It's likely we all know someone who seems to have "superhuman" health. While we mortals battle seasonal allergies, colds, flu, stomach bugs and whatever else is making the rounds at schools and workplaces, these immunity superheroes go on working and playing or, if they do get sick, they overcome it quickly. Why is that?
Since the time of Hippocrates, the answer has been a mystery capturing the attention of doctors and researchers. In fact, there is a rigorous area of research known as psychoneuroimmunology that specifically focuses on this mystery. That's a fancy word for the study of the way the mind (psych), the body (neuro, nervous system), and the immune system interact and contribute to both good health and illness, as well as recovery from illness, among other areas of scientific interest.
Research has begun to reveal how genetics, lifestyle, stress, personal history of illness and exposure to toxins affect the strength and resiliency of our immune response. These discoveries help delineate the characteristics that give some people "immunity superpowers" and explain why the rest of us have more kryptonite to overcome in our quest for health and vitality.
What Makes Us Vulnerable to Getting Sick?
When a person gets sick -- be it an acute illness like a cold, a chronic disease such as diabetes, or something more serious like cancer or COVID-19 -- a number of factors contribute to what makes us vulnerable to illness:
Genetics and family history. An increased likelihood for certain diseases can be "set-up" in a person's biology by genetics and family history. But biology is not destiny. Just because a parent had a certain illness, doesn't mean you are destined to the same fate. You are a unique individual living in a different time, having different experiences, with likely more knowledge about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle than the family who came before you.
Environment. While genetics provides your body with a template for health versus disease risk, the environment in which you work, live, and play fills in the details for that template to activate/deactivate different pathways within the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. This revolutionary field of study known as epigenetics examines how your behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way your genes work.
Lifestyle. Broadly speaking, lifestyle is the end-game when it comes to vulnerability to or resilience over illness. Your lifestyle habits can make you more likely to get ill in two ways:
-by activating your genetic predispositions or
-by introducing germ-warfare that your body is not equipped to defend against.
On the positive side, lifestyle habits can rewire genetic predispositions and strengthen the immune response, which makes your body more resilient to viral or bacterial invaders. Health science has shown us strong evidence for what we can do to make our bodies healthy, more resilient to illness, and better able to thrive as nature intended.
How to Build Your Immunity Superpower
There are several lifestyle "secrets" that can help you build your immunity superpower:
Nourish the Body. Your body needs fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables; lean meat, poultry and fish; healthy oils, whole grains, and nuts. It needs adequate hydration for digestion and absorption of nutrients and the efficiency with which all organ systems are able to work. You can complement high-quality nutrition with supplements such as vitamins, minerals, and herbs that are known to support the immune system (e.g., cod liver oil, probiotics, garlic, vitamins D, antioxidants such as vitamin C and A, astragalus, and ashwagandha among many others).
Relax the Mind/Body. Taking time to relax -- away from phones and other screens -- is essential to immunity. Research on the power of the mind over illness, and the effects of stress on immunity, demonstrates that a calm mind/body is better able to defend against disease and can even reduce the severity of illness when it occurs. Yoga, breathwork, mindfulness practices, massage therapy, gardening, zen sandboxes, guided imagery, and having a good laugh (yes! laughter) are a few of the practices that can shift the body's template from disease-promoting to health-promoting.
Move the Body. Consistent, moderately vigorous daily exercise not only does wonders for heart, lungs, and muscles, it's good for the health of the brain and immune system. If you aren't exercising regularly, consult with your holistic health practitioner or a certified fitness professional to help you get started.
Live Clean. Strive to actively control the things you use and put in your environment. Use air purifiers. Clean home air filters regularly. Use organic (less toxic) household cleaning supplies. Carefully choose the cosmetics you use on your skin.
Remember: health is a journey. The more often you practice healthy lifestyle habits, the healthier you make the template within the body and the more likely you will be to create your own "health superpower."
Eli Camp, ND Personal Communication. September 2021.
CDC. "What Is Epigenetics? | CDC." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 3 Aug. 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/disease/epigenetics.htm.
DiscoverMagazine.com "Why do Some People Get Sick All the Time, While Others Stay in Freakishly Good Health?" Posted 12 June 2020. Accessed 13 Sep 2021: https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/why-do-some-people-get-sick-all-the-time-while-others-stay-in-freakishly
LiveScience.com "Why Some People Catch a Cold and Others Don't." Posted by Rachel Rettner (2020). Accessed 14 Sep 2021: https://www.livescience.com/63552-cold-virus-defense-tradeoff.html
APA.org "A New Take on Psychoneuroimmunology." Posted by Beth Azar (2001). Accessed 14 September 2021: https://www.apa.org/monitor/dec01/anewtake
VeryWellMind.com "Psychoneuroimmunology Sheds Light on Stress and Overall Health." Posted by Elizabeth Scott (2020). Accessed 14 Sep 2021: https://www.verywellmind.com/psychoneuroimmunology-and-stress-3145127