Your immune system is made up of cells and organs that protect your body from outside invaders like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites, which can cause infection and disease. When it works correctly, it fights off infection and keeps you healthy. However, when it does not work correctly, germs and other abnormal cells in the body can more easily cause disease. The openings of your mouth and nose can be thought of as your immune system’s border control. If invaders get inside your body through the mouth, nose, or even a cut, the immune system sends out lines of defense, whether in the blood, organs, muscles, or bone. This internal “police force” is vital to our health, but sometimes it can get a little “off balance.” When this happens, the immune system can work against us, causing allergic reactions to foods or environments, and sometimes even autoimmune conditions.1 Why does this happen, and what can we do to prevent it?
What causes your immune system to be off balance?
You’re washing your hands, not touching your face, practicing good hygiene practices…but you still feel a little run-down, and get infections easily. What gives?
If you notice that you get sick a lot, feel run-down, or have other symptoms you can’t quite figure out, it may mean that your immune system is off-balance, or weakened. When this happens, there are usually a handful of culprits that may be contributing:
Do you ever find yourself getting sick after pulling an all-nighter on a big report for work, or after a really emotional situation at home? According to the American Psychological Association, long-term stress weakens the responses of your immune system.2 This is because stress decreases the body’s lymphocytes, the white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower your lymphocyte level, the more you’re at risk for catching a cold or other viruses.3
If you think you are experiencing a high level of stress, it can be helpful to meditate, and also practice breathing exercises, such as “box breathing.” Box breathing can calm the nervous system down, and help you to feel more relaxed. All it requires is for you to breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, and then breathe out for four seconds.
Another signal your immune system might be off balance are underlying gut issues. If you have frequent diarrhea, gas, or constipation, it could be a sign that your immune system has been compromised. Research shows that 70% of the immune system resides in the gut. The beneficial bacteria and microorganisms that live there defend your gut from infection and support the immune system. If these beneficial bacteria are in low supply, it opens you up to viruses, chronic inflammation, and also autoimmune conditions.4
A great way to help repair your gut is with a high-quality daily probiotic. Probiotics are invaluable in replenishing and restoring the good bacteria in your gut. For the best-quality probiotic, look for one that has the bacteria count guaranteed though the product’s expiration date (not just a time of manufacture), is heat resistant (should be shelf-stable at room temperature, and not have to rely on refrigeration), and has clinically-tested and DNA verified human bacterial strains.5
You feel tired all the time
Burning a candle at both ends is not a healthy way to live, and can really take a toll on your immune system. Try to prioritize your sleep routine, and aim for 6 to 8 hours of sleep per night. On the flip side, if you are already getting enough sleep and are still feeling fatigued, it might be your immune system trying to tell you something. When your immune system struggles, so does your energy level. Your energy level is down because your body is trying to conserve energy to fuel your immune system so that it can fight off germs and other invaders.6
If any of the above concerns sound like they might apply to you, it may be time to make some lifestyle adjustments. This includes things like eating a balanced diet including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, getting 6-8 hours of sleep, exercising 30 minutes most days of the week, and trying to find ways to minimize stress.
If you incorporate these adjustments into your daily routine, you can give your immune system the best chance to get back to a healthier place. That being said, the key to longterm health is more than just a balanced diet, regular exercise, and the like, especially when it comes to a strong immune system. This is where phytosterols come in.
How phytosterols can help
In addition to the lifestyle adjustments above, plant sterols and phytosterols can help to support your immune system too. Phytosterols are compounds found in plants that resemble cholesterol (i.e. are structurally similar to cholesterol). When a supplement with plant sterols is consumed, it can help to bring overall balance to the immune system by enhancing an underactive immune system, and modulating an overactive one. While sterols do not “fix” the immune system, they do give it the nutrients it needs to be balanced.7 When looking for a quality supplement containing these plant sterols, which can benefit adults and kids alike, it is helpful to look for one that has research behind it, and one that has the right sterol to sterolin ratio. Research has also shown quite clearly that the blend of sterols and sterolins in a 100:1 ratio, exhibit the best immune balancing activity.8
And did we mention kids? Yes, your children’s immune system can get out of balance too. They are exposed to any number of germs from their peers and from the environment, and have their own levels of stress and digestive problems. Building a strong, well-balanced immune system from an early age will benefit children for a lifetime. Talk to your pediatrician about supplements that contain phytosterols and see if they may be right for your family.
If you think you have a weakened or imbalanced immune system, don’t fret! There are steps you can take at home to keep yourself and those around you healthy, and maximize your immune function.