What is a Hyperactive Immune System?
Why, hello there. Welcome back to this here blog. I hope you have been working on your gut health because we are about to dive into the realm of one of the coolest, most complex, and most powerful parts of you – your immune system (aka your very own “Dumbledore’s Army”). Cue suspenseful music…
In our last article, we discussed how 80% of your immunity resides in the gut, and how the health of your immune system is inextricably linked to the health of your gut. Now that you know how and why Leaky Gut Syndrome can occur, we can discuss what can throw your immune system off balance and why that matters.
Your immune system plays the vital role of distinguishing “self” from “nonself.” When your immune system encounters a stressor or foreign substance, whether it is a toxin, virus, or inflammatory food (such as GMO corn and soy), it sends out its line of defense to protect you. Now, this line of defense should be called to the rescue only under special occasions, when you are really in trouble. If all is well, the immune system is designed not to attack unless it is truly necessary; the logic is that we have built a level of tolerance to the stressors that we come into contact with on a daily basis. However, at certain times, we want the immune system to be active, such as when we get the flu or need to recover from an injury. It is a delicate balance, and it is when this balance is disturbed that we experience problems. If the immune system is weak, we can become susceptible to cancer and infections. If the immune system is working on overdrive, we can develop an autoimmune disease. We want to reach that sacred “sweet spot,” where the immune system comes to our defense when we actually need it to.
The immune system is composed of the innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. Think of the innate immune system is your very own emergency crew. Evolutionary this system is ancient and found in pretty much all species (even flies and slugs!). It involves an immediate response that is “prepared on site” and is robust enough to kill a possible intruder instantly before it can cause any harm. Mostly, it protects your precious “self” from bad guys like bacteria, viruses, and parasites. In the process, many actors can be involved in this theater of war, such as mast cells, macrophages, reactive oxygen species, and natural killer cells. The innate immune system is powerful, efficient, and ruthless. These guys are as tough as they sound, but they have a very “simple mind” – as good soldiers, they can follow simple commands and cannot adapt to changing demands or environments. The adaptive immune system gets involved only if the innate system is not capable to solve the problem or destroy a shrewd enemy. Think of it as the more contemplative line of defense, which strategically seeks out and attacks a certain enemy. The adaptive immune system has many sophisticated players that decide on actions, give commands, educate new cells, initiate an attack, and stop it. When the adaptive immune system gets engaged, it can actually switch between modes of attack (phenotype). If the war involves infections, it will activate the TH-1 mechanism of inflammation, but if it involves an environment with more nuanced proteins, such as foods, animal dander, insects or plant pollen, then the TH-2 mode come into play (and I know how much you just adore those itchy rashes and runny noses).
So in a way, allergies are NOT a disease, but rather just abnormal reactions of immunity to normal proteins. Think about it: people lived with pets, smelled blooming plants, and ate the same food since the beginning of existence, yet allergies started happening only recently and became a real epidemics only 20-25 years ago! Something in our environment started dramatically changing normal immune responses in humans. Food allergies and allergic rhinitis became so common that I don’t even know many people who do not have some sort of allergy…Do you?
Many scientists are on the quest trying to explain this conundrum of modern life. Here, we have our own opinion too. We believe that environmental toxins super-activate the immune system and make it lose control – basically, cells become maniacs shooting at normal things and forgetting about their duty to protect the “borders” and to keep body cells from switching into cancerous.
The proper and balanced functioning of the immune system affects and reflects your overall health. A hyperactive immune system will produce inflammation. Inflammation is also connected to the health of your gut, which is directly related to the health of the whole body. In essence, all three factors are interrelated:
Hyperactive Immune System ↔ Inflammation ↔ Leaky Gut Syndrome
As a recap from our discussion of Leaky Gut Syndrome, there are a variety of triggers that can compromise the state of your health and create the environment for disease. When you are following a Standard American Diet (artificial ingredients, GMOs, conventional meat & dairy products, sugary foods), are exposed to toxins in your daily life (chemicals in your cleaning products and cosmetics, poor air and water quality), have limited or poor sleep quality, and are dealing with chronic stress, you are setting the stage for inflammation and leaky gut. Both factors are interwoven with the health of your immune system.
If you are out of that delicate state of balance (fancy term is homeostasis) where your immune system responds correctly at the correct time, you can experience a variety of symptoms and serious conditions. At one end of the spectrum, we have low immunity, which may lead to chronic infections and different cancers. At the other end of the spectrum, we experience a hyperactive immune system. Essentially, your immune system stops distinguishing “self” from “nonself” and can mistakenly think that the enemy is you. Consequently, it may start to attack your own tissues and organs, resulting in autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE), Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, and Ulcerative Colitis, among many others.
Of course, to say that a hyperactive immune system is just a matter of your immune system being on crack is simplifying things by a lot. There are many nuances involved that are beyond the scope of this article (and probably your attention span). The point is that a hyperactive immune system is not JUST your immune system going loco. It can also be framed as a loss of tolerance. Our bodies can lose tolerance when we are facing a very high total load – a series of stressors that can be emotional, biochemical, and/or allergic. When a high total load is combined with Leaky Gut Syndrome and systemic inflammation, the chances of immune system dysfunction are more likely.
Keep in mind that what will trigger the onset of an autoimmune disease is unique for each person. Also, just because you have the genetic predisposition for a certain autoimmune disease does not mean that you are necessarily destined to experience it. Also, you can have a hyperactive immune system without necessarily having a formal diagnosis of an autoimmune disease(s). If you experience chronic fatigue, food allergies & sensitivities, anxiety & depression, skin problems, digestive issues, all is not well. The goal is for you to feel amazing and be at your best, not merely exist in a state of “eh.”
The takeaway for this post is that the more triggers you expose yourself to and the higher your total load, the more likely you will set the stage for leaky gut, experience systemic inflammation, and disrupt the delicate balance of how your immune system operates. It might seem overwhelming on where to start if you want to bring your body back to balance. It is important not to address everything at once, but to work on the factors that you can change right now. Focusing on healing your gut via an anti-inflammatory diet, switching to clean makeup and household products, including a form of movement you enjoy, and working on the health of your relationships will be effective preventative and therapeutic measures. Dietary and lifestyle measures might include a customized elimination diet to curb inflammation and enrich your plate with colorful, anti-inflammatory foods, supporting your body with targeted supplements, such as L-glutamine, quercetin, and probiotics, and including time for rest and relaxation with family and friends, preferably in nature.
Of course, as I will repeat over and over until you are allergic to hearing it (and of course I will gleefully repeat it again after that), every body is different, and what works for one person might not be effective for you. One person might do well with eating more cruciferous vegetables to support liver detoxification, while another person might not tolerate foods like broccoli and cauliflower until her/his gut has done some good old healing. Also, there is no single perfect protocol that will necessarily address all of your health goals at once. It might take a variety of approaches and working closely with a knowledgeable and experienced team of experts who are there for you, such as your primary physician, functional medicine doctor, nutritionist, and therapist. However, diet and lifestyle can go a long way and certainly provide the foundation for your customized health plan. As you work on curbing inflammation and healing your gut, you will also support your immune system. So there ya have it. “Dumbledore’s Army” forever <3
*I am Nutrition Consultant who educates about the benefits of nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods for overall health and wellbeing. The above information is meant for educational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Always consult with your physician before trying any regimen or supplement protocol.
Bauman, E. (2017). Immune & autoimmune health. Lecture 2. Autoimmunity: Goals & therapy. Rheumatoid arthritis. Systemic lupus erythematosus. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from Bauman College, NC 211, Immune & Autoimmune Health. Dashboard: dashboard.baumancollege.org
Lipski, L. (2013). Digestion connection: The simple, natural plan to combat diabetes, heart disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, acid reflux – and more! (direct mail edition). Rodale Inc.