Study: Environment Shapes the Immune System (Not Your Genes)

Disclaimer: Results are not guaranteed*** and may vary from person to person***.

Environment and Immune SystemMany people do everything they can to build immunity. They will boost and manipulate it with herbal remedies, teas, and supplemental nutrients. Others will vaccinate in hopes of a stronger immune system to fight off disease.

People want to build it up, yet I’m still asked what the immune system is, and where it’s located. Simply put, it is a network of cells, tissues, and organs that work synergistically to help protect your body; these include:

  • White blood cells such as leukocytes, eosinophils, monocytes, lymphocytes, basophils, and neutrophils
  • Immune system organs, including the tonsils and adenoids, lymph nodes and lymphatic vessels, thymus, spleen, Peyer’s patches, appendix, and bone marrow
  • Special tissue cells—mast cells and macrophages

What Affects Your Immune System?

As your personal bodyguard, your immune system helps you fight infection and other health problems, including a common cold, candida overgrowth, and cancer. It is the first line of defense against environmental factors like parasites, fungi, bacteria, and viruses. Scientists have also long considered the genetic impact on the immune response in the human body.

The immune system is one of the more complex systems in your body. Some people have strong immunity, while others have weak immune systems starting at birth. In a recent study published in the journal Cell, researchers suggested that non-heritable environmental factors impact your immune system greater than genes, or heredity.

The study observed blood samples from 210 healthy twins between the ages of eight and 82. In total there were 105 twin pairs—27 fraternal and 78 identical. Twin studies often compare identical twins with fraternal twins. Identical twins share nearly all their genes, and fraternal share about half. Twins share a similar childhood atmosphere and the same prenatal environment. In other words, if identical twin traits show greater similarity to fraternal twins, then genes will likely impact the trait more than environment factors.

The researchers measured 204 immune system parameters such as immune cell frequency, and levels of chemokines, cytokines, and other serum proteins that adjust the immune response.

Genetic and environmental factors were assessed during microbial infection and after the seasonal flu vaccination. The results from the study were telling. In approximately 75% of the immune parameters, the environmental factors had greater impact over the genetic influence. Age also impacted some of the immune measures, which suggests the impact of environmental factors on the immune system.

Genetic factors were not found in the seasonal flu vaccine within the antibody response. Therefore, any previous environmental factors such as infections or vaccines would be the likely causes. The researchers also exposed the twins to cytomegalovirus (CMV), which measured immune response to environmental microbes. There was a greater immune response in twins that tested positive for CMV.

The study proves that many factors impact our health. Accordingly, we must adapt to anything that enters the body—good or bad—especially food and friendly or harmful microbes like bacteria or parasites.

Tips to Naturally Build Your Immune System

The good news is that there are plenty of natural ways to build your immune system. It’s important to replenish your body with nutrients and immune-boosting remedies such as vitamin C, echinacea, zinc, probiotics, vitamin A, vitamin E, folate, B vitamins, selenium, vitamin D, peppermint, oregano oil, eucalyptus, Chinese skullcap, thymus extract, elderberry, garlic, ginger, astragalus, and cordyceps.

The diet is also a major immune system contributor. It is wise to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods daily—especially fruits and vegetables. Also include nuts, seeds, beans, gluten-free grains, wild fish, poultry, and other meats. In addition, it helps to reduce your consumption of dairy, caffeine, gluten, and alcohol. Consume plenty of liquid meals like unsweetened herbal teas, leafy green vegetable smoothies, and homemade soups with bone broth. Furthermore, relaxation exercises can build your immune system: including yoga, meditation, qigong, and tai chi.

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Sources for Today’s Article:
“Immune System Shaped by Environment More Than Genes,” National Institutes of Health website, Feb. 2, 2015; http://www.nih.gov/researchmatters/february2015/02022015immune.htm.
Brodin, P., et al., “Variation in the human immune system is largely driven by non-heritable influences,” Cell, January 15, 2015; 160(1-2): 37-47, doi: 10.106/j.cell.2014.12.020.
“Immune System,” National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases website; http://www.niaid.nih.gov/topics/immunesystem/Pages/default.aspx, last accessed March 24, 2015.
Murray, M., M.D., et al, The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine (New York: Atria Paperback, 2012), 169-182, 435-441.  

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