How To Support a Healthier Immune System

Chronic stress can be a killer. Dr. Andrew Brandeis has 3 natural, research backed nutrient recommendations that bolster immune function and help our bodies manage chronic stress.

"Build up your immune system!" this phrase, along with a host of other vague "immune building" tag-lines, has entered the health and wellness industry zeitgeist over the past few years. It would be easy enough for those who understand a spurious marketing gimmick when they see one to dismiss such claims, consigning them to the list of short-lived trends the industry is all too prone to embrace. Yet, the idea of bolstering one's immune system with a proper, research-based health regimen is a genuine possibility. A good place to start is understanding, broadly, what key factors affect immune function and then zeroing in on some proven tools that affect it.

First, let's look at one of the most pervasive causes of suboptimal immune function: chronic stress. Anecdotally, most of us know stress isn't great for us. But there are different kinds of stress. Acute stress, experienced as an immediate, abrupt reaction to a perceived change or threat in one's environment, is, by most measures, the least damaging form. Indeed, because it triggers physiological responses like activation of the nervous system and increased heart rate, it primes us for moments of heightened tension, making us alert and focused. Our bodies are usually effective at managing episodes of acute stress.

Chronic stress, on the other hand, is far more concerning. When we are exposed to long periods of sustained stress or repeated episodes of acute stress, there is a deleterious effect on multiple systems throughout the body, including immune function. Our stress response system is meant to be self-limiting; that is, once a moment of short term stress passes, the body's responses return to their baseline levels. The hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which surged during that stressful moment (increasing the heart rate, elevating blood pressure, and pumping higher glucose levels (sugar) into the bloodstream), decrease and return to regular levels. Chronic stress, studies show, keeps these hormones activated at increased levels. The result of this, over the long-term, is debilitating. During stressful situations, cortisol, for example, curbs nonessential functions in the digestive system, the reproductive system, and growth processes. Further, it impacts cognitive functions affecting mood and motivation. It may also increase the manufacture of inflammatory chemicals while decreasing the immune system's ability to handle additional biological stresses such as novel viruses or bacteria.

Chronic stress is, to put it bluntly, a killer. It has been shown to increase the risk of health problems like anxiety, heart disease, healthy weight management, insomnia, and depression. And it seems Americans, in particular, are at greater risk. The New York Times reported that Americans are the most stressed-out people in the world, with 55% of people saying that they were stressed out most of the previous day. Along with the other serious health issues disproportionately afflicting the U.S., like obesity (44%) and heart disease (the leading cause of death for men, women, and people of most racial and ethnic groups in the U.S.), chronic stress represents a clear and immediate health risk. 

Are there some effective levers we can use to manage chronic stress and bolster immune function? There are. First, some simple common sense examples: maintaining a proper diet, exercise, and I would add, purpose, are the most important determinants of long-term health (along with genes). Once one prioritizes these key factors, the next vital determinant is supplementing our diets with high quality, targeted nutrition. Premium-grade vitamins, minerals, and other natural compounds can have profound, long-term benefits when used properly. By "properly," I mean matching the right molecules with the right metabolic process. 

So, looking specifically at chronic stress and immune function, here are some targeted nutrients I recommend. The Adaptogenic herb ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) has been shown to help adrenal glands modulate activity up or down during periods of chronic stress, thereby restoring proper adrenal hormonal function. Vitamin B works as a cofactor (compounds required for enzyme activity) for a range of nervous and hormonal system processes, including the generation of serotonin. Regularly supplementing with a high-quality, active form of Vitamin B has been shown to help reduce the negative impacts of chronic stress and help support immune function. Finally, antioxidants, like beta-carotene, Vitamins C and E, are my third recommendation. Antioxidants, sometimes called "free radical scavengers", are compounds understood to help prevent, or slow, damage to cells by unstable molecules the body produces in reaction to certain triggers. These include physiological triggers like inflammation, or environmental, like pollution and UV exposure. Any one of these, or a combination thereof, can lead to oxidative stress, which has been linked to a number of health risks such as heart diseasecancerarthritisstroke, respiratory diseases, emphysemaParkinson's disease, and other inflammatory conditions. 

Ashwagandha, vitamin B, and antioxidants represent, I believe, a potent, natural, and foundational beginning to optimal stress and immune management. These nutrients are safe in proper doses, have a proven track record, and are generally inexpensive and available now.