There are many ways our immune system can be challenged from combating colds and flu to more chronic responses like autoimmune disease. While we generally recover quickly from colds and flu, autoimmune disease is an ongoing reaction. Approximately 50 million Americans or 1 in 5 people, suffer from autoimmune diseases. Women are more likely than men to be affected; some estimates say that as many as 75 percent of those affected are women. The most common diagnoses include rheumatoid arthritis, hypothyroidism or Hashimoto’s disease and Crohn’s disease. Another common, often chronic, immune syndrome is Lyme disease. There are many patients whose immune system seems to be almost resistant to the tick borne “bugs” that invade the body.
When the immune system is challenged in these ways, patients often experience fatigue, digestive issues, joint pain, sleep challenges and generally feeling unwell. Under normal day to day circumstances our immune system has a lot of jobs to do including evaluating things that enter the body as either a foe or a friend. When the immune system finds something that it believes is a foe, it will go after it to try to neutralize it. In a sense, attacking it and trying to eliminate it. That process is designed to protect us and to help us stay well. Inflammation is the foundation of that process. Even something simple like cutting your finger in food preparation will launch inflammation. In the repair process, we notice within a short time, the site of the cut will become red or inflamed as the body tries to heal it. That is a normal protective process. The concern comes when the immune system is overwhelmed like in the case of autoimmune disease or immune syndromes like Lyme disease. That creates a more constant state of inflammation and finding ways to reduce that is part of the healing process.
When we look through the lens of Functional Medicine, we know that in order for the body to get well we must address the whole body and in fact the whole person. That means evaluating diet and lifestyle including stress levels, exercise and sleep. At the same time, it’s important to learn about someone’s health history including their genetics and their family’s genetics. This combination gives a 360° view of total health or lack of health. In the case of these chronic immune responses, a key step is to help manage the inflammation.
You may have heard the phrase use your food as medicine. What does that mean when we consider supporting our immune system? The simplest answer is to embrace an anti-inflammatory diet. That includes both what needs to be eliminated from your diet as well as the foods to focus on. There are also lifestyle practices that that can be both pro and anti-inflammatory.
Removing pro-inflammatory choices for your diet and lifestyle to support a healthy immune system:
1. Sugar is not your friend! Trust me when I tell you that your mouth is the only part of your body that’s happy with the decision to eat sugar or processed foods. This is not a new message but the research is consistent that sugar is hard on the body and the immune system. Removing white sugar, white flour, and white rice is a great first step in the process.
2. Five hours of sleep per night is not enough. In order to run your body’s operations, you need sleep. Often clients report that they regularly get 6 hours or less of sleep and they feel tired and run down. We can’t expect the immune system to repair on the fast track. Create your life to allow for at least 7 hours per night. This allows you to access the body’s innate ability to heal.
3. Fast food and microwave dinners are not real food. Food that is processed with added ingredients and frozen into a dinner or drive thru food is not fuel for your body, only calories. Other than frozen veggies and fruit- unseasoned and unsweetened, it’s best to avoid eating calories that can be microwaved as a meal. Your immune system needs nutrients like vitamins and minerals that come from whole foods to heal.
4. Sitting slows the body down in many ways. Between driving to work, being at work and time in front of screens, we sit a lot. It creates a lack of energy flow that the body needs for digestion, circulation and even elimination. Consider how many hours you sit and how that makes you feel and look for ways to create short breaks all day long to walk, stretch and create movement.
5. Everything is not an emergency. We live in such a fast-paced world with our schedules bursting, multiple social media sources streaming and that feeling that we are always behind. Our nervous system is not designed to manage that level of stress and chronic stress chemicals are an internal source of inflammation. Consider how you can create a pause in your day to decompress and send your body the message that all is well.
Adding anti-inflammatory choices to your diet and lifestyle to support a healthy immune system:
1. Vegetables are your friend, your best friend! Eating plants is the key to using your food as medicine. The more the merrier to help provide the immune system with vitamins and minerals to heal. The bonus is that when you eat those veggies you become a bug factory. Our immune system operates with trillions of good bacteria or “bugs” to help eliminate bad “bugs”. The fiber in veggies is what the body uses to make those good bugs. If you eat veggies 1x per day, aim for 3x per day. If you eat 3x, aim for 5x per day. Anytime you increase them it will help your body heal.
2. Sleep a.k.a. Vitamin S is powerful for healing. Sleep supports the healing and repair of your body! In the pursuit of at least 7 hours of sleep there are some things to remember: create a dark, quiet, cool room, stay off screens including your phone and no eating for at least 2 hours before bed.
3. Eating at home saves money. Simple whole food meals are possible. Prewashed greens, frozen veggies and doubling up recipes for leftovers are easy tools to have food on hand. Get the whole family involved in food prep and cooking together on the weekends so you have food ready for your own grab n’ go meals.
4. Movement heals! No one ever takes a walk and says, “Wow-that was a mistake. I should have sat on the couch instead.” We know we feel better when we move. Movement is a big category from walking, biking, stretching, yoga, Pilates, weight training and much more. Create simple short ways to move that might be 10 squats, jogging in place, or a 5 minute stretch series. Movement creates movement, even in a very busy day you can carve out short movement opportunities.
5. Time off is essential for healing. We all need some time-outs during the day to calm our body. Just like movement, short sessions can be really helpful to support healing. Consider the 4-7-8 breath. Inhale for the count of 4, hold for the count of 7 and exhale for the count of 8. Practicing this simple breathing exercise throughout the day can be powerful.
When we consider reducing inflammation, we know that we need to look at all the ways we create it. Starting with the foundation of our diet and focusing on eating more whole foods including plants is perfectly complemented by a focus on sleep, movement and unwinding from stress. This accesses the whole body and its capacity to heal.
Holly J. Niles, MS, CNS, LDN, is a Licensed Functional Medicine Clinical Nutritionist. She is Nutrition Director at Integrative Wellness in Bloomfield. Holly has 25 years of experience in natural health. Her approach is to help individuals find practical ways to enjoy making healthy changes to create wellness in their lives. Holly specializes in Functional Medicine and Functional Nutrition. For more information about Holly, visit: www.IntegrativeWellnessAndPT.com.