I’m a fixer. So, when a handful of my clients asked for holistic remedies to combat the congestion, sore throat, and chest cough trio going around, I made it my mission to more thoroughly understand the immune system. I’ve tried herbal remedies, medicinal cocktails, and lifestyle enhancements for myself, and can share anecdotal evidence, but was curious what Eastern and Western medicine “officially” had to say on the matter.
To start, I read up on the basics. The immune system is a network of cells, protein, tissues, and organs working together to defend against disease-causing microorganisms. When it’s balanced, this complex system works efficiently and partners with the other systems of the body to keep you healthy. But sometimes it malfunctions; and a germ invades. This invasion causes the sniffling, soreness, and coughing that bring us down. These are telltale signs that the body is fighting to eliminate the infection—but are also signs that the body is healing itself.
My goal wasn’t to understand how to feel better when in the throes of a cold, but rather how to strengthen the immune response to lessen the frequency of foreign germ invasions. I found plenty of hype, like top 10 lists of the best herbs and foods to enhance immune function. But, according to the most current scientific research, there is no one superpower food that will boost immunity. The immune system is a system, not a single entity, which works in tandem with other systems to bring the body to balance. So, it’s important to look at how to better balance the partnerships between the systems of the body.
It’s not as overwhelming as it sounds. Think of your body as one large interconnected system. To treat the immune system means to treat the entire body. Standard healthy living strategies are your first line of defense. And whether suggested by Eastern medicine doctors or Harvard Medical School, every list of suggestions to support immune health and overall body balance was the same. I know you’ve heard these, but they are worth repeating:
- Eat a whole foods diet (including vegetables, whole grains, and foods low in saturated fat)
- Exercise consistently
- Allow quality time to sleep
- Employ stress-relief strategies to control blood pressure and your stress response
- Don’t smoke
- Consume alcohol only in moderation
All of the above recommendations are critical to your overall health and wellbeing. But there is one important addition to this to-do list: taking time to listen to your body. When you’re coughing or sneezing, the body is telling you its woes—frankly, it’s practically screaming them at you. Part of building immunity is learning to listen to your body’s whispers so you never get to the screaming!
Being aware of your body will give you subtle indicators of when balance is going off course and allow you the opportunity to get the body back on track. It also may reveal much larger patterns that need correction. Think about it, when you’re rounded forward from sitting at your desk or continuously bending over to pick up your child, your lungs and your digestive organs (amongst other things) are not given the space they need to work optimally—they are compressed. Because you’re not standing up straight, they have less space to do their jobs. And it’s a domino effect: If the respiratory system and the digestive system are compromised, then the immune system is compromised too because the body is out of balance. And I bet if you knew rounding forward would have such an impact, you would work to fix it. The problem is, we are so overwhelmed by all the things we have to accomplish in a day, week, and month, that we don’t take time to notice the state of our body. From my experience, awareness of the body is the very last item on the to-do list for most. Plenty of people make exercise a priority, but actually taking time to understand, assess, and respond to the state of the body often does not happen.
There are countless ways to bring awareness and glean insight about the body. From my perspective, movement is your magic. Movement makes you aware of everything, from poor posture to constricted mobility to pain. But to be sure your focus is clear and you’re gleaning the best possible information, I suggest scanning your body before and after movement. Bring your attention to one part of the body, followed by another, to assess the state of your body, prior to movement and then again after movement, to help you notice any difference. This information helps determine the best movements for your body as well as the areas that may need more attention.
To scan your body, start by lying on your back on a flat surface. Use a pillow under your knees if needed. Close your eyes and bring your attention to the following areas: hands, feet, legs, hips, ribs, shoulders, and head. Take a few moments to pause at each area. Ask yourself if the area feels heavy, light, stiff, mobile, hot, or cold. Take the same assessment after your movement and note any differences. This before-and-after body scan will help you start to better understand the state of your body and the effects of your movement on the body.
By taking time to bring your focused attention and awareness to your body, you’ll hear the messages your body is sending and be better equipped to bring it back to balance. Perhaps during your body scan you’ll actually fall asleep (an indicator of the need for more sleep!) or a twinge in your stomach (an indicator to make changes in your diet) or perhaps a tightness in your shoulders (a sign to focus on your posture)—all these signs and others are calls to action, that if attended to, will allow for overall better body system function. The best way to boost your immunity is to be a good listener—pay attention to what your body is telling you!