“I’m exercising for my health.”
“I’m eating healthier these days.”
“I want to stay healthy as I get older.”
“This year, I want to focus on my health.”
“I’m using COVID to make me more conscious of my health.”
We’ve all said/heard the above statements thousands of times, and they are all excellent goals. The problem is, the concept of ‘health’ is too vague! If asked to describe how to improve our health, we’d likely answer with ‘have more stamina, improve gut flora, get restful sleep, increase mental energy and focus, get sick less often…’ but we often become overwhelmed about where to start, and end up getting discouraged. But the good news is, it doesn’t really matter where you start! Everything you do that’s ‘good for you’ ends up strengthening the most important system of your body; building the foundation for improvements in every other way. Up until seven or eight years ago, if I was asked which body system was ultimately responsible for overall health and wellbeing, I would’ve said ‘brain/nervous system’ without hesitation. But, as it turns out, I would have been wrong.
I now think of the immune system as the true ‘master system’. Even when not optimized, it is a truly astounding array of cells, chemistry, and energy that is constantly operating behind the scenes to allow ALL of the other systems to do their jobs. When it IS optimized, the body and mind can achieve and maintain their highest levels of health and strength!
In my experience, the best start to optimizing the immune system is to realize just how amazing it already is! Sadly, over the last year we’ve received a steady stream of ‘education’ about how weak we are, how we need to hide and cover our faces, and how we stand a very good chance of being hospitalized and dying if we are exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In certain circumstances defensive strategies like distancing and masks are appropriate for finite periods of time. But if we are not IN ADDITION constantly strengthening our minds and bodies, and therefore our immune systems, the pathogens will win. The reality is that the great majority of people who are hospitalized or die as a result of COVID are elderly (when it becomes more difficult- but not impossible!-to maintain a healthy immune system) or have at least one chronic disease, almost all of which are lifestyle related.
Your immune system doesn’t work by ‘being protected’, just like your muscles don’t become stronger if you never pick up anything heavy. In both cases, the cells of your body need to be challenged in their ‘specialty’ to reach their truly badass potential. It’s easier to see this happening in the case of your muscles and bones, as your physical capabilities improve. Although more hidden, your immune system is meeting challenges every day by reacting to pathogens which include:
Viruses- some genetic material coupled with some proteins which ‘hack’ cells in order to survive and replicate.
Bacteria- single cell organisms
Protozoa- single cell organisms (like giardia)
Fungi- multiple cell organisms
All pathogens are made up of proteins that are foreign to the body, which is how the immune system knows to ‘attack.’ There are three basic components to the immune system: mucosal, innate, and adaptive.
The mucosal system is made up of the mucous membranes of the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts (your gut from your mouth to rectum, and your lungs from nose throughout all lobes.) Mucous membranes cells are similar to skin cells, except they secrete mucous, which isn’t just gross, it’s also extremely useful. MANY of the pathogens that make it into your lungs and intestines get trapped and killed then moved out, either downstream in the case of the gut or upstream in the lungs. The health of the membrane cells is very important because they create a tight barrier that prevents organisms that make it past the mucous from getting into the bloodstream. When the barrier isn’t tight enough, it causes ‘leaky gut’ and allows proteins and organisms into the bloodstream that shouldn’t be there, setting up an environment where chronic inflammation can take place.
Currently, the coronavirus has drawn our attention to lung health. BTW, the virus at issue is a coronavirus, which is the same family as the common cold virus. COVID-19 is actually a (rather contrived) acronym that stands for COrona VIrus Disease 2019. This is not to say that this virus is the same as the cold virus; it’s not. But it does mean that our bodies are very practiced at building immunity to this type of virus, and have been doing just that all our lives. The great news is- your lungs are AMAZING at halting this and all the other buggy things mentioned above in their tracks! In a healthy system, it takes a large number of virus particles to even make it through to the bloodstream, which is why researchers are saying transmission of COVID usually needs prolonged contact with someone who is ‘shedding’ active virus.
The pathogens that make it into the bloodstream are immediately recognized and attacked by the cells of the innate system. Natural killer cells are on constant patrol and are particularly good at, well, what they are named for! They kill and neutralize viruses by the thousands, and also kill body cells that have been hijacked by viruses. Meanwhile, the cells of the innate system are also sending mayday messages to the cells of the adaptive system, which will then produce antibodies (basically chemical warfare with targeted ‘poisons’ designed to neutralize specific proteins.) Vaccines work by introducing inactivated proteins (meaning they cannot cause disease) from a pathogen into the body so that the adaptive cells will produce antibodies.
This is all happening all day, every day, in your system and is why you never even know you have been exposed to most pathogens (including the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID), since they never make it through these defenses to cause illness. There are literally millions of viruses and bacteria in your lungs every single day, many are friendly and necessary for health (yes, even viruses) and some can cause disease given the right circumstances. For pathogens, the ‘right circumstances' are weakened defenses caused by: chronic disease, malnutrition and/or obesity, sedentary lifestyle, smoking or vaping, heavy alcohol or marijuana use, or illicit drug use.
So, how do we strengthen this very important system? Understanding the basics is a great start! After that, it’s circular- by strengthening our bodies and our minds. It’s worth repeating that this is a process- slow much of the time, simple in theory but often very, very hard in practice. If it were easy… you can fill in the rest. Watch for more articles about how to build your own ‘toolbox’ of habits to help you continue to build your strongest body and mind!
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After the immediate crisis, click here for a list of resources for assistance with suicidality, substance abuse, or severe mental health symptoms such as paranoia, delusions (losing touch with reality), or hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there.)