A healthy immune system is an indicator of overall well being. This has been well established by the crucial roles of the immune system in fighting diseases. An example is the outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic.
So, what exactly does the term 'weak immunity' stand for? Also, what are its undesirable effects on our wellbeing?
Health is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease.
The immune system protects the body from infection. A person with a weak immune system is prone to recurrent infections. As we age, our immune response' capability becomes reduced, which contributes to more infections. The body’s immune system is made up of different components. They are:
Skin, which can help prevent germs from getting into the body.
Mucous membranes, which are the moist, inner linings of some organs and body cavities. They make mucus and other substances which can trap and fight germs.
White blood cells, which fight germs.
Organs of the lymph system such as thymus, spleen, tonsils, lymph nodes, lymph vessels, and bone marrow: They produce, store, and carry white blood cells.
All immune cells come from precursors in the bone marrow and develop into mature cells through a series of changes that can occur in different parts of the body. Being sick is a pointer of a failed immune system that was unable to withstand the attack of offending organisms like viruses, bacteria and parasites. In the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, many have now become acutely aware of this age-old health phenomenon.
In this article, we look at the cardinal symptoms of a weak immune system and thereafter, offer some tips that can help you stay healthy during a pandemic and beyond.
1. Poor wound healing
Wounds generally go through three stages as they repair. These stages are: Inflammatory Phase, Proliferation Phase and Maturation Phase. The immune system plays a central role in orchestrating the tissue healing process by actively participating to re-establish homeostasis following tissue injury via multiple mechanisms. Since these processes require a coordinated series of immune events, their disruption can lead to a variety of wound pathologies such as chronic wounds and scar formation. The immune system helps defend the body against these harmful bacteria, and it is also key in regulating inflammation that can hinder the healing process of wounds.
As people age, their immune systems get weakened. For this reason, older people are more susceptible to infections. Additionally, poor immune function can dictate higher risk of chronic diseases that negatively affect the body’s ability to heal, such that they restrict proper circulation and oxygenation to the affected area. Also, medical factors such as use of Prednisolone, short term use of NSAIDs, and Chemotherapy drugs. Other lifestyle factors are obesity, smoking – cigarettes and tobacco- and nutritional deficiency in Proteins (especially Arginine, Glutamine, Collagen), Vitamin C, E and Fatty Acids.
2. Constant fatigue
According to a report by the American Psychological Association, long-term stress weakens the responses of your immune system. Many factors contribute to stress. But whatever the cause, stress creates a hormone in your body called cortisol. Cortisol can suppress your immune system’s effectiveness in fighting invaders by lowering the number of lymphocytes present in the blood and interfering with normal white blood cell communication.
It is relatively difficult for a person to recover from stress-related illnesses as the cause is usually complex and multi-layered with biological, psychological and social factors. To compound things, when our bodies have elevated stress levels over an extended period of time (more than a few days) the autonomic nervous system begins to accept this heightened stress level as normal. It continues to produce high levels of stress hormones well after the stressful event has passed, further compromising the immune system. People in this state are often irritable, angry, anxious, have panic attacks or racing thoughts. The process of returning to their calm state can take mindfulness practices that involve enlightening people to be aware of their breath, mind and body through sensations such as meditation, yoga. Stress also has an indirect effect on the immune system as a person may use unhealthy behavioural coping strategies to reduce their stress, such as drinking and smoking. Stress is linked to headaches; infectious illness (e.g. ‘flu); cardiovascular disease; diabetes, asthma and gastric ulcers
3. Frequent cold and infections
The common cold is caused by more than 200 different viruses. Of which the most common include rhinoviruses (rhino means nose). Rhinovirus infections tend to be mild; you might get a sore throat and a head cold lasting just a few days. Some researchers suggest that rhinoviruses may replicate more efficiently at temperatures lower than 37°C, or 98.6°F, which is the average core body temperature in humans. The temperature inside the nasal cavity is approximately 33°C (91.4°F), which may make it an ideal breeding ground for rhinoviruses. Influenza, or the flu, is generally caused by type A or B influenza viruses. The flu is far more aggressive and often includes a fever, fatigue and body ache, in addition to all the classic cold symptoms. The health of our immune system plays an important role in determining how we can defend against invading cold and flu viruses.
Many people associate cold weather with the common cold. While the weather is not directly responsible for making people sick, the viruses that cause colds may spread more easily in lower temperatures, and exposure to cold and dry air may adversely impact the body’s immune system.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), millions of people develop the common cold each year in the United States alone. On average, adults get two or three colds a year.
Rhinovirus infections typically result in mild cold-like symptoms. However, rhinoviruses can also cause more severe illnesses, such as bronchitis and pneumonia, in people with weakened immune systems. Many researchers believe that exposure to cold weather can adversely affect a person’s immune response, making it harder for the body to fight off infections. Reasons for this may include:
Reduced vitamin D levels. During the winter months like December, many people get less vitamin D due to reduced sun exposure. Research shows that vitamin D plays an essential role in maintaining the immune system.
Spending more time indoors. People tend to spend more time indoors during winter months, and viruses spread more when people are close to each other.
Blood vessel narrowing. Breathing in cold and dry air causes the blood vessels in the upper respiratory tract to narrow to conserve heat. This may prevent white blood cells from reaching the mucous membrane, making it harder for the body to fight off.
4. You’re always ill:
We all get ill, especially in the winter months so most times, an occasional illness is nothing to worry about. But if you constantly battle illnesses or experience recurring ones, it is most certain you have a weak immune system. Your immune system is always fighting invading bacteria, viruses and disease, yet these foreign bodies permeate like the immune system is perforated. It is a sign of weak immune system.
Regular or insistent bladder infections, mouth ulcers, colds, flu or thrush, are also pointers of weak immune system,
5. Digestive problems:
Our gastrointestinal (GI) tract is home to an enormous and complex community of commensal bacteria. The quality of your intestinal bacteria has a direct effect on your immune system and vice versa. If you have frequent diarrhoea, ulcers, gas, bloating, cramping, or constipation, it could be a sign that your immune system isn’t working as well as it should. There are many types of gut bacteria that help maintain healthy immune system. You may have heard of probiotics: lactobacilli and bifidobacteria. They defend your gut from infection and support the immune system function, so low amounts of friendly bacteria can lead to a compromised immune system. Therefore, if you have gut and digestion issues which are affecting your ability to absorb fat, you may not be absorbing enough vitamin D either.
Ways to Boost Your Immune System.
To best protect your body from harm, every component of your immune system needs to perform well, according to plan. The best way you can ensure that is to practice the good-for-you behaviors your immune system needs. Here are seven ways to strenghten your immune system:
- Eat a balanced diet : Feeding your body with certain foods may help keep your immune system strong. If you’re looking for ways to prevent colds, the flu, and other infections, in particular, plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices would help!
- Get enough sleep and avoid stress: The body relies on hormones like cortisol during short-term bouts of stress (when your body goes into “fight-or-flight” response). Cortisol has a beneficial effect of preventing the immune system from responding before the stressful event is over, so your body can react solely to the immediate stressor. But when cortisol levels are constantly high, it essentially blocks the immune system from kicking into gear and doing its job to protect the body against potential threats from germs like viruses and bacteria. Sleep deprivation also elevates cortisol levels, which of course is not good for immune function. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that all adults get at least seven hours of sleep every night to optimize health. To ensure you get quality sleep, prioritize good sleep hygiene: Turn off the electronics at least two to three hours before bed, and avoid violent or stressful books or conversations.
- Take Multivitamins and food supplements: Vitamin C is known to increase the production of white blood cells, which are important in fighting infections. Almost all citrus fruits are high in vitamin C. With this variety to choose from, it’s easy to add a squeeze of this vitamin to any meal. Just peel that orange or tangerine, and you're good to go! Vitamin B6 is vital to supporting biochemical reactions in the immune system. Vitamin B6-rich foods include chicken and cold-water fish such as salmon and tuna. Vitamin B6 also is found in green vegetables and in chickpeas, which is the main ingredient in hummus. Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that helps the body fight infection. Foods rich in vitamin E include nuts, seeds and spinach.
- Don’t smoke and reduce alcohol intake: High consumption of alcohol can weaken your body’s ability to fight infection and slow down your recovery time. As a result, people who drink high amounts of alcohol are more likely to have pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome, alcoholic liver disease, and certain cancers.
- Wash your hands.
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Exercise regularly.