When we catch a cold, we say that we are “fighting a bug.” But did you know that our bodies are constantly fighting “bugs”? Moment by moment we are under attack by thousands of different kinds of viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi. Our powerful immune systems wipe out the invaders before they ever knew what hit them. Only when a microbe launches a particularly strong invasion (or the microbe itself is particularly virulent) does our immune system put its entire arsenal into play, stimulating symptoms such as tiredness, fever, runny nose, and coughs. It is often only then that we pay any attention to the health of our immune systems.
We each have billions of microbes on our skin and in our gastrointestinal (GI) tracts. These microbes are called our normal flora. The vast majority of our normal flora do not cause disease and are either completely passive or actually help us maintain health. For instance, certain bacteria in our GI tracts produce vitamin K for us, an important factor in the ability to clot blood and stop bleeding. We actually have more bacteria in us than we have human cells! When certain internal or environmental changes occur, the delicate balances of our bodies falter and opportunistic microbes begin their invasion. We are exposed to more people and stale air in the cool months and therefore provide more opportunities for the wily microbial invader. Fortunately, our immune system was created to be an incredibly complex powerhouse that ever-vigilantly sweeps the body for enemies and destroys them. It is important, therefore, that we know both what is harmful to the immune system and what strengthens it.
Those who know the health message do not have to worry about the destruction done by smoking, alcohol and drug use, but toxic chemicals are present elsewhere and are harmful to our immune systems. Avoiding second-hand smoke is essential. Also important is the amount of non-organic foods you ingest. This is particularly true for children, because the EPA’s guidelines for safe pesticide levels are standardized for a large adult human male, not for children who are not only smaller but who metabolize chemicals at a different rate.
Refined sugar is nothing but pure carbohydrate stripped of any nutritional value. It is what we call empty calories. Like a recreational drug or alcohol, sugar affects the brain first, is addictive, and causes your energy to bottom out. Sugar depresses the immune response and is toxic to immune cells. Sugar lowers our resistance. Think of sugar as lowering the walls of our fortress, letting the invading army march over the top. One teaspoon of sugar can inhibit natural killer (NK) cells and macrophages for up to six hours. “Sugar clogs the system. It hinders the working of the living machine.” Counsels on Diets and Foods, 327.
Avoid saturated and polyunsaturated fats and oils. They help form free radicals which damage the immune system. Fats are also known to irritate the lining of blood vessels, making a less than optimal environment for the immune cells to do their work.
By-products of metabolizing protein can irritate the immune system. Vegetarians benefit from a naturally lower protein diet. Animal products contain residues of steroids and antibiotics that lead to an impaired immunity. Not only is milk protein a common immune system irritant, it increases mucus production, which makes the body’s systems slow to respond and slow to heal.
Lack of Exercise
The cells that comprise the immune system—NK cells, macrophages, B-cells, T-cells, etc.— rely on a well functioning, strong circulatory and lymphatic system. A sedentary lifestyle leads to lethargic blood and lymph flow. “Exercise, and a free, abundant use of the air and sunlight—blessings which heaven has bestowed upon all—would in many cases give life and strength to the emaciated invalid.” Ibid., 302. “By neglecting to take physical exercise, by overworking mind or body, we unbalance the nervous system. Those who thus shorten their lives by disregarding nature’s laws are guilty of robbery toward God. We have no right to neglect or misuse the body, the mind, or the strength, which should be used to offer God consecrated service.” Counsels on Health, 41.
One way the immune system relies on water is the same as for exercise. Dehydration causes the blood to become concentrated and torpid—not optimal conditions for immune cells to rush the invader. Furthermore, water helps regulate temperature—essential during fever—and flushes microbes and toxins out of the body. Remember, thirst is an indicator that you are already dehydrated.
“Thousands have died for want of pure water and pure air who might have lived. And thousands of invalids, who are a burden to themselves and others, think that their lives depend upon taking medicines from the doctors. They are continually guarding themselves against the air and avoiding the use of water. These blessings they need in order to become well. If they would become enlightened and let medicine alone, and accustom themselves to outdoor exercise and to air in their houses, summer and winter, and use soft water for drinking and bathing purposes, they would be comparatively well and happy instead of dragging out a miserable existence.” Ibid., 55, 56.
Lack of Sleep
Interleukins are chemical messengers that are produced by certain white blood cells. During a microbial invasion, interleukins are released, mobilizing the immune cell army. Immune cells rely on these chemical messages in order to know when to “go to arms.” Interleukins also stimulate the hypothalamus, which is the body’s thermostat, to increase body temperature, thereby providing an unpleasant atmosphere for the “bugs” and speeding up the immune response. Interleukins also contribute to the feeling of sleepiness that you have when you get sick, prompting you to get more healing rest. Studies have shown that sleep increases natural immune system modulators, such as interleukin, and even a modest sleep deficit impairs immunity. Your body’s response to illness appears partly dependent upon the quality of sleep you got before the illness set in.
Ever notice that when you are stressed you become more prone to catching a cold? One of the reasons is a hormone called cortisol that the body produces when we are under stress. Cortisol causes several responses in the body. Inflammation is increased; calcium is pulled from the bones, and autoimmune disorders are exacerbated. Conversely, reducing stress reduces cortisol which alleviates these symptoms. You can then see how it is paramount to over-all health to reduce daily stress.
Our bodies were created to be wonderfully complex. Fortunately, God has given us much insight into how we can avoid certain behaviors that cause the body and its interconnected systems to falter. With a little care, each one of us will be able to build up our health instead of fighting against our own army.
“Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rereward.” Isaiah 58:8.