It's nearly impossible to find the good in a global pandemic, but COVID-19 did deliver one important lesson each of us should acknowledge: Our immune systems are in trouble. They're not “weaker” than those of generations ago. But they are more “dysregulated” — the medical term for a biological process or function that isn't working the way it should. Your immune system is less able to tell a deadly invader from a harmless one, for example, and more likely than in the past to attack your body's own healthy tissue by mistake. Plus, it's constantly turned on and working in counterproductive ways that were once much less common. Each of these is an indicator of disturbed immune function, and together they use up resources that should be going elsewhere.
“We absolutely have more dysregulation in our population today,” says Mark Ansel, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of California, San Francisco. “And it's related to the changing way that we interact with our environment — everything from what we eat to what we do.” That's disturbing news for all of us as we head into the teeth of this winter's perfect storm: a potentially resurgent novel coronavirus that's still wreaking havoc across the nation, and the opening months of our annual flu season. But we're not helpless — not by a long shot — and here's what you need to know.
How the immune system misfires
There are many ways in which our bodies manifest immune problems, but three of them stand out, and the prevalence of each is increasing throughout our population.
Chronic inflammation. Among those who were hospitalized with COVID-19, 34 percent had diabetes, 42 percent were obese and 57 percent had high blood pressure, according to a study published in JAMA in April. A common factor for all three conditions is chronic inflammation. It causes your immune system to pump out white blood cells and chemical messengers that keep your defenses actively engaged 24/7.