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Well-Being: Power your immune system for battle with rogue and invading cells

By Monday, Feb 19, 2018 Life In the Berkshires 3

I remember the moment I stopped feeling invincible. In 2014, I learned a staggering statistic: 48.2 percent of men and 38.3 percent of women will sometime within their lives be diagnosed with cancer[1]. To my University of Chicago-educated mind, these odds seemed exceedingly high and scary. “What must I do to be in the 60 percent that does not get cancer?” I asked myself, “And how can I start now?”

That 38.3 perent statistic jolted me because I was on the other side of 40 when I ran across it. For many people, the prospect of aging seems unnerving. Cancer is one of the many illnesses that can sneak up on us as we travel through our lives. Yet there is so much we still want to accomplish, and we need to be in strong health to do so. As the old Russian saying goes, “If you have health, the rest will follow.” It’s a simple wisdom that so many of us forget as we become engrossed in our daily battles.

What can we do today to protect ourselves besides hope and pray and wish for the best?

As I searched for solutions, I learned that I did not have to look too far: The best ally in this endeavor is the immune system. Most of us know our natural immunity protects us from colds, flu and other viruses, and bacteria. It may surprise you that another important function of the immune system is to hunt rogue cells such as cancer cells and kill them before they spread or grow into tumors. According to Jon Barron from the Baseline of Health Foundation, all of us may, as part of the normal metabolic process, “produce anywhere from a few hundred to as many as 10,000 cancerous cells” per day. As long as our immune systems are doing their jobs properly, they quickly recognize and kill them. “The reason that everybody doesn’t get cancer is because their immune systems are designed to prevent it,”[2] Barron adds.

In other words, think of your immune system as your own personal army: millions of immune cells, each a soldier, that keep guard and fight battles daily inside your body against all sorts of unwelcome invaders such as rogue cancer cells and infections. To help prevent chronic disease, you need to keep your army in top shape and focused. If your army of immune cells is poorly nourished and sleep-deprived, or fighting on too many fronts (i.e., battling viruses and bacteria, hunting rogue cells and coping with a congested liver or colon), eventually it will become overwhelmed and start losing some of these battles.

How long can we wait before we take action?

It is critical that our army of immune cells is ready for battle sooner rather than later. As we age, our immune systems become less effective while our responsibilities and stressors mount, lending a sense of urgency to this matter.

In a recent study published Feb. 5, 2018, by the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Dundee University, Scotland[3], learned from their data that “for some cancers, and also some infectious diseases, rising incidence with age exactly mirrors the exponential decline of the immune system.” To test their predictions, their mathematical model used cancer incidence data from the U.S. National Cancer Institute obtained from more than 2 million patients and covering more than 100 types of cancer. In fact, the researchers explained that “for those cancers that our model fitted particularly well, the pivot age is between 50 and 60 years.”[4]

What does all this mean to us in our day-to-day lives?

Ideally, before you reach age 50, your immune cell army should be in tip-top shape. The following are five areas of self-care that are essential to assure that your army of immune cells is ready for battle.

  1. Reduce chronic stress – Include periodic, brief relaxation exercises into your day to help interrupt the cycle of chronic stress. Under chronic stress, the immune system is largely suppressed. Thus, your personal army of immune cells has limited fighting capacity, leaving you vulnerable to pathogen attacks and rogue cells.
  2. Don’t skimp on sleep – Prioritize getting at least seven hours of restful sleep. Lack of or poor-quality sleep weakens immune function and causes low-grade systemic inflammation. You become more susceptible to colds and flu, reduce effectiveness of flu shots and increase your risk for various chronic illnesses including heart disease. Frequently, our careers and life demands leave us with six hours of sleep. Research shows that six hours or fewer of sleep for just eight days heightens inflammation in the body. Make sleep a priority. Your body will thank you.
  3. Nourish your cells – A micronutrient-rich diet low in sugar, alcohol and caffeine leads to healthy and well-functioning immune cells. Choose foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids to help your immune system recognize and take out rogue cells. Clean food free of pesticides, preservatives, additives, artificial colors and other chemicals helps reduce toxic load on the body. And go easy on heavily charred meats – charring and grilling meats at high temperatures produces mutagenic compounds (i.e. they cause changes in DNA) that can raise your risk of cancer.
  4. Detoxify your body – When the major elimination systems of your body are congested, your immune system becomes busy fighting battles on multiple fronts, which leaves it with fewer resources to spot and kill abnormal cells. Detoxifying your colon and your liver will free your immune system to fight important battles. It’s equally critical to detoxify your environment (air, water, food, household and beauty products), lowering your toxic exposure.
  5. Keep your gut healthy – Eat fermented foods and/or use a high-quality probiotic to keep your gut healthy and populated with beneficial bacteria. About 70 percent of your immune troops are located in your gut, making gut health paramount to a well-functioning immune system.

The body is a complex system and each of us has unique life and career circumstances. The five areas above provide a general road map to a healthy, well-functioning immune system. This list is by no means exhaustive. To ensure success, it is helpful to approach the process of building a strong immune system in a holistic way. This includes creating and implementing a personalized self-care system adapted to your individual situation.

This is a lot to take in, and can be overwhelming. To help you take the first step, we created a FREE Starter Mini-Package at Odysseys into Wellbeing. It consists of a quick 2-minute health self-assessment and a FREE, personal, 45-minute follow-up health coaching consultation. When used together, these will help you identify your first two or three priority steps for powering your immune system and provide guidance about how to effectively integrate them into your unique lifestyle.


[1]Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, Kindle Edition, p. 47.

[2] Jon Barron, Cancer and Your Immune System, Baseline of Health Foundation, June 19, 2006

[3] The study team also included researchers from the Heriot-Watt University, Malaysia, the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Institut Curie, France.

[4] Sam Palmer, Thea Newman, Could Aging Immune Systems Be a Better Predictor of Cancer Than Genetic Mutations?, The Conversation, February 5, 2018

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