I think many adults could share a similar story.
Fast forward to 2003.
When my oldest son started school, one or at most two children in his class had a food allergy of some kind. Fast forward again to 2009. When my youngest child started preschool, ten of the children in a class of twelve were allergic to at least one food. My children now report that lunchroom conversation can sometimes include a discussion of who is allergic to what. When someone claims to have no allergies, he/she might even be called out as a fibber as allergies have now become the norm rather the exception for this generation of children, which could aptly be dubbed Generation A.
What in the world has happened in a few short decades? Why do so many children and a growing number of adults today have issues with immunity at what seems like an accelerating rate?
The reason is the perfect storm of antagonists in our modern environment to our human immune system, the vast majority of which resides in the gut. (1)
This situation is translating into an epidemic of immunity issues.
An Epidemic of Immunity Issues
According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, nearly 24 million people suffer from at least one autoimmunity problem. Around the world, it is estimated that at least 1 in 12 people have at least one form of autoimmune disease and this number continues to grow rapidly.
Autoimmune disease runs the gamut from allergies or mild skin conditions to severe neurological and degenerative problems. Specific examples of autoimmune disease include eczema, asthma, psoriasis, ADD/ADHD, autism, celiac disease, food (or seasonal) allergies, asthma, Hashimoto’s, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, IBS, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, MS, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, diabetes, cancer, and the list goes on.
Most people who have autoimmune disease suffer from more than one autoimmunity disorder with the list of problems tending to grow and become more serious as time goes on. For example, babies with eczema are more likely to become asthmatic as they get older and people with ulcerative colitis or Crohn’s Disease are more susceptible to colorectal cancer.
Keeping Immunity Strong but Not Overreactive
Given that most of the immune system resides in the gut, keeping immunity strong primarily involves ensuring an optimal digestive process that includes a friendly, balanced and varied intestinal microbiota. Most people seem to grasp this as a basic first step because many tend to immediately make positive changes to their diet when they encounter autoimmune issues in the family.
In addition to diet, there are a number of other factors that greatly impact immunity that commonly go unaddressed by those seeking to keep their immune system in tip top shape.
Natasha Campbell-McBride MD summarizes these additional influences in her book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, a must read for anyone who suffers from autoimmune ailments whether mild (spring allergies) or severe (cancer).
Maintaining strong immunity goes far and beyond a whole food diet. It is a lifestyle that incorporates nontoxic living from every possible angle as much as realistically possible combined with a host of other strategies that keep the immune system strong via constant stimulation. The stimulation from natural microbes in the environment paradoxically keeps it from becoming overly reactive or destructive in the face of benign influences. This is what happens in a severe autoimmune situation when the body starts to destroy its own tissues such as with Hashimoto’s Disease.
A good analagy is to think about is what happens to your biceps when you do hammer curls. The muscles gradually get stronger and firmer from the effort expended. They might even get larger if you use an increasing amount of weight. If you do nothing, the biceps shrivel down to flab over time and provide no upper body support when you need it.
Top Ten Influences that Zap Your Immunity
What exactly then are the influences that negatively affect immunity? While some are obvious, some are less so and might even go against your current mental paradigm for what constitutes healthful living. Below is the top ten list according to Dr. Campbell-McBride.
Sugar and everything that contains it
According to Tom Valentine, author of Search for Health, significant immune system suppression begins to occur above 36 grams of sugar per day for adults (less in children). This would include fruit consumption too.
Note that a single can of soda or bottle or “healthy” processed juice would surpass this amount. Does this mean you can never enjoy sweet things? Of course not. It just means to keep the sugar in moderation and from natural sources like maple syrup, honey or sucanat. If you are battling the sugar demon, this article on how to get off sugar outlines four suggested steps that work well for freeing yourself from this immunity stealing addiction.
Just check out the aisles at the grocery store and you will soon realize that our modern society is seriously addicted to processed carbs. Cookies, cakes, chips, crackers, boxed breakfast cereals, white bread, and pasta, yes pasta, fall in this category. For many children, processed carbs make up the majority of “food” eaten in any given day!
If you want to keep immunity strong, processed carbs need to be kept in strict moderation (translation: don’t eat them every day and when you do eat them, consume in small servings and ideally in the presence of healthy fats to provide a satiation mechanism to avoid overindulging). They are only a small step better than plain sugar in how they are metabolized and negatively affect immunity. This holds true even if the processed carbs are organic.
Chemically altered and artificial fats
There is a cute saying going around that “fat doesn’t make you fat”. While this is true, it only applies to healthy fats. Factory fats like margarine, butter replacements, spreads, vegetable oils, and any processed foods prepared with these fats do indeed make you fat.
Factory fats also depress your immunity as the body has difficulty digesting and breaking these fats down. They are rancid and overprocessed in most cases too, which introduces free radicals into the equation, further causing the immune system to struggle.
Keep only healthy fats in your home and a part of your diet and your immunity will thank you.
Lack of high quality protein in the diet
Proteins, the most complex of the macronutrients, are made up of varying combinations of nitrogen-containing amino acids and are considered the building blocks of the body. There are twenty different amino acids that are important to human physiology which the digestive system primarily obtains from breaking down the proteins in the food we eat. Then, after the amino acids released from this process are absorbed into the blood, enzymes in the body repurpose them to produce the proteins required for specialized functions, such as making blood cells or building bone, ligament or muscle tissue.
It is important to obtain protein from a variety of sources: meats and fish, eggs, dairy products, nuts and seeds. Don’t forget gelatin rich homemade bone broth too, which contains a high amounts of glycine, a vital amino acid for detoxification as it assists the liver with its housecleaning duties.
It is important to note that just because a food has protein doesn’t mean that those proteins are equal in nutritional value. Grains and other plant sources—corn, rice, peas, beans, nuts and sesame seeds—contain all nine essential amino acids, but not in the same amounts and not in adequate amounts necessary to maintain human health as found in eggs, dairy products and meat.
Immunity in its peak form is maintained with adequate consumption of complete proteins, ideally obtained via a diet that includes both animal and plant foods. (2)
Exposure to man-made chemicals
It is astounding how many people who claim to eat organic don’t seem to think twice about using products containing toxic chemicals for cleaning their clothes (including dry cleaning!), washing their dishes, cleaning their house, and personal grooming. Chemical exposure can readily occur by breathing in vapors or by skin contact – not just by eating them! Keeping immunity in tip top shape requires elimination of chemical exposure in and around the home environment as much as possible.
Exposure to man-made sources of radiation
The modern lifestyle is dominated by usage and exposure to man-made radiation from TV, computers, video gaming, mobile phones, smart meters, high voltage electrical lines, nuclear power plants, and x-rays. There is no way to know what the long term effects of this will be on the human health, but initial research indicates that it does reduce immunity. This research demonstrated how exposure to smart phones affects the structure of the blood in a negative way.
While some of this exposure can’t be helped, minimization of exposure should always be the goal. Some simple ways to accomplish this include, turning off wifi at night, avoiding use of fluorescent bulbs and dimmer switches in the home, opting out of smart meters and AMR devices, using a radiation cancelling headset or the speaker phone for mobile phone use, avoiding neighborhoods where there are high voltage electrical wires or cell towers less than one-quarter of a mile away, and avoiding unnecessary x-rays both dental and medical. This article describes how to reduce the effect of blue light from digital screens which negatively effects sleep when exposure occurs after sundown.
It goes without saying that use of any pharmaceutical drugs – antibiotics, steroids, antidepressants, painkillers, statins, anti-cancer medications, the Pill, anti-viral drugs etc. – will negatively impact immunity. For example, cholesterol reducing statins increase cancer risk. (3)
While pharmaceutical drugs are necessary in life threatening circumstances, it is possible to avoid them most of the time if a healthy diet and lifestyle are followed. For example, my children haven’t required a dose of antibiotics in over 16 years. I’ve only ever used food and natural antibiotics to help them get well, sparing their digestive flora the assault of even a single round of antibiotics which damages immunity for at least a couple of years, maybe longer. In addition, I’ve never given them Tylenol or ibuprofen for headaches or for bringing down fevers naturally.
Even rare use of Tylenol is strongly associated with asthma in children. This is not such a rare feat, either. I personally know numerous parents who are succeeding at keeping their kids off immunity damaging pharmaceuticals, both over the counter and prescription based, for their entire childhood using only good diet and natural remedies as needed.
There are other ways to constructively and proactively handle illness than with immunity destroying meds! Again, drugs are sometimes necessary in emergencies, but more often than not, they can be avoided if the parent has the knowledge. If you are interested in learning more, my book Traditional Remedies for Modern Families can get you started with the basics on learning to avoid using meds as much as possible in your home.
Lack of fresh air and physical activity
The big thing that fresh air and physical activity pave the way for is good quality, deep sleep! Get outside and do what you love in the fresh air as much as possible. Looking for something new? Try rebounding which can be done by anyone at any age.
Lack of exposure to sunlight
Sunlight is critical to health. In addition, slathering on sunscreen and putting on sunglasses every single time you are going to be in the sun is a very unhealthy practice. For example, most people do not know that sensitivity of the eyes to bright sunlight is a symptom of adrenal fatigue.
The good news is that being outside in bright sunlight without sunglasses for short periods of time can over time help resolve the situation.
This article on heliotherapy describes how the sun is a very important part of immunity and health far and beyond the immunity boosting Vitamin D that is synthesized on your skin from brief, sensible sunning at midday sans sunscreen.
Lack of exposure to common microbes in the environment
Living in a too sterilized environment is strongly associated with compromised immunity.
Yes, it’s true. Being a germaphobe ultimately produces sickness instead of health. The immune system needs constant stimulation from the microbes it encounters in the environment else it will likely become over-reactive instead (think allergies, eczema etc). Just another reason to never spray your yard and let your children play in the “clean” dirt as much as possible!
Want to know how to boost immunity once you’ve eliminated these factors that zap it? The linked article goes over Dr. Campbell-McBride’s most important suggestions.
Sources and More Information
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.