Frequent Infections and possible causes
We are all exposed to germs every moment of every day. Whether it’s someone sneezing on the train, a much-used door handle or a trip to visit someone in the hospital. Yet despite this, we are not all constantly sick.
This is because our bodies have developed a very good system for protecting us against the vast majority of potential illnesses. Collectively, this is known as the immune system. It’s actually a whole bunch of specialist secretions, cells and proteins that work together to keep germs at bay.
Our first line defences include our skin and membranes, which act as a physical barrier against invasion. Saliva, tears, stomach acid and mucus also help to kill germs or stop them from gaining entry to the body
Next, we have a group of specialist cells and proteins that attack anything the body recognises as foreign. Some of these cells literally swallow invading microbes, others can pick off infected body cells, helping to stop an infection from spreading. There are also defensive proteins such as secretory IgA which acts as an antiseptic paint, neutralising invaders as they try to cross our membranes.
Then finally we have the specialised bit of our immune system. The B and T cells which learn to respond to specific threats. These are the cells that make antibodies, attack cells infected by viruses and remember how to respond to these threats should we encounter them in the future.
If we are healthy and the immune system is working correctly then we should only get sick occasionally. This normally occurs when we are exposed to an invader that is particularly good at thwarting our defences. Or when the invader is able to gain entry to the body in large numbers, overwhelming our defences.
Getting sick frequent infections is a sign that the immune system isn’t functioning at its best. There are many different reasons this can happen.
· Stress – stress hormones suppress the immune system making it less able to respond to threats. Long-term stress can also interfere with stomach acid production and reduce the production of secretory IgA. This makes it easier for germs to gain entry to the body.
· Lack of nutrients – launching an immune response requires the ability to rapidly make a large number of defensive cells. This process requires adequate levels of a number of key nutrients. Deficiency of these nutrients or poor absorption of them can compromise the immune system.
· Diabetes – immune cells need access to sugar to fuel their activity. In diabetes, a lack of the hormone insulin or an inability to use insulin correctly makes it difficult to get sugar into cells. This can leave immune cells under-fuelled and sluggish.
· Cancer – if the immune system is occupied fighting cancer cells it may not have the resources to also defend against opportunistic infection
· Cancer treatment – cancer treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy target rapidly dividing cells. This means they have a significant effect on the immune system too.
· Chronic viral infections – long-term viral infections such as cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr, hepatitis and HIV can compromise the immune system making the body more susceptible to other infections.
· Immunosuppressant medications – steroid medications and immunosuppressants such as cyclosporine, mycophenolate mofetil, sirolimus and tacrolimus are sometimes used to control autoimmune disease or prevent transplant rejection. Since they work by suppressing the immune system they also make the body more susceptible to infection.
Ultimately the key to improving immunity it to identify why the immune system isn’t functioning correctly. This is where functional medicine can help. In-depth dietary analysis and functional testing can be used to identify key imbalances contributing to reduced immunity. A functional medicine practitioner can then create a program for you to correct these imbalances and provide advice on how to support your immune system naturally. This expert advice is particularly important when there’s an existing medical condition. It’s key to support the immune system in a way that doesn’t interfere with any medical treatment.
A functional medicine approach to reduced immunity can include:
· Rebalancing stress hormones and restoring secretory IgA levels
· Identifying and correcting nutrient deficiencies that are impacting on immune function
· Stimulating the immune system with herbs and supplements
· Working on digestive health to positively influence immunity through the gut
· Support around existing medical conditions to reduce the burden on the immune system
· Working to resolve inflammation in autoimmune conditions to reduce the need for immunosuppressing medications.