Recognise and strengthen a weakened immune system

How do I recognise a weak immune system and what can I do about it?

Cold and Flu | Immune Health

Dr. Claudia Rawer
Dr. Claudia Rawer
@AVogel_ca


18 September 2021

How do I recognise a weakened immune system?

A common sign of a weakened immune system is an increased susceptibility to infections. If the body's own defences do not function well, bacteria, viruses and pathogens of other species have an easy time invading our system.

Do you often have a cold and catch the flu practically every year? Do gastrointestinal infections often cause you problems? Such diseases, often dismissed as "banal infections", occur far more frequently in people with immunodeficiency. This is referred to as an acquired or secondary immunodeficiency - in contrast to a congenital (primary) immunodeficiency.

Do you often feel tired and worn out even without a specific infectious disease? Do you often find it difficult to concentrate on your tasks? This can also be due to a weakened immune system.

The most common signs of a weak immune system are

  • Increased susceptibility to infections (flu-like infection = cold, rhinitis, cough, sore throat, gastrointestinal infections, influenza, fungal infections etc.)
  • Infections occur repeatedly, even after a short time
  • Tiredness, fatigue
  • Lack of energy, lack of concentration.

Can diseases limit my defences?

How you live and take care of yourself plays a big role in the vigour of the immune system. However, chronic diseases can also weaken the body's defences, either due to the disease itself or due to the use of medications used for healing/relief. In particular severe chronic diseases can weaken the immune system, e.g.

  • bronchial asthma
  • chronic bronchitis
  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
  • diabetes mellitus.

Infection with the human immunodeficiency virus HIV directly damages the body's immune system. In the final stage, called AIDS, patients are extremely susceptible to infections and inflammatory processes because a class of their immune cells known as CD4 has been depleted. In people with a healthy immune system, such infections are rare and are usually parried by the body's own defences. In AIDS patients, they are life-threatening and can eventually lead to death.

Cancers that affect the immune cells themselves, such as leukaemia and lymphoma, also severely impair the immune system.

Can medical treatments weaken the immune system?

In the case of various severe diseases, the immune system is artificially suppressed by drugs (immunosuppression). This happens in autoimmune diseases when the system is so disturbed that it turns against its own body, as seen in patients battling rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease. In such cases, immunosuppression is intended to limit the misguided behaviour of the body's defences.

After serious surgery, the immune system may be temporarily weakened. The extent of the impairment depends on the general condition of the patient and the respective post-operative treatment. With a diligent care team and proper support, the immune system typically recovers within a few weeks.

After a transplant, patients receive drugs to suppress the body's own defences. The goal is to prevent the immune system from attacking and rejecting the transplanted organ. Such immunosuppressants usually have to be taken for life and might cause stomach upset in the early stages of taking the drug. With time, usually a few months, the dose might be lowered and reduce the risk of side effects.

Finally in the case of cancer, the most common treatments including chemotherapy or radiation can weaken the body's own defences. During chemotherapy, the immune system is temporarily impaired depending on the drug used, the amount of the dose and the number of treatments. During radiation therapy (radiotherapy), the cancer cells are weakened to the point of death, while the healthy body cells regenerate. If the haematopoietic bone marrow is also irradiated, the immune defence may also be impaired. This is because the bone marrow is where the body's red and white blood cells are born. This is what makes cancers that attack the marrow, like leukemia and multiple myeloma, so deadly.

How long is the immune system impaired after cancer therapy?

After chemotherapy or radiotherapy, the immune system usually recovers within a few weeks. In elderly patients and those whose immune system is weakened by other factors (general condition, malnutrition, other diseases, etc.) it may take longer.

If you suffer from an immune deficiency due to an illness or treatment (e.g. cancer therapy, chemotherapy, cortisone treatment, etc.), you should always consult the doctor or specialist treating you.

Corona virus/Covid diseases and the immune system

A pandemic poses special challenges for the immune system - and also creates special conditions. One consequence of the coronavirus waves can already be seen in the data and statistics. Many adults have experienced significantly fewer other infections, especially in winter, than in previous years (for the situation in children, see the next section).

For example, the annual flu epidemic was almost completely absent in the 2020/2021 season. In Germany, there were only a few hundred cases of influenza instead of almost 200,000 infections as in the previous year. The Corona virus has also slowed down the 2020/21 flu wave in Switzerland. Closer to home, usually in March, Canada normally has an average of over 43,000 confirmed cases of influenza. But as of March 20, 2021, the Public Health Agency of Canada says there had been a total of only 66 confirmed cases.

Even banal colds occurred much less frequently.

This is probably due to protective measures against Covid-19 including distance regulations, wearing masks in public, hygiene measures such as frequent hand washing, "social distance" and working from home. The closure of public facilities where viruses commonly spread, especially in winter, also played a role.

But this does not mean that the immune system has become weaker or is working inadequately. In adults, with a healthy lifestyle, the immune system is generally so well trained that it is not weakened even by periods of lesser challenge.

The immune system and the Corona vaccination

Vaccinations are a proven protective measure against dangerous viral diseases. The deadly smallpox has been eradicated for 40 years, and the cruel polio is considered to have been largely defeated, at least in Europe. Vaccination does not weaken the immune system. On the contrary, it enables it to form antibodies against invading pathogens, even against those it has not previously encountered.

Could vaccination with newly developed Covid-19 vaccines, especially the mRNA vaccines, attack the immune system?

No. All vaccines developed against the Corona virus thus far are safe. They do not attack the immune system. A complete vaccination causes the formation of antibodies and specific immune cells. This usually protects you from getting sick on contact with the pathogen. At most, the efficiency of the vaccines is different.

Since this strain of corona virus is highly mutable, meaning it mutates very quickly, the vaccines cannot provide absolute protection against infection in all cases. Especially in people with pre-existing conditions - e.g. high blood pressure or diabetes - a so-called vaccine breakthrough can occur. However, vaccination usually prevents a severe or even life-threatening course of the disease.

In more recent and uplifting news, a Stanford University study showed that the number of antibodies increased even more after the second dose of an mRNA vaccine than after the first. This is important to understand as the second vaccination activates parts of the body's defences that previously played only a subordinate role. In particular, the action of the innate immune system is promoted. This part of the immune response can react more quickly to pathogens and offers less specific but broader protection. Especially the number of so-called monocytes, part of innate immunity, is greatly increased. Monocytes form a protective barrier against very different types of viruses. They could increase and broaden the effect of vaccination against variants of this particular coronavirus.

Is a fit immune system enough to avoid a Corona infection?

No. Whether one is infected with the coronavirus or not does not depend on whether the body's own defences are functioning at their best or have been weakened. A fit immune system can, at best, help to better withstand the disease.

The immune system and the microbiome

The microbiome is the term used to describe the totality of all bacteria, fungi and viruses that live on and in humans - from the skin to the intestines. Experts know that it performs very important tasks of the immune system. The defence functions particularly well when the microbiome is diverse, a factor that is heavily dependent on the individual's lifestyle. An unbalanced, unhealthy diet damages the microbiome, as do smoking and too little time spent in fresh air. Loosely speaking, a person who ate mostly fast food during the pandemic did nothing good for their microbiome. The one who started cooking for themselves and also trying something new once in a while did wonders for their gut. On the positive side for our microbiome, however, it should be noted that significantly fewer antibiotics were taken during the pandemic. In any case, any person who neglected this defence system during the pandemic should now take care of it - e.g. with food rich in fibre and vegetables.

Weakened immune system in children

With children, especially very small ones, it can be a little different. Infections, which they normally experience in the first three years of life, have become less frequent during the pandemic or have even disappeared altogether. Many parents of small children are no longer familiar with the fever attacks that are otherwise common among our youngest. They tend to occur when an infection challenges the child's still undeveloped immune system.

Basically, it is important that the child's immune system is confronted with germs and learns in this way for the future. This is known, among other things, because excessive hygiene and over intensive protection against pathogens of any kind may promote allergies and autoimmune diseases. The immune system needs training partners to practice with, bacteria to spar, viruses to battle. The consequences of the pandemic for the young are not yet foreseeable.

  • Some experts argue that in children who were (and will be) born during the pandemic or shortly before, an important window for training the immune system was missed. An important imprinting phase of the immune system extends from the development of the embryo into the third year of life. We do not yet know what the consequences might be until research is released.
  • Typical childhood illnesses could be postponed to another age, which may well be problematic. It is known that smaller children cope with e.g. chickenpox and mumps better than older ones.
  • Positive: Children in particular rarely contract severe Covid. Therefore, for them, contacts in the playground or on the street, with friends and neighbourhood children, even in the day care centre or school, were significantly less restricted than, for example, for older people, despite temporary closures. So, they were probably exposed to pathogens of one kind or another, helping the immune system learn.
  • Also positive: Missed experiences of the immune system can possibly be made up for by later experiences with germs.

How can I protect and strengthen my immune system?

Immunodeficiency is not a disease in its own, but a condition that promotes the development of other diseases. If you want to keep your immune system fit, you have to take preventive measures and strengthen your defences. The most important points in the programme "making the defences fit" are the decisive lifestyle factors including exercise, nutrition and mental hygiene (e.g. joie de vivre, stress reduction, sleep etc.)

You should do something for your immune system if you:

  • suffer more frequently from minor infections, e.g. often have a cold, symptoms such as a cough and sore throat
  • battle flu (influenza) infections again and again
  • catch gastro-intestinal germs often
  • frequently feel drained of energy
  • have trouble concentrating at work
  • commonly stressed and/or sleep poorly.

The immune system is one of the most valuable companions through life. It protects us from diseases and infections of various kinds and it is in our best interest to maintain and strengthen it.

Tips for a strong immune system

  • Eat well and include lots of variety. Home-cooked meals with a high percentage of fresh foods, vegetables and fruits are best.
  • Drink enough to stay hydrated (one and a half to two litres of water, tea or mixed drinks with one third fruit juice and two thirds (mineral) water).
  • Maintain a healthy body weight.
  • Get regular exercise in the fresh air, whatever the weather. Do not overdo it with extremely strenuous exercise.
  • Don't smoke. If you're still smoking, quit. If you can't do it on your own, get help from your family doctor, a psychotherapist, a telephone smoking advice line or through smoking cessation programs. Partners, friends and colleagues can also support you, but are often overwhelmed as sole helpers.
  • Make sure you get enough restful sleep. Good conditions for a restful sleep are quiet, cool bedrooms, a good mattress, pillows and blankets that fit your body size, your preferred sleeping position and your individual need for warmth. If at all possible, do not use the room as a place to work. Neither computers, televisions nor irons should be here. The bedroom should be an oasis of well-being and rest.
  • Try to keep work and/or family pressures and stress in check. Recover regularly by engaging with your passions and not only during the holidays. Ensure mental hygiene - speak up in conflicts with a partner, boss or colleague until you come to an understanding. Pick a form of relaxation exercise that suits you.
  • Get vaccinated against infectious diseases. Vaccinations help your immune system fight off infections before they spread through your body.

Healthy nutrition made easy

Why take the trouble to conscientiously pay attention to individual trace elements and vitamins, when a balanced diet contains what your immune system needs and strengthens? In a diverse, colourful and varied mixed diet you will find everything that strengthens your immune system.

  • You don't have to eat meatless, but you should make a point of eating plenty of fresh vegetables and fruits. Do not forget about nuts as they contain a lot of valuable nutrients. Fish provides light proteins and important fatty acids.
  • You don't strictly have to cut back on fat, but you should focus on healthy vegetable fats in reasonable amounts. For example, cold-pressed rapeseed and olive oil for cooking, frying and salads, fruits such as avocado and olives, nuts and seeds. A flake of butter on the vegetables doesn't hurt either if it gets you to eat them.
  • Pure sugar, sweets, industrially produced convenience foods, fast food, pastries, snacks and sodas should be avoided as much as possible. But feel free to eat bread, pasta and polenta, rice and risotto, preferably whole grain products - your body converts the complex carbohydrates they contain into the brain food glucose.

An important nutritional principle: A little bit of everything and nothing in excess.

What foods weaken the immune system?

There is no food as such that weakens the body's own defences, neither coffee nor (cow) milk and neither salt nor sugar are "bad" per se. What is bad, however, is excess. A piece of cake every day, nibbling chips in front of the TV every evening, drinking alcohol every night takes its toll at some point and not only through traveling around several kilos too heavy. Maintain a healthy weight with the dietary principles listed above, don't smoke and only indulge in the occasional beer or glass of wine so you stay fit...as will your immune system.

For more details, including individual nutrients and vitamins, click here.

My child doesn't eat vegetables?

Children generally eat what their parents eat and what is made palatable to them. Show your kids that healthy food is fun, let them help out in the kitchen, and don't take "no" as an eternal answer. Of course, a child may refuse an ingredient or dish, but the palate gets used to new things. Bring the rejected food to the table every now and then without pointing it out and let the child try it. Eventually, it'll catch on.

What sport is good for my immune system?

Almost anything - the main factor is that you get moving. Don't overdo it, too much exercise is not healthy either. Do not overexert yourself, neither with the chosen sport nor with the extent. Get into the habit of exercising regularly and in the fresh air, even in wind and weather.

You're having a hard time with this? Start small. For example, start by exercising for half an hour two to three days a week through brisk walking, cycling, or jogging. Increase these activities until you are exercising for half an hour to an hour at least five days a week.

It is even easier if you do some family activities together (e.g. bike rides or hikes with your partner and children) or arrange to do sports with friends.

Set goals! For example: In six weeks, I plan to ride my bike four times a week for half an hour. For the next month, I plan to take a hike with the family every weekend. Reward yourself, for example, with a destination that is attractive to you during the hike, whether that is an excursion pub, an interesting castle ruin or the municipal art gallery. The main thing is that you move - regularly and, if possible, outdoors.

However, you should refrain from sporting activity in the case of acute infections.

We hope you learned something along the way and understand all of the ways we can support our immune system against the world of pathogens out there.