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Make Your Immune System Anti-Fragile

November 15, 2020 at 4:00 a.m.

Muscles grow stronger, faster, and more skilled when they're challenged intermittently with exercise training. The brain can learn new languages, new skills, and specific cognitive tasks when challenged repeatedly with new inputs. Likewise, the immune system can be trained to grow stronger as well.

Athletes begin training their muscles for weeks or months leading up to a competition. Surgeons begin training their brains to do specific skills long before they perform their first surgery on a real patient. These things are common knowledge. No one expects anyone to win a marathon without having done any training beforehand.

We shouldn't expect our immune systems to expertly fight off pathogenic bacteria, harmful viruses, and cancerous cells without any prior training either. In fact, the right kinds of challenges to your immune system can make it smarter and fitter just as lifting weights and reading a book can challenge your muscles and brain.

It just so happens that some nutrients can act as a "workout" for the immune system. By consuming these nutrients on a daily basis, you can build an anti-fragile immune system -- an immune system that is beyond robust and beyond resilient.

An anti-fragile system, as described by the esteemed economist and trader Nassim Taleb, doesn't just survive when exposed to stressors; it thrives. Our muscles, our brains, and our immune systems are all examples of anti-fragile systems.

A key point to remember though is that you must provide small stressors to these anti-fragile systems before exposing them to large stressors in order to build up that resilience and robustness.

Athletes need to train their muscles before racing in a marathon. Surgeons must hone their skills before cutting open a patient. And we must "exercise" our immune systems before potentially exposing ourselves to pathogens.

What is the Immune System and How Does it Work?

The immune system is essentially just a collection of white blood cells, tissues, and molecules that recognize the healthy cells that make up the body (self), clean up old or damaged cells (senescent cells), and stay alert in order to attack unfamiliar cells (non-self).

The intelligence of our immune system is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. An ecosystem of billions of white blood cells is dispersed throughout the body, and there's no group of cells or centralized location in charge of that ecosystem. The network of immune cells and the relationships within that network hold the intelligence of the system.

The white blood cells that make up the immune system are produced in our bone marrow by a small number of hematopoietic stem cells. These same stem cells also produce red blood cells and platelets. The hematopoietic stem cells themselves are multipotent and capable of extensive self-renewal.

Compounds that support healthy functioning of hematopoietic stem cells support our immune system by encouraging the appropriate production of white blood cells. Some stem cell supporting compounds include:

  • Fucus vesiculosus (bladderwrack), a type of seaweed
  • Undaria pinnatifida (wakame), a type of seaweed
  • Echinacea purpurea root (the root of the purple coneflower)
  • Tinospora cordifolia stem (guduchi), an Ayurvedic herb
  • Beta glucan, a beneficial sugar found in the cell walls of oats, mushrooms, and yeast

There are many different types of white blood cells, but they're categorized into two major types: myeloid and lymphoid. The myeloid cells include mast cells, basophils, eosinophils, neutrophils, and monocytes. These cells receive their basic immune education in the bone marrow tissue. Lymphoid cells include natural killer cells, lymphoid dendritic cells, T lymphocytes, and B lymphocytes. These cells, like the myeloid cells, are birthed in the bone marrow tissue. However, they receive their immune education in lymphatic tissues (lymph nodes, thymus gland, tonsils, and spleen).

These different immune cells can also be categorized into either the innate immune system (the "fast thinking" immune system) or the adaptive immune system (the "slow thinking" immune system).

The innate immune system (also called non-specific immunity) is a primal system that is also present in plants, fungi, and primitive multicellular organisms. This system has the ability to rapidly respond to molecular patterns that it "innately" recognizes as a result of its primal intelligence. These cells are born with inherited wisdom that we all share.

The innate immune system includes natural killer cells, lymphoid dendritic cells, and all the myeloid white blood cells. They can be found on your skin, in your gastrointestinal tract, in your respiratory tract, and in secretions such as mucus, stomach acid, saliva, tears, and sweat.

Although the cells of the innate immune system are born with some knowledge, cells of the innate immune system can also be trained by certain molecules such as beta glucan. This is called "trained immunity." With trained immunity, monocytes, macrophages, and natural killer cells can become bigger, stronger, and more active when challenged.

When you train your innate immune system, it becomes more physically fit; it can respond to challenges faster and with greater efficiency. However, similar to the exercise training an athlete must do before competing in a marathon, the benefits of innate immune system training begin to diminish if you don't continually train.

Just as a sedentary person loses muscle mass and cardiorespiratory fitness, a sedentary immune system's ability to respond to challenges becomes slower and less efficient. Therefore, it's important to "train" your innate immune system on a daily basis.

Personal Trainers for Your Innate Immune Cells

How exactly can you train your innate immune system on a daily basis? Much like you can get a personal trainer at the gym to help you train for a marathon, you can get personal trainers for your innate immune cells to help them prepare for a pathogenic invasion.

These personal trainers can be found in certain plants, algae, and mushrooms. These substances contain important information that they share with your innate immune cells about how to accurately attack pathogens without harming the "self" with an excess of inflammatory cytokines.

Since this information only stays with the immune cells temporarily, it's important to consume these personal trainers on a daily basis. And while eating these things every single day might be a bit tedious or unappetizing, you can easily take a supplement in pill form.

So what kind of plants, algae, and mushrooms should you look for to support your innate immune system? Try these:

  • Beta glucan, a beneficial sugar found in the cell walls of oats, mushrooms, and yeast
  • Fucus vesiculosus (bladderwrack), a type of seaweed
  • Undaria pinnatifida (wakame), a type of seaweed
  • Ganoderma lucidum (reishi), a type of mushroom

Training Your Adaptive Immune System

Adaptive immune cells are somewhat more advanced in their knowledge and abilities than the innate immune cells, but the adaptive immune system is a "slow thinking" type of system that can take days or weeks to take action when the body is challenged.

Our bodies are constantly coming into contact with three-dimensional molecules called antigens that are present in our food, in the air, on the surface of our cells, and on the surface of pathogens. Your adaptive immune system analyzes the surface features of each antigen and then tries to "solve" the shape of the antigen. When the antigen is "solved," the adaptive immune cells memorize that particular shape.

The immune system is not supposed to react to antigens on the surface of healthy cells, antigens in our food, or antigens in our gut microbiome. When the immune system ignores these antigens, it's referred to as immune tolerance.

When the immune system reacts to antigens that it should be ignoring, you can develop problems such as autoimmune diseases (type 1 diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis) or food allergies.

The good news is that there are some personal trainers for your adaptive immune cells that teach them how to have immune tolerance for the antigens on our own body's cells and on our food. A few of these personal trainers include:

  • Vitamin D, a hormone made in your skin in response to the sun's UV rays
  • Selenium, a trace mineral found in brazil nuts and fish
  • Zinc, a mineral found in shellfish, chickpeas, and sesame seeds
  • Resveratrol, a stilbenoid polyphenol found in grape skins
  • Fucus vesiculosus (bladderwrack), a type of seaweed
  • Undaria pinnatifida (wakame), a type of seaweed
  • Panax ginseng root, an important herb in Chinese medicine
  • N-Acetyl-L-cysteine, the chemical precursor to glutathione
  • Broccoli sprouts, a rich source of sulforaphane
  • Spirulina, a type of blue-green algae
  • Echinacea purpurea root (the root of the purple coneflower)
  • Beta glucan, a beneficial sugar found in the cell walls of oats, mushrooms, and yeast
  • Tinospora cordifolia stem (guduchi), an Ayurvedic herb
  • Palmitoylethanolamide (PEA), a pain relieving compound found in dark chocolate
  • Ganoderma lucidum (reishi), a type of mushroom

Important Takeaways

Your immune system is extremely complex, and this is just a brief "Immune System Biohacking 101" type of article. It's important to note that as your immune system ages, it begins to lose its ability to function as well as it once did. Therefore, whether you're trying to biohack your way to an "anti-fragile" immune system or simply trying to prevent your immune system from becoming fragile (known as immune senescence), it's important to provide your immune cells with the "personal trainers" mentioned here.

Ready to put this information into action or want to learn more? Head over to to get started.


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