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How To Train Your Immune System, According To A Functional Medicine Expert

Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine
By Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine
Jeff Bland, Ph.D., is the founder of Big Bold Health, a company on a mission to transform the way people think about one of nature’s greatest innovations — the immune system. Jeff is a biochemist by training, and a lifelong educator in practice. He is widely regarded as the father of functional medicine, and served in founding roles at both the Institute for Functional Medicine and the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute. Jeff is the author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life.
Image by Andrey Pavlov / Stocksy
November 9, 2020

Immunity has been all over the headlines over the last year and a half, and it can often seem like a scary story. After many years' experience in personalized, functional medicine, I've got a more hopeful story to tell.

At Big Bold Health, I've been diving deep into the emerging research around immunity, and I've come to believe in the real possibility of rejuvenating and personalizing the immune system. The evidence is mounting that we can do so much more than blindly "boost" immune activity.

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So what's on the table? Through diet and lifestyle, we are learning how to reduce our body's production of old immune cells. We are learning how to eliminate those cells and clear out their messaging. We are learning how to clean up those exhausted cells with new immune cells, unencumbered by that messaging. This is what it means to immuno-rejuvenate.

What it means to "train" your immune system?

The science is underway, and the tools are already at hand. The missing link here is you.

I'm here to tell you that it's possible to take control of your immune function, just like you would take control of your diet or an exercise routine. You can build resilience in your immune response, just like you build muscle.

Your immune system is constantly interpreting signals from the outside world, and your body's ability to efficiently and accurately process that information equates to health. The better the training, the better the response.

Think of yourself as the coach, and the immune cells are your team. Every team has its strengths and weaknesses, and every team can respond to good coaching. Below, I outline how to become a good coach and train your immune cells.*

How to train for immunity.

Sleep: Get 7 to 8 hours of restful sleep daily.

Exercise: Prioritize regular, daily activity. Even one hour of brisk walking can have a very positive impact on immune system function.

Lifestyle: Aim for 20 to 30 minutes outdoors each day.

Stress: Do something every day that gives you a sense of peace. Reading, listening to music or a podcast, engaging in quiet meditation...whatever works for you.

Diet: Nutrition is not one-size-fits-all. No single diet will optimize immune function for everyone, but here are some sensible guidelines:

  • Don't overeat.
  • Cut back on sweets. High sugar intake can have an adverse impact on the immune system.
  • Limit meats and foods that are high in saturated fats.
  • Focus on a low-glycemic-load diet that puts minimal stress on insulin and metabolism. The Mediterranean diet is a great example of this approach with its prioritization of vegetables, nuts, olive oil, fish, lean meats, beans, and fruits.
  • Up your fiber intake, both soluble and insoluble. This means fruits, vegetables, and healthy grains.
  • Eat vegetables of many colors to feed your body an array of immune-supportive phytonutrients.
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Time-Restricted Eating: Consume all of your food during a 10-hour period, avoiding food for the remaining 14 hours. Time-restricted eating has been found to be helpful in stabilizing both metabolism and immune function.

Gut Microbiome Integrity: A high-fiber diet rich in prebiotic nutrients supports a healthy intestinal microbiome, and that builds gut immunity. There is also good evidence that a well-balanced probiotic supplement can help.*

Supplements: Through extensive research and study over the past 20 years, these nutrients and phytonutrients have all proven important to support healthy immune function.* There is ample statistical evidence that many of these nutrients are not adequately consumed in the diet, so daily supplementation at the appropriate levels may not only be helpful, but advisable.* Just be sure to speak with your medical practitioner before adding to your regular routine.

  • Vitamin A: 1,500 to 3,000 IU (i.e., 450 to 900 mcg RAE)
  • Vitamin C: 100 to 1,000 mg
  • Vitamin D3: 1,000 to 5,000 IU (i.e., 25 to 125 mcg)
  • Vitamin E: 100 to 400 IU (i.e., 67 to 268 mg d-alpha tocopherol); if possible, look for natural mixtures of tocopherols and tocotrienols
  • Zinc: 15 to 30 mg
  • Magnesium: 50 to 200 mg
  • Vitamin B12: 250 to 1,000 mcg
  • Vitamin B3 (as niacinamide): 50 to 500 mg
  • Quercetin: 200 to 1,000 mg (a bioflavonoid found in buckwheat, onions, apples, grapes, and green leafy vegetables)
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (EPA & DHA): 1,000 to 3,000 mg
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Environment: Limit exposure to chemicals in your air, water, and food. This includes the excessive use of over-the-counter drugs, plus home- and personal-care products that can burden your immune system.

Bottom line.

It's important to note that we're all individuals with our own unique lifestyles and dietary needs. However, these recommendations can serve as the foundation for any immuno-rejuvenation program.

Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Jeffrey Bland, Ph.D.
Father of Functional Medicine

Jeff Bland, Ph.D. is the founder of Big Bold Health, a company on a mission to transform the way people think about one of nature’s greatest innovations — the immune system. Through Big Bold Health, Jeff is advocating for the power of immuno-rejuvenation to enhance immunity at a global level, often through the rediscovery of ancient food crops and superfoods. To get there, Jeff is building a network of small farms and suppliers throughout the US that take a clear stance on regenerative agriculture, environmental stewardship, and planetary health.

Jeff’s career in health spans more than 40 years. A nutritional biochemist by training, he began in academia as a university professor, where he was profoundly influenced by a sabbatical spent working with two-time Nobel Laureate, Dr. Linus Pauling. Jeff then spent three decades in the nutritional products industry, where he served as the Chief Science Officer at Metagenics, and worked alongside other pioneers to establish standards for evidence-based formulations, quality ingredient sourcing, and ethical manufacturing practices that stand to this day.

A lifelong educator, Jeff has traveled the world many times over in his role as the “father of functional medicine.” In 1991, he and his wife, Susan, founded The Institute for Functional Medicine. This organization has grown to become the global leader in functional medicine education. Hundreds of thousands of healthcare professionals have now participated in IFM programs, and this collective knowledge has positively impacted the lives of patients all over the world. In 2012, Jeff founded another educational nonprofit called the Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute. This organization has become well-known as the host of Jeff’s signature annual conference, the Thought Leaders Consortium.

Jeff is the author of The Disease Delusion: Conquering the Causes of Chronic Illness for a Healthier, Longer, and Happier Life, among countless additional books and research papers.