Health

What is important for a healthy immune system

Strengthen your body’s natural defences

The immune system is our body’s natural defence mechanism. It is vital to our health, protecting us from pathogens and pollutants. For a well-functioning immune system, we need to keep it strong throughout the year.

How does the immune system function?

As humans we both separate ourselves from the outside world and are also in constant contact with it, for example through our skin and other sensory organs, but also through the mucous membranes, while we breathe and eat. The task of our immune system is to distinguish between our body’s own substances and foreign substances that are harmful to the body, which are then broken down through inflammatory processes.

What happens when the immune system is overactive?

When the immune system is overactive, it defends itself too aggressively against harmless substances, such as certain foods, which leads to allergic reactions. So-called autoimmune diseases develop if the body’s own cells are mistaken for being foreign and dangerous. Then the immune system attacks and tries to destroy healthy body tissues.

What happens if the immune system is too sluggish?

If the immune system is weak, it is slower to respond to foreign or harmful substances, which can then spread throughout the body. This includes cancerous cells that have developed in the body, as well as bacteria, viruses and fungi that have entered the body.

How does the immune system work?

The immune system is a remarkable set of biological processes that take place in our body, mostly without us even noticing it. Our immune system kicks into action when pathogens enter the body. This can easily occur through dry or weakened mucous membranes in the nose, mouth, eyes or bronchial tubes, but also through small cracks or wounds in the skin. The immune system consists of highly specialised cells and substances. Some of these cells can directly recognise a harmful pathogen and render it harmless, while others can produce antibodies that mark the pathogen so it can be broken down. These are complex processes that are usually accompanied by inflammation. Memory cells in the immune system are capable of producing antibodies against pathogens that the body has previously encountered. If the same pathogen returns, memory cells quickly produce antibodies before problems arise. The pathogen can then be destroyed without causing disease; this is called gaining immunity. It also explains why we aren’t constantly sick during cold season, even if people are sniffling and coughing all around us.

Is the immune system innate?

Mothers pass on antibodies to their babies through the placenta during pregnancy and through breastfeeding. This gives children a certain amount of immunity against infection during their first months of life. Over time this protection decreases and children become more susceptible to illness. But getting sick also serves to build up their immune system. In this regard, it is important that children develop a fever when sick, because it is the fever that activates the immune system [1]. It is also important to consult a doctor in the case of febrile illnesses. Fever-reducing medication and antibiotics should only be given when indicated and with restraint. The immune system needs to confront the fever so that the body can build up and train its natural defences against pathogens.

 

How does mental health affect overall health?

Mental health plays an important role in our overall health. The relationship between our emotional and physical wellbeing is reflected in age-old sayings and metaphors: we are “sick” of someone or something, or we don’t have a “clear head”. People who are overwhelmed, who can’t move forward in solving a problem or who never take breaks are more susceptible to illness. Research in the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), which focuses on the connection between the psyche and the immune system, has shown that fear and isolation in particular can greatly impair the immune system. On the other hand, we are less likely to fall ill if we are mentally balanced, confident, and encounter others with a sense of joy and self-esteem. Having good natural defences – physically, mentally and spiritually – means being able to maintain the balance between a sense of openness (“what do I let in?”) and setting limitations (“what stays out?”).

6 tips to boost your immune system

Your individual defence system protects you from bacteria and pathogens, and keeping it strong is a good way to stay healthy. Here are some ways you can mobilise your body’s natural defences and strengthen your immune system.

  1. Balanced diet: A healthy diet strengthens your immune system. Make sure you eat high-quality foods: they should be as fresh as possible, and preferably be organically or biodynamically grown in healthy soils. Establish a healthy, balanced meal plan. How you eat also plays a role. Are you mindful and appreciative? Or to you take a more functional approach, mainly to satisfy your hunger?
  2. Regular exercise: Jogging, swimming and other forms of exercise aren’t just good for you, they feel good too. It’s best to get your body moving outdoors in the fresh air, by taking walks or riding your bike. Exercise done in a closed room has a different effect on us than outdoor exercise, which activates all the senses.
  3. Plenty of sunlight: Being exposed to daylight is important for the body’s production of vitamin D, which in turn ensures a well-functioning immune system. Sunlight also helps to lift your spirits; feeling low can also weaken the immune system.
  4. Sufficient sleep: It’s important to get enough sleep so the body can repair itself and so the immune system can function properly. Insufficient sleep leads to fewer immune cells in the blood, which could otherwise detect and dispose of damaged cells [2]. Luckily, the body can make up for occasional nights without deep sleep.
  5. Constant body temperature: Maintaining a constant body temperature is also important for health. If you often suffer from cold feet, treat yourself to warm foot baths; warm feet have an effect on the whole organism. But heat doesn’t only come from the outside – things that inspire you also warm you up, literally. Staying “cool” on the other hand, does just the opposite, as the word suggests.
  6. Avoid stress: Make sure to take rest breaks throughout the day and enjoy moments of relaxation and contemplation, undisturbed by noise or lively activity. Our rhythm of activity and rest is just as important as our rhythm of breathing in and out, and our rhythm of sleeping and waking.

[1] David D. Martin, Fever: Views in Anthroposophic Medicine and Their Scientific Validity, doi: 10.1155/2016/364265.

[2] Dr. Christian Benedict: Schlaf ist die beste Medizin, Eden Books, 2019.