You’ve probably heard the word “immunocompromised” being used a lot lately and may have a general idea of what the term means. But what else should you know about having a compromised immune system?
Your immune system acts as your body’s armed forces, protecting it from harmful invaders. A well-functioning immune system is absolutely critical for survival, but when it’s not functioning properly, you’re more vulnerable to infections and disease.
The good news is that we are largely in control of our immune health. There are so many natural (and pretty easy) ways to boost the immune system and take control of your health.
What Does Immunocompromised Mean?
Immunocompromised means that the body’s immune defenses are weakened and don’t function properly. The immune system is an interactive network of organs, white blood cells and proteins that protects us from viruses, bacteria and dangerous foreign invaders.
We rely on our immune systems to neutralize and remove pathogens from the body and to fight against our own cells that have changed due to illness. When immune function is compromised, we are at a greater risk of facing serious infections and illnesses.
The vulnerability to infection and illness depends on each person’s degree of immune suppression, which can vary greatly from person to person. It’s possible to have partial or full impairment of the immune system.
Some people are more susceptible to infections because of their weakened immunity, while others have severe reactions to infections and are at risk of life-threatening circumstances. This depends on the severity of immunosuppression.
Primary vs. Secondary Immunodeficiency
Immunodeficiency disorders can be primary or secondary. Primary immunodeficiencies are inherited immune disorders that result from genetic mutations.
There are over 300 types of primary deficiencies, but they are considered rare. Although people are born with these types of immunodeficiency, some aren’t diagnosed until later in life.
Secondary immunodeficiencies are more common and result from disease, malnutrition, environmental factors and certain drug therapies.
Throughout life, we build our adaptive immunity, which is the part of our immune systems that learn to respond to certain antigens. This is a normal, healthy way to build up immunity, but the process can be compromised for people with immunodeficiency disorders.
A compromised immune system is caused by:
- Chronic diseases, including diabetes, hepatitis and kidney disease
- Cancer, especially blood cancers (like leukemia)
- Autoimmune diseases (or overactive immune system), such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis
- Congenital disorders, such as cerebral palsy, cystic fibrosis and Down syndrome
- Certain medications, including corticosteroids and TNF inhibitors
- Antibiotic use
- Poor nutrition
- Sedentary lifestyle
- Lack of sun exposure
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Isolation and loneliness
Fortunately, many of the causes of immunosuppression are controllable and can be corrected with dietary and lifestyle changes.
Research shows that many infections of immunocompromised patients originate from the gut, with the alternation of intestinal bacteria. We know that the presence of good bacteria helps with microbial stability and boosts immune function.
This is exactly why frequent antibiotic use, certain medications and poor diet contribute so largely to immunity.
We also know that lifestyle and dietary factors play a major role in immune function. Obesity is strongly linked to chronic inflammation and diseases that impact immunity, including cardiovascular disease, type diabetes and chronic liver disease.
Research also indicates that nutrients impact immune cells and cause changes in their function.
Poor nutrition and nutrient deficiencies play a role in systemic inflammation and greatly increase the risk of immunosuppression. This includes deficiencies in zinc, selenium, vitamin D and glutamine.
Aging is associated with increased inflammation, even in the absence of infection.
We also know that T-cell function declines with age. This is why elderly people are more vulnerable to infection and sickness.
To put it simply, people who are immunocompromised typically get sick more often and their duration of sickness is longer. In general, symptoms of a weakened immune system may include:
- Vulnerability to infections
- Increased frequency and duration of sickness (like the common cold)
- Repeated infections
- Digestive issues
- Muscle and joint pain
- Autoimmune disorders
The biggest danger of being immunocompromised is the risk of getting infections and having very bad reactions to these infections.
Unlike people with healthy immune systems, those who are immunosuppressed have trouble fighting off the pathogens, which is why the sickness can accelerate into a much more serious condition.
For the immunosuppressed, it’s important to protect yourself from infections by washing hands often, avoiding touching your face (especially when out in public), safely disinfecting surfaces of your home and seeking medical attention early if you’re not feeling well.
How to Boost the Immune System
1. Rethink Your Diet
To support immune function, start by removing inflammatory, unhealthy foods. Avoid processed foods, sugary foods and starchy carbs.
Microbes love sugar, and the immune system reacts very poorly to sugar consumption.
Then bring immune-enhancing foods and essential nutrients into your diet. These include a range of vegetables, especially yellow- and orange-colored ones, fermented foods, leafy greens, healthy fats, and green tea.
2. Manage Stress
Chronic stress has a major impact on the body, causing reduced immune function, increased inflammation and more. Even in stressful times, focusing on self-care and peace of mind can make a big difference.
Try breathing exercises, daily yoga (even if it’s only for a few minutes), reading inspiring books or articles, cooking, listening to music and spending relaxing time with loved ones.
3. Get Enough Sleep
A lack of sleep suppresses immune function and triggers inflammation. It’s so important to get at least seven hours of sleep per night.
If you can’t sleep for that amount of time, consider making lifestyle and dietary changes that will help. Skip late-night sugar and carbs, avoid using electronics before bed, and reduce stress so your mind can settle down in the evening.
4. Move Your Body
Daily exercise reduces systemic inflammation and boosts immune function. On the other hand, living a sedentary lifestyle is extremely problematic, as it increases your risk of conditions that can lead to immunodeficiency, like heart disease and diabetes.
5. Get Outdoors
Studies have proved that vitamin D performs several roles within the immune system. Of course, we need to protect our skin from too much direct sun, but spending some time outdoors is important for supporting immune function.
Plus, time outdoors can be relaxing and help us to destress, which is another way to reduce inflammation and boost immunity.
6. Use Immune-Boosting Herbs and Supplements
Certain antiviral herbs and supplements serve as powerful tools for supporting the immune system. The very best ones include:
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- A weakened, low immune system can be scary and frustrating. It makes you more vulnerable to infection and serious, sometimes life-threatening symptoms.
- The causes of compromised immune system vary, with some beginning at birth and others developing as a result of poor diet and lifestyle factors.
- The good news is that for many causes of poor immunity, there are natural approaches the immunosuppressed can take to improve their health. Rethinking your diet, getting enough sleep and exercise, reducing stress, and using immune-boosting herbs and supplements can have seriously positive impacts.