Here’s something you’ve probably heard before:
The best defence is offence.
It’s the type of cliché you’re likely to hear at your daughter’s under 12s soccer match, or printed on one of those tiny strips of paper you find inside a fortune cookie, or pinned to a corkboard in your father-in-law’s study on a laminated A4 poster that looks like it was made on Microsoft Publisher and a Bubblejet printer in the 1990s.
You can see what it’s saying: be proactive! Get on the front foot! Don’t sit around and wait for an opportunity to come knocking – go do some knocking yourself.
All well and good.
But the reality is that when it comes to immune defence, the best defence is … well, defence.
Sadly, this is something not many Australians are aware of. The truth is, we don’t think about our immune defence very often, let alone take steps to strengthen it.
The immune system: the defence force for your body
We often use violent metaphors to talk about the immune system. The immune system battles foreign viruses and microbes that attack your health. The immune system mobilises against the forces of germs. The immune system fights against enemies such as infections to protect our overall health.
I’m reminded of the animated film Antz. (You have to be a certain age to remember Antz; greetings, fellow older Australians.) In one scene, a geeky worker ant named Z accidentally joins the warrior ants in a battle against termites. In a surprisingly moving scene, the warrior ants throw all they have against forces that threaten to destroy the colony. It’s not unlike your immune system, which puts everything on the line to safeguard your health.
Of course, there are other, less violent ways to talk about what the immune system does:
- It safeguards your body and ensures your wellbeing
- It preserves the important gap between you and the external world
- It coordinates with other parts of your body to act on information about problems and deficiencies
System = multiple components working in harmony for your good
One of the problems with my Antz analogy is that in the film, all of the warrior ants are essentially the same: they talk the same way, like the same things, and walk in perfect unison. While it is true that your immune defence system has the same goal, it is a heterogeneous system. In other words, it is a system that is defined as much by difference as similarity.
In fact, the difference between the many aspects of your immune system is what makes it work so effectively.
- Your skin is – unsurprisingly – the barrier between you and the external world.
- Your lymphatic system is the grand railway around your body, letting immune cells reach exactly where they need to go to fight infection and disease
- Your spleen is part of the information gathering process of your immune system, somewhat like MI-6 in James Bond (except without the explosions, gadgets, nice suits, and exotic European and Latin American locations … usually.)
Blood cells also play a crucial role. White blood cells called phagocytes devour harmful elements in your body. ‘Devour’ might sound like a slightly exaggerated way of putting it, but the name phagocyte comes from the Greek word meaning ‘to eat’. Phagocytes consume the enemies of your body and digest them into harmless debris. Compare those to another type of white blood cells called lymphocytes. Lymphocytes help to store information about illnesses to help your body fight them more effectively next time.
Am I simplifying? Of course – this is a blog post, not a CSIRO think-piece or a peer-reviewed journal article. But my point really is simple: your immune defence system is amazing. I’m a scientifically-minder person, so I don’t use this word lightly: but your immune system is simply miraculous. It is one of the marvels of the natural world.
Helping your immune system
Because your immune system does so much to help you, it is only fair that you take steps to make sure that you help it. You may like to speak to your GP about this, especially if you suspect that you have a weak immune system. Your immune system may be compromised if you:
- Are often unwell and seem to catch viruses easily
- Get infections often and find that cuts and bruises take significantly longer to heal than you would expect
- Struggle with fatigue despite resting well each night and having what seems to be high-quality sleep
Here’s the thing: even if you don’t tick any of those boxes, keeping your immune defence system fit as a fiddle should be a priority. Here are some simple steps that you can take:
- Eat healthily. A recent studied confirmed that ‘micronutrients like vitamins, including vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, E and folic acid; trace elements including, zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, copper and the omega-3 fatty acids like EPA & DHA play a major role in supporting the immune system.’ The best way to get these is by maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet.
- Sleep appropriately. People often ask me how much sleep they should be getting. My answer is always simple: it depends. It’s a frustrating response, but it’s the truth. The amount of sleep you need depends on your age, your health, and your own preferences. Most Australian adults should get eight hours a night. Getting a good night’s sleep boosts your immune system and helps your body stay prepared for health issues that head in your direction.
- Exercise regularly. This is the one that Australians least like to hear! For a sports-obsessed country, we sure hate being told to stay active. I get it: the call to exercise can feel like a guilt trip and – for some of us – it can conjure up images of 5am sprints or memories of awkward high school PE classes. I suggest that you build exercise into your routine, combining staying active with things that you love or value: spending time gardening, going to the beach, playing with kids, or going for a walk with a friend.
- Consider using an immune defence supplement. Many of these are free from artificial colours, artificial flavours, and artificial preservatives, so you can sleep easy knowing that you’re not ingesting anything, well, artificial. Such supplements may help to boost your immune system and minimise the days you spend sick. Yes, that means that you won’t have to draw down on your sick leave. But more importantly, it means more time to spend doing the things you love with the people you love.
So, is offence the best defence? Sure – sometimes. But when it comes to your immune system, nothing beats a healthy, robust defence doing what it loves to do: protecting you from the things that bring illness, sickness, and disease. Not bad, if you ask me.