repair your immune system, the natural way
Dr Jess says: Worldwide, three in five of us will die of chronic diseases related to inflammation. Despite people having heard of inflammation, most don’t really understand what it means.
Inflammation is a normal response to protect our body from potential toxins and biohazards, by producing a low level of inflammatory chemicals, cell responses and antibodies. But if we develop too much inflammation, healthy tissue can become damaged. Over an extended period of time, we can develop autoimmune diseases like hypothyroidism, ulcerative colitis or psoriasis. Or we can develop chronic inflammatory conditions like cardiovascular disease, diabetes or even cancer. Our immune system is at the root of most diseases. Harnessing its power to heal instead of harm can help us to feel great!
Our immune system is a group of cells, organs and tissues that work together to defend the body against infection, repair damage and maintain our overall health. Without our immune system, we would die; killed by an infection, like the common cold or the ‘flu.
Our immune system helps us deal with injuries, repairs damage to our cells, prevents cancer and lives in an amazing synergy with the trillions of bacteria and other organisms which live on and in us (mainly in our gut).
When our immune system goes wrong it can be catastrophic, resulting in fatal infections, aggressive cancer or autoimmune diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or ulcerative colitis.
Most of us have experienced a problem with our immune system at some point in our lives. These problems can present as allergies (the immune system reacting to the wrong thing), hay fever, skin problems like eczema or psoriasis (our immune system attacking our skin), joint pain (inflammation) or frequent infections (colds, coughs, urinary or skin infections). When our immune system is overworked, it can lead to chronic inflammation.
what is inflammation?
When our body is injured by trauma, invading viruses or bacteria, our inbuilt immune defence system kicks in. This might occur if you injure your knee, have a sore throat or develop a skin rash.
The immune system activates itself to send chemicals, cells and a system-wide response in an attempt to defend the body and repair the damage. This is a healthy response that keeps us alive, but sometimes, it can go wrong. Chronic (long term) inflammation is at the root of many diseases: autoimmune diseases, heart disease, eczema, diabetes, cancer, dementia, autism, obesity, premature ageing, asthma and arthritis.
how does chronic (long term) inflammation develop?
The immune defence system can fail to switch off, or get inappropriately triggered, creating ongoing inflammation. This immune response can create many symptoms and long term (chronic) illnesses.
This low-level inflammation can be happening inside us for many years, damaging our cells and organs and leading to the conditions above, despite us feeling well and healthy.
One of the most important causes of chronic inflammation in the body and the development of autoimmune diseases is intestinal permeability. When the walls of the gut are damaged, they become leaky. This allows much bigger than usual particles to move through the gut wall (usually it is like a fine mesh sieve, only allowing small particles through).
One of the most dangerous particles that can move through the gut wall is lipopolysaccharide (LPS); a toxin that is produced when good bacteria or our immune system kills infectious or bad bacteria. In healthy people whose guts are not leaky, LPS is safely excreted in their stool. In those with leaky guts, when large amounts of LPS move through the gut wall, it can trigger widespread inflammation and tissue damage over time in a condition called endotoxemia. Raised LPS levels have also been found in patients with anxiety and depression.1
how could chronic inflammation affect me?
When we are suffering from chronic low-level inflammation (a broken immune system), symptoms can include:
- Feeling very tired (fatigue)
- Stiffness and aching
- Joint pain
- Brain fog, or poor memory
- Weight gain
- Depression and anxiety
- Hormonal problems
- Digestive symptoms
- Sinus problems
- Skin rashes
- Headaches and migraines
- High blood pressure
- Poor circulation
- Premature ageing
can I test for inflammation?
The immune system is so complex that there is no single test that can diagnose immune system issues and chronic inflammation. However, these are some of the most useful blood tests:
ESR – Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate. This is a simple blood test that has been around for a long time. It measures the rate at which your blood cells settle at the bottom of a test tube. If you have inflammation, the blood cells clump together and settle faster in the test tube. If this test is raised (>13mm/hr in males or >20mm/hr in females), then it shows you have inflammation or an infection.
hsCRP– High Sensitivity C-Reactive Protein. This test is not widely performed by the NHS (which does a less sensitive CRP), but is an excellent marker of low-level inflammation. C-Reactive Protein is produced by the liver and is raised in people who are suffering from inflammation and infection. High sensitivity CRP is especially helpful in people who may not have a diagnosis, but are suffering from the above symptoms. If this test is raised (>3.0mg/L) it can show you have inflammation and are at higher risk of heart disease in the future. Ideally, it should be <1.5mg/L. This test is available from Medichecks.
IL-6 – Interleukin 6 is a protein produced when the immune system is activated. It can be useful to show evidence of inflammation, infection, autoimmune disease, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. This test is available from Regenerus Labs in the UK, but you will need to find a practitioner to assist you with getting this test.
TNF alpha – Tumour Necrosis Factor is another protein produced during inflammation. Drugs to block TNF alpha are used in some cancers and autoimmune diseases, however, TNF has an important role in fighting infection and has been shown to play a role in Alzheimer’s, depression, cancer, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel disease. This test is available from Regenerus Labs in the UK, but you will need to find a practitioner to assist you with getting this test.
Uric acid – This marker is used to diagnose your risk of gout, but can also be a good indicator of inflammation and your risk of developing heart disease. It can be raised with poor diet, obesity, stress, certain diseases like hypothyroidism, psoriasis or kidney disease and genetics. However, it is also a marker of inflammation, as it is part of the inflammatory response. Uric acid is produced by injured tissues but is not part of the infection pathway, which can make it very helpful as a marker. It is available from Medichecks but may be useful as part of a Well Woman or Well Man screen with an hsCRP.
Raised inflammatory markers like those above have been shown to produce a significantly increased risk of developing cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It is also worth noting that raised blood sugar has a huge impact on inflammation and so getting your fasting blood sugar and insulin levels checked (high insulin levels can be an early warning of pre-diabetes) is very important.
If the above markers are all normal, then there are some other tests that can be helpful, to look at how healthy your immune system is:
Full blood count – This simple test measures the different amounts of some important types of immune system cells (known as white blood cells). If your overall white blood cell count is low, or you are low in a particular type of white blood cell called a neutrophil (when low, this is known as neutropenia), then you can be at a higher risk of infection. Neutropenia can occur with certain medications, infections, with some diseases and vitamin deficiencies. In some cases, the cause remains unknown. If your white cells are low, you should be under the care of a physician.
NK cell activity – Natural Killer cells are known to be important for killing cancer cells and viruses. This is an emerging test that will soon be more readily available in the UK. It gives a good overview of your immune system health. If low, it may show an increased risk of developing cancer.
There are other tests for specific immune system diseases like hypothyroidism, rheumatoid arthritis or lupus, in which antibodies specific to the areas involved can be measured in the blood. These tests can be discussed with your medical provider depending on your symptoms.
There is evidence that having higher than normal levels of these specific antibodies is a very early sign that you are much more likely to develop the autoimmune disease related to that antibody in the future. A study looking at lupus patients with stored blood samples over an average of five years before they developed symptoms, showed that they had raised antibodies for many years before they developed the disease.2 The same has been shown with thyroid disease.3
This means that if you have specific antibodies that are raised, it is extremely important to work on your immune health, as you are at a much higher risk of developing an autoimmune disease in the future.
healing chronic inflammation
Chronic inflammation is a root cause of many modern diseases and symptoms. By healing our gut and removing inflammatory triggers it can be improved relatively quickly and even switched off. Listen to our weekly podcast for tips to reduce inflammation.
By understanding the link between chronic inflammation, leaky gut and the microbiome, it is possible to help calm inflammation and heal your gut. Listen to our podcast for practical advice and in depth discussions on this topic.
Many natural inflammation supports are hundreds or even thousands of years old, including spices like turmeric and ginger and traditional herbs, all of which can all have positive impacts on the microbiome and gut lining, reducing inflammation. Omega 3 fats are also very important in the body’s anti-inflammatory pathways.
Exercise is also an important component of health. Just one 20-minute session of moderate exercise has been found to reduce markers of inflammation (TNF) in the blood.4 Chiropractic adjustments have also been shown in research to boost the immune system by 48% for four days, and are a natural drug-free way to relieve joint pain.
We know that early life, stress and medications also have a big role to play in the development of leaky gut and long-term inflammation. A diet that supports the gut lining, including important strains of probiotic bacteria, can help epithelial cells to heal and protect against leaky gut.
The Autoimmune fix – by Dr Tom O’ Bryan is an excellent book to understand both triggers to chronic inflammation and the long term development of autoimmune diseases. Everyone should consider reading this book to understand their immune systems, gut health and how to stay healthy long term. Jess highly recommends it.
This YouTube Video by Dr Mark Hyman beautifully explains inflammation and how to improve it.
- Stevens BR, Goel R, Seungbum K, et al.Increased human intestinal barrier permeability plasma biomarkers zonulin and FABP2 correlated with plasma LPS and altered gut microbiome in anxiety or depression Gut. 2018;67(8):1555-1557. doi:10.1136/gutjnl-2017-314759
- Eriksson C, Kokkonen H, Johansson M, Hallmans G, Wadell G, Rantapää-Dahlqvist S. Autoantibodies predate the onset of systemic lupus erythematosus in northern Sweden. Arthritis Res Ther. 2011 Feb 22;13(1):R30. doi: 10.1186/ar3258. PMID: 21342502; PMCID: PMC3241374.
- Hutfless S, Matos P, Talor MV, Caturegli P, Rose NR. Significance of prediagnostic thyroid antibodies in women with autoimmune thyroid disease. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011 Sep;96(9):E1466-71. doi: 10.1210/jc.2011-0228. Epub 2011 Jun 29. PMID: 21715532; PMCID: PMC3167665.
- Dimitrov S, Hulteng E, Hong S. Inflammation and exercise: Inhibition of monocytic intracellular TNF production by acute exercise via β2-adrenergic activation. Brain Behav Immun. 2017 Mar;61:60-68. doi: 10.1016/j.bbi.2016.12.017. Epub 2016 Dec 21. PMID: 28011264; PMCID: PMC6555138.