Part One: An Integrative perspective of Healthy Immunity
The function of the immune system to protect the organism from potential threats. These threats can be external infectious agents such as pathogenic bacteria, viruses, other micro-organisms but also include environmental toxins and chemicals. The immune system also provides a surveillance function to keep in check any cells replicating out of control which could lead to cancer and also helps to remove damaged cells that no longer function properly. The immune system has a complicated task of continually needing to evaluate whether a given molecule out of thousands of different molecular shapes is truly a threat or not. This speaks to the need for discernment on all levels – molecular to whole person.
The immune system needs to be sensitive, detective and defensive but also needs to know when to be tolerant of its own self tissues. Healthy immunity is an internally regulated, balanced system that responds appropriately to the level of threat. A deficient immune system will not be able to defend against an infection but on the other side, an excessive immune response can lead to allergy as well as an attack on own tissue (autoimmunity).
Immune responses need to be tightly controlled and actively resolved. If not, an initially adaptive acute inflammatory (healing) response can turn into a chronic inflammatory response which causes tissue damage and can lead to disease. This leads to the strategy of decreasing the total inflammatory load on the body to allow the mechanisms of self-regulation to function properly.
The state of readiness and balance of one’s own immune system at a given point in time is a function of many factors which span through someone’s entire life-course. Early factors including mode of delivery (C-section vs normal vaginal birth), breastfeeding, early antibiotic exposures, food and toxins can have significant effects on a child’s microbiome which appears to be involved with immune system programming and tolerance.
There exists a significant body of research which has connected imbalances in gut microbiome, gut mucosal inflammation and increased intestinal permeability with an increased risk of immune dysregulation. These imbalances may be the result of foods that can cause inflammation as well as on-going exposure of environmental toxins, chemicals, pathogens and possibly increased psychological/emotional stress. The gut contains a large amount of our immune system cells. This makes sense as out gut represents a large surface area in contact with the “outside” world. This is our border, our interface which must be defended. This is why gut health is a major key to healthy immunity. This topic will be explored in further posts.
Healthy immunity is also restorative. The immune helps to repair damaged tissues that results from injury or adversarial encounters.
Healthy immunity is tolerant. The system needs to be actively unresponsive to self antigens (own tissue), innocuous microbial, food and environmental antigens. An over-loaded system is more likely to lose tolerance and become dysregulated. Anything that is a potential threat to the organism can increase this total stress load on the system.
Healthy immunity is ultimately about balance and can be significantly influenced by environmental / lifestyle factors including diet/nutrients, sleep, exercise, stress resilience and social connection. We have much more influence on modulating our immune system than we think.
Finally, the science of psychoneuroimmunology has been elucidating the powerful connection between our psychological mind states, neurologic function and our immune system. So, perhaps, how we “see” the world and how we interpret/perceive the signals we receive (threat vs non-threat) determines how we respond to the world and in turn influences how our immune system responds.