Your behavior, diet, and environment all impact the immune system. Most of us have this impression of sickness as a “boy in the bubble” type exercise. We are the “boy in the bubble,” and if something like a virus worms its way into our bubble, we will get sick from it. This notion is bolstered by how science, our government, and our news sources treat the idea of an outbreak or an infection.
In reality, the situation works far differently. You have an immune system which has variable strengths depending on the time of day, your diet, and the time distance between you and your last meal. These behaviors and activities set a “tone” inside of us. They set a “state”. This state, as we understand the variables, can be tuned to HIGHER immune strength or LOWER immune strength. Let’s explore each of these and how they might impact your immune system and immune strength.
We all are intimately tied to that big bright shiny ball in the sky. In ways we do not even realize. You receive energy from the sun daily. You receive information from the sun daily. Your body responds to the time of day in a variety of ways that sets large “states” in your body which are hard to change. Your body does an intimate and predictable dance in relation to the sun daily.
A recent study made these conclusions regarding the circadian and the immune system:
“Numerous studies have provided strong links between circadian rhythms and the immune system. Much work remains to be done, however, with regards to implementing these observations in the clinic and to integrating the breadth of circadian influences into a multifaceted immune response. One could envision that simple therapeutic changes taking into account the circadian time may impact clinical care as much as the development of a new drug, at a fraction of the cost. A greater mechanistic understanding of rhythms in the immune response will be critical to identify new opportunities in the development of time-based interventions that harness endogenous predispositions.” (1)
Diet affects the immune system in ways that many of us do not even realize. The ratios and type of fats we eat will set a state of inflammation or anti-inflammation in the body. The fats we eat will also determine the strength of our immune response. This is a vast topic which we will only cover at a high level in this paper. When considering diet: fats; aminos; vitamins; trace minerals; and fiber should be considered in that order. For the purposes of this paper, we will only discuss fats as they have the largest impact on the immune system and response.
Humans have two types of polyunsaturated fats which are deemed “essential”. This means our bodies cannot build these fats and they are necessary for our proper function. Now stop for a second and consider how many omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids you eat every day. NONE of us know these numbers, and yet these are the most important fats to our existence. If you eat “normally,” you are likely eating a significant amount of saturated fat and omega-6 fats. These are EVERYWHERE in our diets and are the inflammatory type fats. They PROMOTE inflammation. We all do not eat enough monounsaturated fat and omega-3 fats. I would challenge you to name a source of omega-3 fats you eat consistently. Again these are CRITICAL to your existence as you basically cannot build anti-inflammatory mediators without omega-3 fats.
Without the immune mediators that can be built from omega-3 fatty acids, we are left with our “make up” system to generate anti-inflammatory type mediators for our immune system. These gut-generated mediators are called short-chain fatty acids and consist of acetate, propionate, and butyrate.
The immune system is an energy-requiring system and will vary in its strength and intensity by the energy available. At the highest level, this is determined by our eating behavior. When we eat a meal, we go into a degraded state for around 5 hours. This is due to our bodies needing to deal with the fats we just ate rather than burn them. So for 5 hours, fats are analyzed and swapped around to adipose tissues. During this time most of the body will operate on glucose as fuel rather than fat. Glucose as a fuel is the default for a cell, but also very inefficient. Fat is the way we are designed to run. When a cell is running on fat vs glucose, it can be up to 50 times more energetic. This matters in our immune state. We have 2 ways to kill cancer which we shut off when we eat and for 5 hours after eating. We are much weaker as to pathogen defense for 5 hours after eating. We suggest intermittent fasting as a way to minimize this immune “down time”. Eating in a “window” will allow the maximum amount of time in an enhanced immune state.
Before we even take any kind of supplement, or vaccine, there are MANY things we can do to improve the state of our immune health. Just simply by understanding our diet and eating behavior, we can GREATLY kick up the efficiency of our immune system.
(1) Scheiermann C, Kunisaki Y, Frenette PS. Circadian control of the immune system. Nat Rev Immunol. 2013 Mar;13(3):190-8. doi: 10.1038/nri3386. Epub 2013 Feb 8. PMID: 23391992; PMCID: PMC4090048.