Even though it may feel as though summer just got here, school is quickly approaching. For some this is an exciting time full of new experiences and a chance to readily consume knowledge. For others, it may be a dreaded period of lost free time and mountains of expected homework. No matter the type of person one may be, going to back to school marks a time of increased risk of getting sick.
There are many reasons why there is greater risk of illness when returning to school but one of the best ways to counteract them is by understanding and supporting the immune system.
What is the Immune System?
It may not be obvious but the body is almost constantly under attack from foreign substances, aggressive bacteria and viruses. However, because the immune system is quietly and effectively doing its job most people do not experience daily sickness and illness. In some ways, the immune system is like a high-powered security team who is always on the lookout for possible threats and potentially dangerous agents. When working as intended, the immune system is constantly checking on suspicious cells and deciding whether they are allowed to enter the body or not. If a cell doesn’t have the right credentials, the immune system swiftly removes it from the premises.
On a physiological level the immune system is composed of multiple cells, tissues, and organs including lymphocytes, leukocytes, bone marrow, the lymph nodes, the spleen, and the thymus. Although these elements are important and work together to support immune function, the bulk of the immune system is contained within the gut.
The Gut: Chief of Security
The gut makes up roughly 75% of the immune system. Therefore, it is not surprising that the health of one’s gut has significant impact over the efficacy of one’s immune system. A major factor in the gut is microflora representation and growth.
Microflora are a collection of bacteria, fungi, and algae that inhabit the gut. Keeping an appropriate balance of healthy microflora is critical to maintaining good health and preventing disease. One of the many responsibilities of microflora is to form a protective barrier within the gut that helps repel harmful bacteria and viruses. This defense mechanism also functions as an alarm system that informs the immune system of foreign invaders, like viruses, parasites, and invasive fungi, so that it can effectively hunt them down and remove them.
If there is a lack of microflora in the gut, the immune system may be informed too late or not all if there is a current threat. This can result in the development of serious chronic conditions. Common indicators of poor microflora function or prevalence include low levels of zinc, selenium, potassium, iron and iodine, in addition to deficiencies of vitamins A, D, and B6. Other signs of gut dysfunction, that are not exclusively tied to microflora include:
- Irregular bowel movements
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Joint pain
- Mood swings
- Previously unnoticed food allergies or sensitivities
- Skin disorders
- Memory issues
If one regularly experiences the above symptoms, it is possible that their gut is not functioning at its best resulting in a poorly functioning immune system. Other frequent causers of immune dysfunction are autoimmune disorders.
Immunity Gone Wrong
Unfortunately, the immune system is not perfect and may develop severe dysfunction. In some cases, the immune system may overreact or mistakenly target cells, bacteria, and tissue that is beneficial or necessary for one’s health. This can cause various conditions such as thyroid disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia to develop. Autoimmune disorders one may be familiar with include: Graves’ disease, Celiac disease, Lupus, and Scleroderma. These conditions all cause the immune system to act and react in certain ways resulting in widespread bodily dysfunction.
If one has an autoimmune disorder, it is important that they have it treated as soon as possible. The American Autoimmune Related Disease Association (AARDA), estimates that 50 million Americans have an autoimmune condition. Furthermore, those with an autoimmune disorder are likely to have more than one autoimmune condition at once. Those with a family history of immune dysfunction are also at a greater risk of developing an autoimmune disorder. If one already has an autoimmune condition or is at greater risk of developing one it is important that they have an experienced physician test for the presence of other conditions.
Keeping the Immune System Working at Its Best
There are two primary ways to support one’s immune system. By avoiding certain activities and lifestyle habits while engaging in others, one can better boost their immunity before school begins.
Unhealthy Foods: A healthy diet is critical to keeping a healthy gut. Therefore, diet plays an important role in supporting immune function. Optimizing one’s diet differs from optimizing it solely for weight loss. Gut healthy diets are concerned with keeping up good levels of bacteria while reducing bad bacteria. Removing or limiting intake of foods such as refined sugars, grains, excessive alcohol, and processed foods can remove a great deal of stress from the gut. Reducing intake of these inflammatory substances also helps lower levels of bad bacteria in the gut.
Stress: During finals, particularly in college, a great many students begin getting sick. A major contributor of this is increased stress causing the immune system to weaken and break down. Excess stress causes notable dysfunction throughout the body, including the immune system. As stress increases so does a hormone known as cortisol. When cortisol levels increase immune cell prevalence in the bloodstream drops. Worse still, chronic stress and increased cortisol levels can result in greater inflammation coupled with immune suppression which is a deadly combination regarding one’s ability to combat disease.
Exercise:Studies have found that healthy exercise boosts immune function by strengthening cells that combat bad bacteria. Those with more sedentary lifestyles show reduced cell activity in comparison to those who are more physically active. Exercise also promotes the production of antibodies during physical activity. These antibodies react to harmful bacteria and viruses and eliminate them from the system. If this is not enough motivation to start exercising, there are other benefits associated with it including improved mood, greater sense of well-being, and more energy.
Sleep More:Sleep is frequently perceived and used as a resource or commodity that can be traded for an extra hour of TV, socializing, or working. This is a flawed view. According to a 2012 study, sleeping less than seven hours nightly can have a significant negative impact on immune function. While we sleep, the immune system releases cytokines, which can support healthy sleep and combat infection and inflammation when one is stressed. The production of these substances and other helpful antibodies slows significantly when there is a lack of sleep.
Beat the Back to School Blues
Even if one isn’t excited about returning to school, they should still prepare. This doesn’t just mean bringing a notebook and a pencil to class on the first day. Avoiding immune-inhibiting habits and activities while pursuing immune boosting practices can help make one’s back to school experience disease free.