Happy Immune System

Dr. Shawn Talbott (Ph.D., CNS, LDN, FACSM, FACN, FAIS) has gone from triathlon struggler to gut-brain guru! With a Ph.D. in Nutritional Biochemistry, he's on a mission to boost everyday human performance through the power of natural solutions and the gut-brain axis.

As my home state of Utah has been hitting daily record after record for COVID-19 cases over the last couple of weeks (and certain knuckleheads have been protesting at the home of our state epidemiologist who is trying to get people to do the right thing) – I wanted to revisit the topic of how to keep our immune systems strong.

Way back at the beginning of 2012, I wrote The Immune Miracle – The all-natural approach for better health, increased energy, & improved mood – where I wrote about how “priming” the immune system could not only keep us from getting sick, but could also help us feel better on a daily basis with higher energy, sharper focus, and improvements in overall well-being.

Think of “priming” as a “tune up” for your immune system – so it is faster and more efficient at identifying problems such as infectious viruses and bacteria. Immune priming has been used for more than a decade to help the immune system fight cancer cells more efficiently during chemotherapy treatments (by making the immune system more efficient at finding/fighting cancer cells and by maintaining immune strength during therapy).

Newer research shows how a properly primed immune system not only protects us at a higher level, but also helps us to feel better on a daily basis, with notable improvements in mental wlellness (measured as “psychological vigor” – a combination of physical energy, mental acuity, and emotional well-being).

Priming should not be confused with “stimulating” the immune system. Both priming and stimulating can bring a suppressed immune system back ”up” – but an over-stimulated immune system can lead to problems such as allergies, food intolerances, and auto-immune conditions that can attack and damage healthy tissues. Priming helps to restore optimal immune system balance (whether it’s high or low to begin with) to help protect us and improve how we feel.

There are a number of ways to naturally prime our immune systems – getting enough sleep, eating high-fiber vegetables and whole grains, and supplementing with specific “glucans” that are found in mushrooms (alpha-glucans) and yeast (beta-glucans).

It’s pretty logical to understand that if your immune system is suppressed in some way (such as by stress or lack of sleep), it’s less likely to protect you from pathogens (like viruses), and you’re more likely to get sick (which is why we often catch a cold when we’re stressed or worn out). 

What many people do not appreciate is that a properly-functioning immune system is also associated with a general feeling of well-being; conversely, a suppressed immune system is one of the primary reasons for feeling fatigued and depressed. 

Vigor is a term from psychology research that measures a combination of physical energy, mental acuity, and emotional well-being (vigor is the opposite of “burnout” or physical and mental exhaustion). When your vigor is low, you not only lack energy and may even be depressed, you also lack the necessary motivation to get up and accomplish the things that you’d like to do. When your immune system is suppressed, your vigor is low — BUT, when you bring your immune system back to optimal levels of functioning, your vigor improves… and you feel great again.

There are basically three “tiers” to consider when it comes to effective immune system support: Protect – Prime – Promote.


This first tier is where you do whatever you can to protect yourself from exposure to pathogens. Steps like eating a healthy diet, supplementing with a balanced multivitamin; consuming fermented foods and high-fiber foods to nourish your microbiome; frequent hand-washing; getting enough sleep; and reducing stress all come into play.


Especially during periods of elevated stress (environmental, emotional, physical), the immune system needs to maintain its primary function of protecting the body from harmful invaders. Numerous human research trials of several “immune support” types of dietary supplements have shown that “priming” key immune system cells (macrophages, neutrophils, and natural killer cells), helps them to quickly identify, ward off, and defeat foreign challenges. Research studies show that people with properly primed immune systems have fewer cold/flu symptoms and better indices of well-being, vigor, energy, and mood. The more stress you’re under, the more you can expect your immune system also to be “stressed” (and suppressed), the more likely you are to benefit from a daily regimen of immune system priming.


This is your last resort – after you’ve tried the first two tiers and you’re down for the count with an established infection (i.e. you have a cold or the flu). The best approach to temporarily promoting or stimulating immune system activity above normal levels is to start consuming higher levels of vitamin C at the first sign of a sore throat or related cold symptom. You can drink more orange juice, eat lots of strawberries, or get an inexpensive chewable vitamin C tablet — and shoot for an intake of 500mg every 3-4 hours (up to 3,000mg/day for 3-5 days). This simple, safe, and inexpensive approach is a good way to help your immune system get a jump on the infection; it might reduce your symptoms by a couple of days.

The immune system is one of the most complex body networks – but, maintaining its proper balance and optimal function doesn’t have to be complicated. Protect your immune function with a healthy diet (antioxidants from fruits/veggies and probiotics from yogurt). Maintain balanced immune function, especially during times of stress with proper Priming, and Promote immune activity above normal only as a last resort (and then only for a short period of time).

Each of the chapters in The Immune Miracle  take you step-by-step toward an understanding of how the immune system works, how stress interferes with immune function and leads to low vigor, and how a properly primed immune system can protect you from disease while helping you to feel better than you’ve ever felt before.

About the Author

Exercise physiologist (MS, UMass Amherst) and Nutritional Biochemist (PhD, Rutgers) who studies how lifestyle influences our biochemistry, psychology and behavior - which kind of makes me a "Psycho-Nutritionist"?!?!

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