Last week I mentioned that the duration of an illness depends on two things:

1) virulence or strength of a pathogen

2) the state of your immune system and health


I covered #1 last week, and this week we’ll talk about #2.

There seems to be an idea out there that a healthy immune system is one that never allows you to get sick. This simply isn’t true. If you are perfectly healthy you can still get sick, because that’s what pathogens like the flu virus have evolved to do. Their sole purpose is to find a hole in our defenses and exploit it so that they might live. They mutate and evolve very rapidly, changing just enough that our immune system doesn’t recognize them the next time around.

A healthy immune system should really be gauged in terms of how it responds to the acute illness. Which sounds healthier to you: if you get sick intensely for 3 days, or if you get the same bug, but your response is moderate and it hangs on for a couple weeks?

A rapid, intense response indicates a healthy immune system. This type of response is most apparent in children; they can be fine one minute and spike a fever of 104 the next. The intensity of the symptoms means that body is swiftly and efficiently responding to the pathogen and clearing it from the body. A slow, less intense response indicates the body is having difficulty mounting a sufficient defense.

A fever indicates a good immune response.

A fever indicates a good immune response.

The fever, body aches, chills, headaches that we all hate indicate your body is mounting a strong response and that your immune system is robust. If these symptoms remain weak, your body isn’t fighting off the pathogen, and its possible the illness could settle into the body more deeply. For whatever reason, be it lack of sleep, age, or underlying illness, the immune system is not as healthy.

A healthy immune system responds rapidly and gets you back on your feet quickly. Oftentimes after acute illness we’re generally healthier because we’ve had the opportunity to discharge physical, mental, and emotional accumulated junk. Now our bodies are less burdened than before the illness, and our immune system can function even better.

Realistically, we will get sick. Our immune system is not an impenetrable steel gate. It is a living, breathing, adapting structure. Instead of hoping not to get sick, we can hope for a healthy immune response. We can do more than hope, we can help! You immune system needs your support to have a strong response. It needs hydration, proper diet, rest, sleep, hot baths, herbs, and sometimes light walking.

Recovery is much quicker if we support our immune systems instead of working against them. Yes, you could probably power through the work day today and tomorrow or stay up late to finish a paper, but what kind of extra toll is that taking on your body? From what I’ve seen in practice, “powering through” an illness typically doubles your recovery time. The uncomfortable symptoms hang around longer, and people turn to fever reducers and pain pills to decrease their discomfort. These are suppressive treatments that make it harder for your body to respond to the pathogen. They may make a day more comfortable, but now you’re asking your body to fight two things: the pathogen and suppressive drugs.

It’s important to remember that your body is working for you, not against you. And if you give your body what it needs, you’ll have a healthy immune response, lots of discharge, and feel better than you did before you got sick.