It is our natural primitive response to defend ourselves. We need armour. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t survive. Simple. As a child you depend on your parents to keep you safe from harm. Ask any mother if she heard anything in the night before her child was born. Once an infant or dependant requires your care, from the dead of sleep you can hear even a sigh from the other room. We are wired to defend.
The immune system is complex in one way, easy to understand if you think of it like your personal security system. Please bear with me on a few details for a moment as I try to explain the importance of gut health, your immune system and your longevity.
As you grow, you learn to watch out for danger. You learn to take care of yourself. As you learn to separate safe from unsafe, so does your immune system. It learns. Your nervous system and your immune system constantly survey information from the environment. Both consciously and unconsciously they are primed to detect danger. About 70%, of your immune system is in your gut. You sense a lot of your physical environment through the gut. Makes sense as this is where you meet most of your environment. Now I use the 70/30 as an estimate. It could be 77/33 or 75/25. You get the picture. Most of your primary defense is in your gut and the rest is in the body.
Got that? 70% in the gut – primary area outside the castle walls. This is like the troops going out to war, in the fields, on the battlefield, these guards are outside your castle walls. The remaining 30% of your immune system is inside the castle walls. Inside your body. Looks after invaders that get through. This is because the gastrointestinal tract is really a long tube from your mouth to your bottom. The contents of this tube are really outside of you. Just like your skin on your arm separates you from the rest of the world.
The castle walls are also on your skin and in your gut are your physical exterior. Common entry points on the skin are the eyes, nose, ears and breaks in the skin.
The army commanders inside your castle walls are the lymphocytes. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that are found in the blood stream and lymphatic tissue. Lymphocytes in lymphatic. Makes sense. You can see your lymphocyte count when you get a complete blood count done. This checks some basic details about your red blood cells and your white blood cells.
The point is not to make you an immune expert, but to appreciate that while you are snivelling and complaining about how you feel, your amazing immune system is so hard at work, at war actually, against so many things. True, sometimes it gets a little over zealous and goes into over drive, a bit crazy actually, as it starts to think your body tissue or your good microbes is not you or something safe, but something foreign and dangerous (autoimmune). Casualties of war.
Cytokines, chemical messengers, are like the page boys that were sent out in the night to deliver messages. One kind of cytokine called interferon is released by cells under viral attack. It sends messages to nearby cells to prepare them for battle. The messages tell them to make enzymes that will interfere with viral replication. What’s overall important is that these cytokines can be tracked. Measured.
Over the course of many years and studies and observations, it is found that abnormal levels of different kinds of cytokines, whether too many for too long or too many of one kind versus another are evident in many chronic diseases, digestive and mood disorders. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, insomnia, leaky gut – all are in some part a result of cytokines shifts and imbalances.
Why do cytokines shift or become imbalanced? There are chronic sources of inflammation. Why inflammation? Is it altogether bad? No. Short term, inflammation is very helpful. It is there to clean up and take away the garbage from a site of trauma, infection or injury.
When there is an overload of viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic load or the body is just plain confused and now attacks its own tissues – these are all reasons for chronically activated immune and inflammatory states. The body’s immune system is chocked full of inflammatory factors. If this is you and you add one more aggressive viral intruder that your body has never seen before, the scale gets tipped.
Think about it. If you are trying to move through a room and it is full of stuff, how annoying it is to get through as you are bumping into everything? You feel stuck, you can’t get through and ouch, you hit stuff. This can make you feel frustrated. Well, on the same level inside are your lymphatics. If there is a bunch of garbage floating around and it can’t keep up to it, it gets sluggish and dirty. Just like the streets after a St. Patty day’s party at the local college. A mess. Garbage, puke, junk, all left behind. Some of it bagged up, some of it clutter in the gutter. This is your lymphatic system hard at work. It just can’t keep up to all the big parties going on. Clutter in your gutter? You are going to feel sluggish, anxious, maybe even depressed.
On the contrary think of how it feels to run free in an open park. All lush and mowed and flowers growing, streams running fluidly. Freedom. Ease of movement. You can run with your arms open wide and breath fresh air, pain free. This is a clean lymphatic system. It can keep up to the demands and provides a well of nourishment.
There is proof that cytokines are not only involved in inflammatory cell to cell communication, but also in chronic dorsal vagal activation. Our freeze mode. Immobilized with fear. Cytokine imbalance has a link to anhedonia (the inability to express pleasure) and learned helplessness[LMB1] .
Understandably if your nervous system is overwhelmed and your immune tired of defending, then danger lurks. You need rest, a break and reprieve to keep up with the demands. You cannot operate 24/7 for long. With every period of intense activity, it must be followed by a period of intense rest. For every yin there is a yang. Vice versa. Balance.
We know stress affects the gut. The onset of irritable bowel syndrome and heartburn often begin in times of grief, abuse or other major negative life events. Of those with IBS, almost 40% experience bouts of anxiety and depression.
Factors in inflammatory immune response and subsequent depression include stress, diet, lifestyle, leaky gut, and an imbalance in the pro-inflammatory and regulatory T cells (TH1/TH2) parts of our immune system.
Depression and stress are tightly linked to chronic states of dorsal vagal activation. What can suppress immune, or drive you into chronic dorsal vagal activation? Life events, stress (cortisol adrenaline), anti-inflammatories like NSAIDs- ibuprofen, Naproxen, aspirin, cortisone, hydrocortisone, prednisone. Other immune suppressive drugs that are actually used to treat autoimmune diseases and transplant recipients. Not that these drugs are all bad. They can be life-saving in critical moments of overrun infection and inflammation. It’s the long-term consequences of repeated or prolonged use that are a challenge.
Viral, bacterial, fungi, parasites and cancer that might have been caught and attacked and dealt with grow and multiply and become more difficult to deal with. Increased loads of gram-negative bacteria means increased loads of its off gas, lipopolysaccharides (LPS). These irritate the gut lining and contribute to leaky gut. So does the transformation of Candida yeast to a fungal form. It grows tails that root into the gut lining and affect the tight junctions between the cells. This single cell wall does separate between the cells during appropriate times of digestion. But when you have LPS and fungal forms around, the gaps get stuck open and stay that way. Then these and food proteins that would normally be digested down in to smaller bits get out into the blood stream beyond the castle walls, into the blood, the lymph and the cells. Peripheral (body wide) immune activation triggers release of proinflammatory cytokines which are now linked to a number of behavioural, neuroendocrine and neurochemical alterations in the body and brain.
Depression and anxiety are now considered psychoneuroimmunological disorders and now you can understand and appreciate why. As all this happens it is understandable that you become less social and more self-focused. It is the immune that drives this behaviour and the more inflammation going on, the more you are grounded and feeling anxious.
How to build immunity? Start in the gut. Eat balanced meals. Think about gluten, dairy, sugar free. Watch your alcohol intake. Eat more vegetables. Get lean responsibly raised meat. Sleep on a regular cycle. Exercise 30 minutes a day, in fresh air if possible. Finds ways to feel and acknowledge your emotions. Breathe. In. And out. Socialize however you can. Be creative. Love yourself. Love others. Be yourself.
Dr. Laura M. Brown, ND, is a licensed naturopathic doctor, author, Certified HeartMath® Practitioner and a Certified Gluten Free Practitioner. She holds the designation of ADAPT Trained Practitioner from Kresser Institute, the only functional medicine and ancestral health training company. Her focus is on digestive health and emotional regulation. Her passion is to stimulate the healing power within you.
[LMB1]Vogelzangs N, de Jonge P, Smit JH, Bahn S, Penninx BW. Cytokine production capacity in depression and anxiety. Transl Psychiatry. 2016;6(5):e825. Published 2016 May 31. doi:10.1038/tp.2016.92