Do you catch the sniffles at the drop of a hat? And, what about that hacking, dry, or phlegmy cough? When you get one, does it last for weeks or even months? The physical results of a compromised immune system affect not only you, but also everyone around you. In the chronic illness community, it’s common to ask, is fibromyalgia to blame for my compromised immune system?
I believe that question leads to misconceptions about how the immune system functions.
To begin, let’s brush with broad strokes. What clues lead you to believe that your immune system isn’t functioning properly? It doesn’t take much detective work to recognize the basic hallmarks. Mark the symptoms that relate to you from the quick checklist below.
_____ Frequent colds, flu, sniffles, etc.
_____ Tendency toward environmental allergies
_____ Tendency toward food sensitivities
_____ Inability to recover quickly from infections
_____ Inability to heal quickly from wounds or sores
_____ Prolonged fatigue
_____ Frequent swollen glands, sore throats, and/or earaches
_____ Recurring bouts of digestive upset (including feeling that you may have had food poisoning or something “disagreeable” to eat)
How did you score? Did you mark three or more? Five or more?
If you’ve been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, it’s likely that many (but not necessarily all) of these symptoms are familiar and frequent occurrences. I used to say that if someone sneezed in another zip code, I’d catch the bug.
Unfortunately, my health challenges worsened because of what I did about it.
Painting the picture of my compromised immune system
Somewhere in my late 20s to early 30s, I thought I’d found the secret to great health. Swollen glands, sore throats, and chronic coughs had been part of my existence for as long as I could remember. I seemed to move from one bout of bronchitis to the next. I thought that was just “my genetic makeup.”
This pattern changed after discovering the miracle of antibiotics. As a child, I rarely saw a doctor. As an adult, I’d been too busy to go for myself, but at a well-check for my child, the doctor prescribed an antibiotic for me because of my wracking cough. And, voila!
Instead of the cough lingering for months, it shortened my recovery time to a week or two. I remember babbling to a neighbor about how this discovery had changed my life. At the first sign of swollen glands and a slightly “thick” feeling when swallowing, I headed straight to my doctor for a handy dandy prescription. If I kicked the infection to the curb before it had a chance to take root, so much the better. My neighbor said, “It sounds too good to be true.”
Little did I know how prophetic her words were. It took decades to discover the damage I’d done to my immune system that was already impaired by poor nutrition and lack of self-care. It then took several years beyond that point to rebuild my health step-by-step.
Two important notes:
I could have gone through the rebuilding process much more quickly had I not been so obstinate about ignoring the advice of others and believing I had to figure things out for myself.
It could be pointed out that my doctor should not have prescribed the antibiotics repeatedly. While this is true, I believe in personal ecology, meaning I’m ultimately responsible for the choices I make. It would be fruitless (for my net result) to hold on to a position of blame or finger-pointing.
I’m not alone in this experience. When I see fibromyalgia and autoimmune clients, I always ask for their medical history, including antibiotic use. It’s very common for them to report taking multiple courses of antibiotics at some point in their lives.
But, this is still just part of the picture.
Other factors that color the picture of our immune system
The immune system gains its strength (or becomes weakened) through the health of the digestive system. Think of gut health as the central hub of the wheel of health. The healthy function of every system in our body begins with the health of the gut. Have you been told you have any of the following?
Irritable bowel syndrome
Small intestinal bacteria overgrowth (SIBO)
These are just a few of the intestinal-related diagnoses that indicate imbalances in the digestive system.
And, there are more factors to consider. Any one or combination of the following concerns can lead to the issues listed above.
Stress (chronic or prolonged stress, in particular) including worry, anxiety, fear, frustration, etc.
Toxin exposure (both internal and external)
Personal environment (from the air you breathe to the relationships that surround you)
Medications (both prescribed and over the counter including antibiotics, steroids, chemotherapy, and NSAIDs, )
Consuming processed and empty-nutrient foods
Consuming foods to which you have sensitivities (i.e. dairy, wheat/gluten, corn, soy, eggs, shellfish, tree nuts, caffeine, artificial sweeteners, artificial additives, etc.)
Smoking and/or alcohol consumption
Being overweight or obese
Insomnia or sleep difficulties
Poor oral health (dental disease)
Lack of fitness activities
While this list doesn’t cover every factor that affects our gut health, it demonstrates the key areas that need to be addressed. Do you see any items that may be an issue for you?
Painting a complete picture
It’s clear that the health of our immune system relies on the health of our digestive system. In fact, 70% of the cells that make up our immune system reside in our gut. Dr. Mark Hyman states, “If you want to fix your health, start with your gut. Gut health literally affects your entire body.”(1)
Now that you know what can compromise your immune system, it’s time to look at what can be done. Remember that I said I was obstinate about my recovery?
I read nutritional studies that reported health challenges (including fibromyalgia) that related to poor diet. I knew which foods “worked” for me and which ones did not. Yet … I still dragged my feet.
It didn’t take much arm-twisting for me to give up dairy because the physical discomfort I experienced was obvious and immediate. The insidious effects of wheat/gluten took much longer for me to embrace. I told myself that it wasn’t really a problem. I didn’t understand then the impact of long-term food sensitivities.
For more information on the impact that wheat/gluten has on the fibromyalgia body, check out these articles: “How Gluten Issues Are Connected to Fibromyalgia” and “Top 12 Gluten Myths That are Dangerous to the Fibromyalgia Community”
I also dragged my feet on eliminating added sugar and processed foods. I didn’t fool myself into thinking sugar was healthy, but back then I had no idea of how sugar directly sabotages the immune system.
The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported some fascinating results regarding a study on sugar and the immune system. They found that consuming 100 g of sugar (equivalent to about three cans of soda) significantly compromised the white blood cell’s ability to kill bacteria.(2) Interestingly, this affect lasted for five hours afterward. So, what happens with more? One Caramel Frappuccino can contain 64 g of heart-pumping sugar!(3)
Using 2012 statistics, the average American consumes over 153 g of sugar per day.(4) How often are we consuming added sugar? Constantly! Added sugar can be found in everyday foods such as packaged snacks and treats. It’s in drinks from blended coffees to flavored teas. But many are unaware that added sugar is also found in packaged breads, crackers, cereals, dressings, condiments, microwave meals, and more.
Looking at the list of health concerns that impact the digestive system, are there other factors that you can take action on now? When it comes to diet, eliminating foods that impair the immune system while adding nutrients and supplements that restore it both serve as a great place to start.
It’s also important to drink plenty of filtered, pure, clean water. If you’re uncertain as to how much to drink, check out this article containing a Downloadable Hydration Tip Sheet.
Make it a priority to get the rest your body craves. Whether your fall asleep or not, go to bed at the same time each evening and set a consistent schedule to relax and wind-down beforehand.
Although it may sound easier said than done, we can take positive steps toward stress management. Take a focused approach by incorporating fitness routines, relaxation practices, and finding outlets for creative endeavors. When it comes to our immune system health, stress management isn’t optional, it’s essential.
If you’d like to know how EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) can help with your stress concerns, check out this article, “Tapping Into Healing Success for Fibromyalgia with EFT.”
The finishing strokes
Now that you can see the intrinsic connection between your immune health and your digestive health, can you also see where fibromyalgia fits into the picture?
While fibromyalgia does not “cause” an impaired immune system, it’s clear to see how they relate to each other. The same factors that create an impaired immune system can also open the door to health challenges such as fibromyalgia, autoimmune concerns, and chronic disease.
Once the contributing factors are addressed at the root, the body can start to heal and move toward whole body wellness.
Is it time for you to give your immune system a boost? What action steps will you take today?
1. Hyman, Mark. “How Good Gut Health Can Boost Your Immune System.” EcoWatch.com. February 26, 2015.
2. Kalish, Nancy. “7 Surprising Signs Your Immunity Needs a Boost.” Prevention.com. January 15, 2014.
3. “Caramel Frappuccino Blended Coffee.” Starbucks.com. Retrieved 7/2/15.
4. Walton, Alice G. “How Much Sugar Are American's Eating?” Forbes.com. August 30, 2012.
Sue Ingebretson (www.RebuildingWellness.com) is an author, speaker, certified holistic health care practitioner and the director of program development for the Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Center at California State University, Fullerton. She is also a Patient Advocate/Fibromyalgia Expert for the Alliance Health website and a Fibromyalgia editor for the ProHealth website community.
Her #1 Amazon best-selling chronic illness book, FibroWHYalgia, details her own journey from chronic illness to chronic wellness. She is also the creator of the FibroFrog™– a therapeutic stress-relieving tool which provides powerful healing benefits with fun and whimsy.
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