I recently read An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Ritchel and, wow, is it filled with relevant information for today. Ritchel conducted an immense amount of research on the immune system for his book and what he found was remarkable. So many of us are living with misconceptions around immunity and I see it every day in my line of work.
For a long time, it was believed that we should be actively strengthening our immune systems for them to perform adequately. While it is true that some people have overreactive immunity and others have underactive defense systems, in general, the focus should be more on balancing the system than boosting it.
At any given moment, we are exposed to countless microbes – bacteria, viruses, you name it. It is the job of the immune system to constantly be aware of what is entering the body and determine what is acceptable and what must be eliminated. We want the components of the immune system to react strongly when it is faced with a viable threat, but it is equally as important for the immune system to stand down when appropriate.
When the immune system overreacts when it should not, that is when autoimmune issues like rheumatoid arthritis arise where the immune system becomes unnecessarily active in the joints and other parts of the body. This is an example of the immune system’s elegant defense falling out of balance and this state of unbalance does not only affect people with autoimmune diseases.
This is so relevant to the current state of the world in this unprecedented pandemic because what is going on in ICUs across the globe has a lot to do with unbalanced immunity. Believe it or not, many of the people struggling in intensive care are not in as much danger from the pneumonia and various respiratory illnesses that they are experiencing. The reason why they are facing such a high level of threat is due to the immune response in their lungs. Many COVID-19 patients’ immune systems are overreacting and flooding the lungs with too many immune cells. It is a fervent reaction of an aging and out of balance immune system.
So, what does balance within the immune system look like? Essentially, immune balance means that when our immune defenses react to rid our bodies of the pathogens of concern, they do so without overreacting. The immune system should tread lightly on constant patrol, yet only respond with the precise amount of force necessary to remove the danger without harming the rest of the body.
Rather than putting so much of a focus on boosting the immune system, there are steps that we can take to better balance it. There are three major strategies that Ritchel suggests we focus on for immune balance: nutrition, sleep, and stress. These areas of focus are important now during the Coronavirus pandemic, but also at every other point in time.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, immunologist and Coronavirus Task Force Expert has explained that we do not have any magic bullets for immune healing. There is no single food or supplement that can immediately balance the immune system. However, a natural and balanced diet can certainly help to support immune function. It has been shown that consuming unnatural processed foods can unbalance the immune system over time.
Ritchel explains that stress management is the single most important strategy for immune balance, and I could not agree more. The purpose of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) (think fight or flight response) is to trigger the release of stress hormones that heighten our focus and allow blood to pump to our legs in the event of an emergency. In primitive times, this response would be activated when we were faced with a predator that we needed to outrun.
However, these days, our ANS is activated by anything that we feel threatened by – that may mean an argument with a loved one, a stressful scenario at work, or an influx of Coronavirus in our community. Because of this, our stress response is in constant overdrive, which causes our immune system to fall out of balance and make us more vulnerable to illness.
Lowering this stress response is key to managing this outbreak along with any other immune-threatening issues that we might face. One way that I have been combatting stress in this strange time is by breaking up my meditation practice. Instead of doing a long meditation in the morning, I have been splitting up my practice into shorter 5-minute sessions throughout the day. That way, I give my body regular breaks from the flood of stress hormones.
Breathwork is also crucial for stress management in a time like this. Slowing down the breath and putting a focus on belly breathing rather than chest breathing helps you to shut off the primitive physiological mechanism of stress hormone release.
This is also where sleep becomes super important. Lack of sleep, even for just ONE night, can depress the immune system. Techniques like breathwork, gentle yoga, reiki, meditation, and energy work before sleep are critical to improve sleep. Exercise is also crucial – but only if you are feeling healthy. Regular physical activity is critical for stress reduction and immune balance. However, despite common misconceptions, if you exercise when you are under the weather, it does more harm to your immune system than good.
The moral of the story is that it is more important now than ever before to treat yourself with kindness and gift yourself with self-care. Eat a balanced, natural, and whole food diet, continue exercising regularly if you are feeling up to it, and practice stress-reducing activities (especially before bed). A blend of these strategies will help your immune system stay balanced. Remember, we are all in this together and we will overcome this.