Reporter from The New York Times Matt Richtel tells a tale of two metaphors when describing the immune system and the inflammatory response. Sometimes, the immune system is compared to a “ruthless defender,” while Richtel prefers to think of it as a combination between a bouncer and a ballet dancer. Which is the right comparison?
Steering away from the “ruthless defender” metaphor, Richtel explains that healthy inflammation is more about finding the right balance and less about “exercising power.” To determine the true identity of the immune system and its role in human health, Richtel explores a few different ideas in detail:
- Fight or flight
On the most basic level, one can think of the immune system as the gatekeeper of human health: detecting potentially harmful microbial invaders and removing them from body. Things get more complicated when you also consider that the immune system has to filter and analyze potential threats before launching a protective attack.
When there is a threat, the immune system addresses it and does so via inflammation. While the term “pro-inflammatory” usually has a negative connotation and “anti-inflammatory” is something worth praise, the true story is more about balance. Inflammation at the right time and in the right amount is necessary and good.
With that said, Richtel writes that it is perhaps more important to “support” your immune system rather than “boost” it.
Fight or Flight
A popular anecdote for explaining the “fight or flight” response usually involves a bear attack. Simply put: human encounters bear, human is at risk of death via bear attack, human reacts to maximize chance of survival. Part of that reaction is physiological, invisible. The human body releases epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol hormones to direct all resources to surviving the lion attack: deal with lion attack now, handle stress later.
In modern days, in lieu of bear attacks, the fight or flight response instead responds to challenges of the 21st century human’s everyday life – very often events triggered by stress, which are not life-threatening in the same way as a bear. Nonetheless, the body produces fight or flight hormones, which dampen the immune response. A reaction evolutionarily designed to survive bear attacks is now overused in response to more modern types of stressful situations: fights with a spouse, admonishment by a superior at work, or heavy traffic on the commute home.
“Many people are living with imaginary bears every step of their lives — something in the news or around the bend is going to get them,” described Ohio State University Professor Dr. William Malarkey.
The immune system’s response to the ever-present imaginary bears results in chronic inflammation, which is associated with a myriad of conditions like heart disease, obesity, and cancer.
A long list of studies boast various claims of just how many hours of sleep you need to be healthy. Some studies say different people need different amounts of sleep. Some studies say six hours, some say eight, and some instead focus on the quality of sleep over quantity. Regardless, Richtel reports that enough loss of sleep does negatively affect immunity because:
- Adrenal hormones stay activated
- Natural killer cell population decreases
- Pro-inflammatory signaling increases
Ultimately, lack of adequate sleep promotes imbalance in the immune system.
Regular physical activity supports the immune system by relieving stress, promoting healthy populations of immune cells, and reducing the risk of obesity.
Described as “nonjudgmental, in-the-moment awareness and acceptance of our thoughts and feelings,” meditation has been show to relieve stress, Richtel reports.
Natural food trumps processed food in many ways, but especially when it comes to nourishing the immune system. Nutrients from natural sources of food provide the immune system the energy it needs to function properly and maintain homeostasis. Plus, a diet with more natural food choices than processed items can help reduce the risk of obesity.
Exposure to microbes to help the immune system “calibrate properly to the natural world.”
If there’s anything to take away from Richtel’s review of the immune system, it’s like that regular immune function is less about “good” and “bad” and more about balance. Several factors influence how well the immune system maintains balance, and often we have control over these factors. Supporting a balanced immune system is critical for reducing the risk of the chronic conditions that run rampant in the modern world.
Read the New York Times article.