If you drive a car, you’ve most likely had a dashboard warning light come on at some point in time. While it’s annoying, the sooner you know about a problem with one of the systems in your car, the faster you can fix it — potentially saving you time, money and inconvenience in the long run.
Fortunately for us, we also have “warning lights” in our bodies. When there’s a problem with a system in our body that is critical to survival, our immune system lets us know.
Without a healthy immune system, the risk increases for everything from frequent infections (pneumonia, bronchitis, skin infections) to internal organ inflammation and autoimmune disorders (rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, etc.).
So how do you know when you might need to check on your immune health? Following are seven indicators that your immune system may be compromised:
Elevated stress level – There is “good” stress and “bad” stress. Good stress occurs if you have a deadline to meet, for example, or when you are faced with a life-and-death situation. It can motivate you and make you more focused so you can react appropriately in the moment. Bad stress happens when we continually ruminate about things that don't pose an imminent threat. When bad stress hormones are constantly released, they can lessen the effectiveness of the immune system. For example, the stress hormone corticosteroid can lower the number of B and T cells, which fight off foreign invaders. You can reduce your “bad” stress level through exercise, yoga, meditation, breath work, massage, hobbies and social activities with friends and family.
Frequent colds – The typical adult averages two to three colds per year, according to the Centers for Disease Control. After being exposed to the cold virus, symptoms such as fever, nasal discharge/congestion, cough and sore throats usually appear after two days. It takes the immune system three to four days to develop antibodies to fight off the cold, with most people recovering in seven to 10 days. If you are getting colds more than the average, your immune system may be weakened. To avoid catching a cold, wash your hands, don’t touch your face with your unwashed hands, and avoid contact with sick people. Also, echinacea, elderberry, garlic, ginseng, Vitamin C and zinc are known to help ward off colds or make them less severe.
Wounds take longer to heal – A report by The American Journal of Surgery concludes that “it is clear that immune cells have an integral function in wound healing beyond their role in inflammation and host defense. Immune cells are vital to the regulation of the wound-healing process through the secretion of signaling molecules, such as cytokines, lymphokines, and growth factors.” While it depends on the severity of the wound, typically it will take a couple of weeks for it to heal. If healing is taking longer than this, plus you’re experiencing increased pain, redness, warmth, excessive puss or dark skin at the edges of your wound, your immune system may be weakened. That said, there are other reasons your wounds might not be healing as quickly as they should, such as poor circulation, infection, edema, poor nutrition or additional trauma to the wound. If any of these reasons apply, you may want to consult a doctor.
More infections – According to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma & Immunology, you might have an immune deficiency if you (or your children) 1) need more than four courses of antibiotic treatment per year (children) or more than two times per year (adults); 2) experience more than four new ear infections in one year after 4 years of age; 3) develop pneumonia twice over any time; 4) have more than three episodes of bacterial sinusitis in one year or the occurrence of chronic sinusitis; 5) Need preventive antibiotics to decrease the number of infections; 6) develop unusually severe infections that started as common bacterial infections.
Muscle and joint ache, fatigue and a low fever – Autoimmune diseases can be triggered when your immune system attacks your body’s healthy cells. There are more than 80 different types of autoimmune diseases. While the exact cause is unknown, it’s thought that they are triggered by bacteria, viruses, fungi, protozoa, worms or drugs that confuse your immune system. Also, your genes may make you more prone to them. Autoimmune diseases cause inflammation, which can result in pain, swelling and redness. If you suspect you have an autoimmune disease, consult with your doctor. Also, improve your diet. Focus on fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and fish and cut down on processed foods high in sugar, unhealthy fat and salt. Avoid alcohol, drink more water and exercise.
Obesity – In the United States, 36.5% of adults are obese. Obesity puts you at risk for decreased immune function. People who are obese have decreased cytokine production (cytokines are proteins, peptides and glycoproteins that kill foreign invaders). Plus, our immune system’s natural killer cells (a type of white blood cell) that protect us from virally infected cells and tumors often do not function properly in obese people.
In addition to the above, as we age, our immune system naturally weakens — making us more susceptible to infection and chronic diseases.
The good news is that you still have a great deal of control over the health of your immune system. With a healthier lifestyle and some immune-boosting supplements, you can head off problems that may trigger your body’s early warning systems.