Fourteen Strategies to Optimize Immune Function

By Tarilee Cornish, Nutritional Consultant

Our immune system is a combination of automatic bodily functions orchestrated by the intricate cooperation between many organ systems. It protects us from metabolic and foreign chemical toxic stress, viral and bacterial infections and many other types of disease conditions. It also helps to normalize the functioning of our entire body by working to maintain equilibrium. We can stimulate our immune system by providing our body with good nutrition and a healthy, natural lifestyle in which certain aspects are emphasized. What follows is an explanation of fourteen different strategies that we can employ to optimize our immune function.
  1. Increase Consumption of Veggies and Whole Foods (preferable organically grown)
    Whole food is, in my opinion, the single most over-looked medicine in our society. We have "progressed" a long way from the life that nature intended for us. We grow our food with lots of chemicals, and then we process it, take out the fiber and the nutrients, add more chemicals and sugar and then put it in a box or a can to sit on a shelf for a few months. We then take vitamins pills to replace what isn't in our food, followed by fiber supplements because we are constipated. We must then follow up with extra phytonutrients and antioxidants to protect us from the chemicals in our world.

    We've come so far, in fact, that for most people, eating whole, natural foods, is almost unnatural! Humans are designed to benefit from eating their foods in the form that nature made them, complete with fibers, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. A diet consisting of fifty percent vegetables is ideal. A combination of raw and cooked vegetables is preferable with raw foods making up at least one third of the veggies (if tolerated well).

    The typical North American consumes 150 pounds (70 kg) of food additives and 120 pounds (55kg) of sugar every year. Food additives affect the body in many undesirable ways by interacting with coenzymes and disrupting the communication between neurotransmitters as well as just bogging down the immune system with toxic chemicals. Sugar in itself is known to have a profound negative effect on our immunity.

    In a study published in a 1973 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, A. Sanchez showed that 100 carbohydrate grams worth of orange juice (equal to about 32 ounces) lowers white blood cell activity for at least five hours (honey and table sugar, Sanchez found, had similar effects). One clinical study in a dental journal investigated sugar's effect on bacteria-hungry white blood cells called neutrophils. This experiment revealed that consuming 24 ounces of cola depresses neutrophil activity by 50 percent. This occurs thirty minutes after ingestion and lasts for five hours or more.

    These study results have great significance not only in the field of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Candida Related Complex, but also in the areas of learning disorders and ADD. When children are exposed to sugar, their immune system can become so drained that it causes the child to have reactions to many ordinary substances that are well tolerated by healthy people. Symptoms that are similar to illnesses like ADHD may be caused wholly by allergic-type reactions to foods, perfumes and everyday exposure to chemicals. Removing sugar (and additives) from the diet is the first logical step towards boosting the immune system to control symptoms.

  2. Spiritual and Emotional Health
    Mind/Body medicine is quickly coming to the forefront of mainstream medical studies as our Western scientists learn that the well-being of the spirit has as much of a role in healing as the biochemical and structural integrity of the body. For centuries, Eastern doctors have recognized the power of spiritual practice in healing. Western scientific studies are now confirming what Chinese doctors and Yogis have been teaching all along.

    Practicing concentration, meditation or spiritual absorption can help you to attain stability of mind and body. Both the inner strength and the ability to manage stress in a more relaxed state seem to be responsible for the increased immune function enjoyed by those with a regular spiritual practice. It does not seem to be crucial which type of meditation or prayer is used, the power of faith and the power of concentration/meditation practices have been clinically proven to enhance immunity.

    When we have the self-awareness and skills needed for appropriate emotional expression and when we have addressed past trauma and pain; we are more likely to live in a calm, self-assured state of mind that is more conducive to healing.

    In one dramatic study by David McCullum of Harvard, human subjects were shown three different films and their immune system functions were tested via their saliva before and after each movie. Movie number one was about organic gardening and had little effect on their immune cell counts. Movie number two was a disturbing movie about war and resulted in the subjects' immune cell counts plummeting. Movie number three was an emotionally evocative, heart warming film about Mother Theresa and her work. This film caused a dramatic increase in immune cells. This fascinating demonstration has become one of the most frequently referenced experiments in the promotion of the clinical significance of mind/body medicine.

  3. Sleep and Rest
    The daily regeneration and repair functions of our immune systems are highly dependent upon adequate rest and sleep. The greater the repair work required, the greater our needs for sleep. We could have a complete comprehensive health regime with the best of all of the other thirteen points mentioned in this article, but if we aren't giving our body the time it needs to rebuild and heal at night, healing will not occur. Deep sleep isn't always possible, but a small power nap or a true rest period will allow for a significant increase in immune function. True rest can involve calmly doing nothing, meditating, engaging in relaxation while enjoying a massage, stroking a pet or listening to soothing music.

  4. Keep Your Body 'Clean' From the Inside Out
    The accumulation of all the chemicals in our environment is often referred to as a chemical soup in our bodies, or as our toxic load. Everybody has a different tolerance to this build up. These days we are exposed to chemicals through the air, our skin and our diet. Our immune system is not just sitting idle during this onslaught of toxins; it is diligently laboring to detoxify our bodies. The more detoxifying work we demand of our body, the more distracted our immune system is from the important task of preventing disease.

    The constant onslaught of toxins that our bodies negotiate with include: sugar, food additives, pharmaceuticals, and chemicals from passive exposure to indoor and outdoor pollution in both our home and work environments. Many people are also subject to more intentional exposure to toxins like cigarette smoke, hair dyes, hair sprays, chemical air fresheners, paints, upholstery treatments, synthetic clothing, toxic cleaning products and dry cleaning chemicals. All of the above contain known carcinogens. We have accepted these chemical choices into our lives so completely, that we rarely even think about the effect that this exposure may have on our health, our children's health or the health of our planet.

    In addition to reducing our chemical exposure by eating natural foods, we can reduce our exposure to indoor air pollution. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, home pollutant levels may be 2-5 times greater than outdoor levels and can be as high as 100 times more. Since most people spend about 90% of their time indoors, cleaning up our indoor environments is crucial.

    In our homes, using non-toxic cleaning products, avoiding chemical fragrances and using a high quality hepa and charcoal air-cleaning system can help to improve the quality of our air. Reducing wall to wall carpeting and using washable area rugs made from natural fibers dramatically decreases pollution from mildew, dust, dust mites and pet dander that build up in the carpet. It also reduces gases that are released from the materials that conventional carpets and padding are made of, as well as the cleaning products we use to maintain them.

    In addition, using natural, untreated building materials will protect us from the out-gassing of formaldehyde, solvents and petrochemicals into our home air. Ventilating printers and photocopiers at work and using air purifiers there too, (especially in buildings that are sealed with permanently closed windows), can make for a much healthier workspace. Cleaning up our indoor home and work environments can go a long way towards reducing the toxic load on our immune system.

    Regular use of detoxifying teas can also support your bodies cleansing work.

  5. Consumption of Healing Oils and the Reduction of Toxic Oils
    The quality of the oils in our diet can have far-reaching effects upon the level of our overall immunity and our resistance to disease. This is because every cell in our body is surrounded by a membrane that is largely made up of fat. This membrane is responsible for controlling what stays in the cell, what goes out of the cell, how it reproduces and how it interacts with other cells in the body. The body uses the materials in our diet to manufacture these cells. When our dietary fat is largely made up of super-heated, chemically-altered, hydrogenated or otherwise damaged oil, our body will continue to utilize it in the manufacture of essential cell membranes. The integrity and proper functioning of our entire body system depends upon the integrity of our cells. If our cell membranes are compromised with poor raw materials, we can therefore expect them to function less effectively.

    Many of us are still preparing foods based on guidelines about supposedly healthy oils that are based on outdated research. The greatly oversimplified myth that saturated fats are bad and polyunsaturated fats are good has been replaced by a newer, dramatically different explanation.

    The higher the saturation of the oil/fat, the safer it is for cooking. Stable cooking fats include; organic coconut oil, ghee and organic palm oil. Olive oil is considered stable enough for light sauteing only.

    The polyunsaturated vegetable, seed and nut oils do indeed have tremendous healing properties but only if they are consumed in their raw, unrefined state. They are not for heating or cooking. The gentle processing of these oils is crucial to the survival of their healing properties and the prevention of the formation of toxic by-products. Properly processed oils are pressed in small batches, with a low temperature press. They are then stored in nitrogen flushed, opaque and inert containers. Cold expeller pressed, polyunsaturated oils like flax, walnut, sesame, borage, sunflower, and hemp can often be found in the refrigerator case at your local health food store.

    Olive oil and canola oil are somewhat more stable than the other unsaturated oils and do not as easily become damaged. This is because their monounsaturated make-up is a bit sturdier than the structure of the polyunsaturated oils.

    You can protect yourself from the dangerous effects of commercially produced oils by avoiding hydrogenated or fractionated oils and commercially produced vegetable, seed and nut oils. It is also important to limit processed foods containing oils. The oils added to processed foods are in most cases already refined and thus damaged. The food preparation and packaging result in their further deterioration and by the time the processed food reaches the consumer, its oil content can be quite unhealthy.

    It is very difficult in today's world not to eat some processed oils, but we can do our best to keep them to a minimum. Including generous amounts of raw healing polyunsaturated oils in your diet helps to counteract some of the dangerous side-effects of eating adulterated oils. Try to eat a minimum of three tablespoons of healthy polyunsaturated oils per day. Using olive or flax oil in place of other oils in recipes for salad dressings and dips is a great way to increase your intake.

  6. Drink Clean Water
    Every fluid in our body including blood, lymph, digestive secretions, extra cellular fluid and the mucous that lubricates our mucous membranes is made up of mostly water. Sixty to seventy percent of the adult human body is water. Both city tap water and most well water is contaminated with hundreds of different chemicals, many of which are hormone mimickers and carcinogens. It is difficult for our bodily fluids to fulfill some of their most basic tasks related to the elimination of waste materials and the maintenance in our internal systems using 'dirty water'.

    Our tap water supplies are becoming increasingly polluted but our water purification plants have yet to catch up with the need to remove these toxins from our water. Most water treatment centers remove bacteria using chemical additives like chlorine (which has health risks in and of itself) but they do little about the chemicals that are now found in alarmingly high levels in our water.

    Reverse osmosis, distillation and charcoal/ceramic water filter systems each provide clean drinking water when used appropriately. They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Hence you must research the contaminants present in your local water supply before choosing the filtration system that is right for your home, or consider buying your drinking water from a reputable water company.

  7. Reduce Your Consumption of Animal Products
    It is important to reduce your consumption of animal products while making the transition to the use of organically-raised animal products. Avoiding products from conventionally-raised animals helps us to reduce the passive ingestion of antibiotic drugs and growth hormones. Increasingly crowded and assembly-line farm management techniques combined with antibiotic resistant super-bugs in our food supply require higher and higher doses of these drugs to keep agricultural livestock diseases under control. The transference of these drugs into the human diet creates related side effects (like Candida related problems) and super-bugs in human health.

  8. Holistic Supportive Therapies
    Massage, acupuncture, chiropractic care, Reiki, Cranio-Sacral therapy, psychotherapy, Traditional and Chinese Medicine, Thai Chi, Shiatsu, Aromatherapy, Yoga and Osteopathy, among other therapies can all provide complimentary support to your body's innate healing functions.

    In addition to accessing some of the above complimentary therapies, it can be helpful to work with a knowledgeable "health coach" to help you sift through all of the supposedly healthy ideas that are encountered on the journey towards wellness. For less serious conditions, a nutritional consultant can provide the guidance you need by customizing a diet and educating you about natural therapies. For problems that are more serious, the support of a naturopathic physician may be required as well.

  9. Healing Through Movement/Exercise
    Our lymph system is responsible for cleaning out abnormal or dead cells and as well as foreign materials. Unlike our blood which is automatically pumped by our heart, our lymph fluid must be manually pumped through the movement of our muscles. Moderate exercise ensures circulation of the lymph so that the waste materials can be eliminated. Aerobic activity is an ideal way to move your lymph fluid. Yoga and simple stretching or Tai Chi is especially beneficial.

    While moderate activity is shown to increase certain aspects of T-cell (special immune cells) function, excess exercise is shown to weaken immune function, so don't exercise too hard for too long. Listen to your body for signals about the intensity and amount of exercise that is appropriate for your level of fitness and health.

  10. Get Outside!
    Sunlight exposure and time spent in nature support the healing processes. We require at least fifteen minutes of direct, unshielded sunshine per day - preferably combined with fresh air. Exposure through the eyes stimulates the pineal gland, which in turn stimulates subsequent immune activity and the release of hormones crucial to our mental/emotional health.

    Spending time in the great outdoors as far away from the wires and microwaves and noise and air pollution as possible helps to reconnect us with our part in the "web of life" and the natural healing wisdom of both our bodies and our souls. If you are not well enough to move yourself outdoors, at least sit by an open window for fifteen minutes each day.

  11. Reduce Exposure to Electro-Magnetic Fields
    According to Essentia Communications, Ottawa, Canada, (educators in the field of the bio-effects of weak electromagnetic fields,) exposure to EMF's can interfere with immunity, endocrine function and sleep and has even been shown to be related to the development of leukemia and accelerated cancer. Higher levels have been associated with multiple allergies, electro-sensitivity, as well as skin and nervous system disorders. Radiofrequency and microwaves such as those found in cell phones have been shown to cause mental disorientation, speech difficulties, and reduced reflex and reaction time.

    It is very important to reduce your exposure to electro-magnetic fields as much as possible. Since we are unable to do much about slowing technological 'progress' in our world, electromagnetic fields seem to be here to stay. We can, however, control how much we invite into our homes. We can minimize exposure to electrical energy by taking breaks from computer work or by taking a long drive in the car. We can choose to remove electrical appliances from our sleeping areas, move our beds at least three feet from electrical outlets and avoid spending a lot of time near the incoming electrical service for our home.

  12. Support Your Healing Bio-Chemically
    We can choose therapeutic foods, supplemental nutrients and herbal products as recommended by a qualified practitioner in favor of over-the-counter or prescription drugs whenever possible. These "medicines" support rather than suppress our body's innate healing wisdom and produce much less in the way of side-effects and toxic residue for our immune system to contend with. We can use herbs and nutrients to strengthen immunity, support detoxification and also to strengthen specific organ and immune system functions.

    All of the nutrients essential to human health work together like a chain to keep our body functioning properly. Our overall health can only be as strong as its weakest nutritional link. Therefore it is vital to insure that we have all of our required nutrients and in the appropriate ratios. A good quality vitamin/mineral supplement can be helpful to ensure optimal levels of the nutrients needed for our immune systems to work properly. A nutritional assessment by a qualified practitioner can also be particularly helpful. For information about specific remedies that may be appropriate for you if you're treating CRC, please see the following informative post about products that are available through the Whole Approach online store:

  13. Self-Education
    We must understand our nutritional and self-care choices thoroughly so that we are choosing them because we have a true commitment to them and not just because they are "supposed to be good for us". Confidence in our chosen path is highly beneficial to the immune system and generally leads to a more positive outcome.

  14. Fulfill your Purpose in This World
    Living as an example of what we believe in most deeply will support our emotional and spiritual health. When we become the change we wish to see in this world, and make a difference where we can in our lives, we can feel more at peace with those things we cannot change. ("Be the changes you wish to see in this world"...Ghandi). By changing and becoming an example, we can change our little world, and as the ripple effects from the choices we make spread (i.e. from the power of a good example, the education of others and the power of consumer demand), we can help to change the world at-large. Living for a cause helps to fulfill the highest human need for self-actualization - that of finding a sense of purpose in our lives.
The following products mentioned in this article are available in the WholeApproach online store:
Daily Detox Tea
Daily Detox Tea II
Tarilee Cornish is a Certified Nutritional Practitioner with a special interest in immune and digestive recovery including general detoxification and recovery from food allergies and candida overgrowth. She is especially passionate about pure healing food choices that have a democratic, ecological and compassionate production and distribution chain. Tarilee is a moderator on the WholeApproach Support Forum.

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