Melissa BiscardiNov 17

Immune Health: Sex Differences in Immunity

A close up shot of two people lying the grass

A Hot Topic Made Fun

Your Immune System: Maybe You’re Born With It, Maybe It’s Lifestyle

The crisp cool air is starting to come around… Well, at least for us in the North Pole! With this air comes thoughts of colds, coughs, and all those little germs kids tend to spread around with their boogers. The truth is we can get sick all year round and our body is constantly trying to protect us from unwanted pathogens. While there is no shortage of talk around immune health, immunization, and avoiding contact with sick people, there does seem to be a lack of chatter around resiliency and our goddess-given human qualities to fight off illness.

Immune System 101

Let’s start with a brief chat about how your body protects you on a daily basis just by way of being a fairly well designed — though not perfect — system. That said, it’s a solid prototype.

The three main components that your body uses for immune protection are the following:

1. Skin and openings. Everything is contained by our skin. If you get a scrape or a cut, it’s actually a breach in your immune system. Then, openings such as your nose, mouth, and digestive exit (yes the pooper!) prevent pathogens from invading via mucus membranes.

2. Innate immune system.

3. Adaptive immune system.

Now while we all have these components, we have them in different capacities. Some people may have skin disorders which in turn would mean a decrease in the quality of that part of their immune defense, for example. But of course, there’s more to it than just that.

Biological Sex and Immunity

Your sex actually plays a role in both the innate and adaptive immune responses. Generally, adult females mount stronger innate and adaptive immune responses than males. This results in faster clearance of pathogens and greater vaccine efficacy in females than in males, but also contributes to their increased susceptibility to inflammatory and autoimmune diseases (boo!).

Sex differences in immune responses have evolved in diverse species ranging from insects to lizards, from birds to mammals. In all of these species, both innate and adaptive immune responses are typically lower in males than in females.

So, what can YOU do to support your immune system regardless of your sex?

There is so much information on this topic, some true and some just trying to take your hard-earned Benjamins.

Let’s review a few science-backed strategies that won’t break the bank.

Stress and Your Immune System

First, the bad.

Here’s the truth: (negative) stress isn’t good for us. Building inner resilience, though, is not only great for us, but also free, 100% your own, and made with every cell in your own body. So how do you nurture resilience and ditch the negative stress?

Here are a few tried and true ways:

Immune system boosters:

  • Meditation. There are a number of randomized trials and at least once systematic review (think high-level research) to support the beneficial effects of mindfulness meditation on specific markers of inflammation, cell-mediated immunity, and biological aging (Black & Slavich, 2016). Holy smokes, get me some of that anti-aging meditation!
  • Cold water immersion. There is so much research on this that it’s hard to decide what to cite. Just know that consistent cold water immersion has been shown to improve inflammatory markers and anti-tumor immunity. There are currently no particular evidence-based guidelines on frequency, but we do know that one cold shower won’t do the trick (Ponomarev, 2019).
  • Getting a consistent and quality night’s sleep. Getting quality sleep of 7–8 hours on a regular basis helps to boost the t-cells in your body which help to fight off infection, whereas chronic sleep deprivation (6 hours or less) can lead to a pro-inflammatory state. This makes it harder for your body to resist pathogens. Sleep also plays a key role in consolidating memories, and this includes vaccination memories. So get a good night’s sleep after you get a jab (as if you needed another reason to cozy up with your blanket). If you need more help with this, check out the Tech Shutdown activity in the Nuro app!
  • Yoga. Anecdotally, we know that yoga can be very beneficial for us and part of a healthy lifestyle, but there are also over 10 randomized trials on yoga and immune health. While results have not been conclusive, it seems that yoga does help reduce inflammatory markers (Yeun, 2021). Time to dust off your downward facing dog.

Stress reducers:

  • Walks in nature. This is not surprising — walking in nature for 120 minutes is good for your physical and mental health. This is a great way to also get your Conversation Pace Exercise in! Have you been outside today?
  • Aerobic exercise. Exercise has been studied in many populations (younger, older, cancer patients, sleep-deprived) and the evidence is clear: just get out and do it! Your body, brain, immune system, and more will thank you. Aim for at least 150 minutes per week. So what are you waiting for? Finish this article and get to it!
  • Watching videos of animals (yup, backed by science!). This is a great way to ditch stress. Researchers in Western Australia were lucky enough to conduct this study, and they found that — again, not surprisingly — watching videos of cute animals helps reduce stress.

All of this isn’t a bunch of hocus pocus, either. These are all easy to implement strategies backed by science for the evidence-based nerds among us (myself included).

Now, spread the love, not the germs… Unless you’re kissing of course, which is in fact good for your mental health!

Your friend and mine,

Melissa, Brain Crusader