Improving Your Immune System

Is there a way to improve your immune system that will prevent infection? No, there are no guarantees. Individuals without nervous system issues, who are extremes in health maintenance still get infections. Everyone is vulnerable due to the nature of the infection. Bacteria and viruses do nothing but mutate for their own survival. Too many in our bodies cause infection and illness.

Individuals with stroke, brain injury, spinal cord injury or both are susceptible if the autonomic nervous system (ANS) is not working up to speed. Neurological injury from trauma or diseases can affect the functions of the ANS. Unfortunately, some are more affected than others. Individuals that are more susceptible are not known. The factors that affect the ANS are not known. What we do know is that the ANS is affected by nervous system injury, which can make it slow to respond to detecting an invader in our body, slow to mount a response to rid the invader or unable to do either at all.

The ANS is a part of the nervous system that causes the body to respond automatically or without you consciously thinking about it. The most commonly used example is the heart beating. We do not have to mentally think: heartbeat, heart relax, heartbeat, heart relax. If we did, we would not keep up with all the things our body does. It is easy to visualize the heart beating. We can feel our pulse at different points in the body, and we see videos, we know the feeling when our heart is pounding. But there are many other systems that the ANS controls that we do not think about, such as breathing, digesting food, sweating, constricting our pupils depending on light, or secreting bile.

There are some body activities that are even less conceptualized but are still taken for granted. This can include all the processes that occur within our blood circulation or the immune system. Unlike the heart beating that can be counted or measured, we do not have any idea what is going on in our blood products or when the immune system is working at a normal pace or increased due to a bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic invader.

Torso shot: hands of a doctor and patient

The immune system, which is controlled by the ANS, has disruption after nervous system injury in finding and removing invaders through message communication pathways that invaders are present, which includes the preganglionic sympathetic axons of the lymph system, including the spleen (the captain of the lymph system) and the cells that are released to respond to killing and removing of the invaders. Stress and internal body inflammation also influence the immune response. Anyone can be overcome with invaders or infection in the body, but those with neurological injury have increased issues with invader control, especially in the communication of control by the brain.

Protecting yourself from invaders is the first line of defense. If you do not have exposure to bacteria and viruses, you have reduced your risk of infection. Complete elimination of exposure is practically impossible unless you live in a sterile environmental bubble which is difficult to achieve and reduces quality of life. Some individuals with extreme immunocompromised issues do, but this is rare. For everyday living, complete elimination is not reality.

Things you can do to protect yourself is to wash your body and especially your hands thoroughly and carefully. This keeps contaminants off your body. Keeping your hands clean prevents contaminants from entering your eyes or mouth from touching. Bacteria and viruses can enter your respiratory system through breathing but also by touching a contaminated hand to your mouth or nose. Careful and complete hand washing also is important when performing bladder care, catheterization, and bowel programs. Even if you wear gloves, contamination can still occur as you touch the product or just with storage or with the gloves, catheters, lubricant, suppository, or other supplies sitting in the open air.

Wash your hands with warm water and soap, carefully washing every finger, around the nails, the palm and top of the hands up to the wrist for the length of time to sing Happy Birthday twice. Dry thoroughly with a clean towel. Do this prior to touching any opening to your body. That includes self-care but also before and after meals, taking out the garbage, coming in from of your home, etc. Use a moisturizer if your hands become too dry to avoid small cracks where bacteria can enter.

Follow a healthy diet to ensure your body has the nutrients needed to assist in fighting an invader. Follow a diet plan that incorporates all of the food groups in proportion. Eating too many fats and calories will not only add weight but reduce your intake of foods that will contribute to healthful body functioning.

Drink water to hydrate your body, providing more fluid in your blood and cells. If you follow a bladder management program, you will want water to be your beverage choice for adequate hydration. Drinking fluids that add sugar, alcohol, caffeine, calories will reduce the amount of fluid supplied to your cells and healthy circulation.

Maintain social distances. We have all learned this during this time of COVID, but it works for other bacteria and viruses as well. Prior to COVID, our society became lax in keeping distance from individuals with colds or even flu. Keeping social distance helps avoid airborne bacteria and viruses to a certain extent. Individuals with communicable respiratory illnesses should be avoided to prevent transmission.

Individuals with higher-level neurological injury have increased numbers of respiratory illnesses compared to those with lower-level injuries. This is due to breathing muscle compromises and decreased cough strength to remove debris, mobilize fluid, and mucus in the lungs. Practicing coughing and deep breathing, use of the sigh button if using a mechanical ventilator and strengthening your lung muscles helps reduce the accumulation of fluid and mucous in the lungs, which traps invaders in the airway passages.

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Moving your body through exercise has been demonstrated as one of the most effective ways of improving your immune system. The body is discussed in systems, the respiratory system, circulatory system, nervous system, immune system, and others. But all these systems work together.

Stimulating one system affects another if you have sensation or do not feel the body part being moved. If you move a muscle in your leg, it is going to stimulate the tendon, which will provide feedback to the bones or skeletal system. The movement is going to stimulate blood vessels which provides feedback to the cardiovascular system. Those muscles are also going to stimulate the nerves, which will send messages to the nervous system, which includes the ANS. The skin will be stretched as the leg is moved. The muscles of the leg will pull the muscles in the thigh and up into the abdomen affecting the bladder or urinary system and bowel gastrointestinal system. And even more, wonderful things are happening to the body, such as stimulation of blood flow and lymph nodes.

Reducing stress levels in your body can happen in several different ways. When talking about stress, people automatically think of mental stress. Helping your mental well-being through relaxation exercises, counseling, or therapeutic interventions aids in the reduction of mental stress. The body also has stress inside produced through body inflammation. Chronic stress in mental and body stress can increase risks of infection and cardiovascular disease. Both mental and body stress can be reduced by exercise and healthy living habits.

If you do find yourself with an infection, it is best to get treatment early when it is easier to treat. Sometimes people think they will wait and see, however, with neurological injury, the immune system may not respond quickly enough or with enough power to clear the infection on your own. Early intervention with infection produces results with less treatment than waiting when more powerful antibiotics or other interventions will be needed. Antibiotics are used to control bacteria, and vaccines are used to control viruses.

Pediatric Consideration:

Children with neurological issues have the same issues with the autonomic nervous system reacting to invaders. Some immunological responses are inherited from their parents, but new bacteria and viruses are evolving continuously. Antibiotics are used to control bacterial illnesses. Vaccines are used to prevent viral infections.

Small children are learning about the world. Their hand to mouth or toy to mouth is one of the ways they explore. This connection with the mouth is a gateway for invaders to enter the body. Frequently cleaning hands, mouths, and toys is important to reduce the spread of infection.

Because of the hand-to-mouth exploration by children, washing with careful rinsing of soap residue, should be frequent. Hand sanitizer works through the use of concentrations of isopropyl (cleaning) alcohol, a type with antibacterial properties, but still, a chemical that should not be ingested. If you are not near a clean water source, be sure to carry a wet soapy paper towel in a container or bag for one time use handwashing. Do not store the container or bag for more than a few hours or in the heat to avoid bacterial growth.

About the Author - Nurse Linda

Linda Schultz, Ph.D., CRRN is a leader, teacher, and provider of rehabilitation nursing for over 30 years. In fact, Nurse Linda worked closely with Christopher Reeve on his recovery and has been advocating for the Reeve Foundation ever since.

Nurse Linda

The opinions expressed in these blogs are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation.