of this sickness at all? What if these symptoms are actually symptoms of healing?
We get a runny nose to flush out our sinuses of invaders. We get a fever to kill off pathogens that can’t stand a higher heat environment. Nausea rids our stomach of potential bad guys. We get fatigued because our body’s energy is being diverted to fighting an internal battle. Watery eyes help remove allergens from our system. Short-term inflammation is critically important to combating disease. Pills like Tylenol, Advil, Ibuprofen (classified as “NSAIDs”) etc. never promised to help you heal from a sickness. They just promise to temporarily relieve pain. The next time you reach for a pill to shut down inflammation when you’re sick, remember that what you’re effectively doing is blunting your body’s own ability to heal itself through the mechanisms characteristic of acute sickness.
A “side effect” is a marketing term to convince us that other impacts a medication has are less consequential than its intended effect. As far as your body is concerned, though, these effects are just as real as the desired one. One cannot simply target a specific area with a single drug and expect to have no impacts elsewhere. The body is a garden, not a machine. When we introduce too many OTC medications, and especially NSAIDs, we’re setting ourselves up for gut disorders, kidney damage, and potential heart complications. (12,13)
Sometimes with illness, we choose to mask a symptom that’s actually trying to help us. Like a painful emotion, often it’s better to simply let it run its course instead of masking it with a substitute. Does that mean you should never take medication to quell symptoms? Maybe not. If you’re in serious pain and suffering from a sickness, there’s a time and place for a shot of Nyquil to get you to sleep, but it’s by no means a long term strategy. The majority of over the counter medications are there to reduce the effects of symptoms, not to treat the infection itself. As with antibiotics, there can be harmful consequences from overusing medications. When it comes to prescription medications, always defer to your physician’s course of action.
While some home remedies are more beneficial than others, simply taking care of yourself through a positive mental attitude, plenty of water, healthy food, sugar elimination, and a respect for your body’s innate ability to fight for itself will go a long way.
**The so-called “thieves” blend of essential oil does have some benefit to disinfecting your home and office air. (14)
Marcus Farris is the Veteran Wellness Coordinator at Mission 22. He’s a Certified Health Coach and Level 1 Crossfit Trainer.
1. Role of the gut microbiota in immunity and inflammatory disease, https://www.nature.com/articles/nri3430
2. Tiny Bombs in your Blood – The Complement System, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BSypUV6QUNw&t
3. No, Vitamin C won’t cure your cold, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smQC3CXalVg
4. Role of sugars in human neutrophilic phagocytosis., https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/4748178
5. Vitamin D and Sunlight: Strategies for Cancer Prevention and Other Health Benefits, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4571149/
6. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with anxiety and depression in fibromyalgia. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16850115
7. Garlic – A True SUPERFOOD?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iI4G-l9RJOk
8. Immunomodulation and Anti-Inflammatory Effects of Garlic Compounds, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4417560/
9. Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-mentally-strong-people-dont-do/201504/7-scientifically-proven-benefits-gratitude
10. Carbohydrate Malabsorption, Gut Flora, and Leaky Gut, http://www.cfnaturalhealth.com/carbohydrates-gut-flora-and-leaky-gut-syndrome.html
11. Antibiotics: Are you misusing them? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/antibiotics/art-20045720
12. Adverse effects of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs, aspirin and coxibs) on upper gastrointestinal tract. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20227026
13. Are NSAIDs Like Ibuprofen Bad for My Liver and Kidneys?, https://www.goodrx.com/blog/nsaids-ibuprofen-bad-liver-kidneys/
14. Effect of a Diffused Essential Oil Blend on Bacterial Bioaerosols, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10412905.1998.9700958