How Pollution Threatens Your Immune System

While leaky mucous membrane syndrome isn’t the sexiest thing to think about, you should learn more about it, and how micro- and nano-particles are impacting your health and ability to fight off bad bugs.

In This Article

The New Science on Pollution and Immunity

The human body is protected by four great barriers (yes, we are talking about mucus membranes) that ward off undesirable bugs, pollutant, and toxic material. These barriers are the body’s first lines of defense against infection, according to Ayurveda. They’re the unsung heroes of your immune system

And now, a new study shows that environmental pollution can damage the integrity of your body’s defense systems and threaten your ability to fight off bad bacteria and bugs.

See also 8 Ways Pollution Harms Us and What You Can do About It (Hint: Detox)

How are Mucous Membranes Affected by Pollution?

In a first-of-its-kind study, published in the journal Biophysics Review, researchers evaluated the immune-compromising impact of environmental pollutants and contaminants on the mucous membranes of the body.

While all air and water pollution do harm to the mucosal system, the most damaging are the new toxic elements on the block—micro- and nano- particles. 

This study measured how air and water pollutants break down our mucous membrane barriers and increase risk of infection and illness.

See also Air Pollution Particles Found in Brain

The four stages of mucosal breakdown due to pollution are:

  1. Leaky mucus membrane syndrome: The researchers discovered how pollutants make holes in the mucosal layer, making it leaky, and compromising the protective nature of this system.
  2. Barrier protection breach: When toxic material and pathogens pass through a leaky mucosal system and enter the body, they cause infection, toxicity, and liver and lymphatic congestion.
  3. Interrupted mucus production: When mucous membrane cells are chronically irritated, they produce too much or too little mucus when chronically irritated. Microbes that thrive in the mucosal system depend on a proper balance of—not too much or too little—mucus production.
  4. Altered quality of mucus: Contaminating mucus with black carbon or microplastic has been found to alter mucus structure and function.

Natural pollutants in air and water have long been a contributing factor to ill health. Ash from volcanic eruptions, cooking over fires, poor air quality, and ventilation in caves or huts all contributed to irritation and potential damage to the mucosal barrier system.

Today, the issues associated with air and water pollution are formidable and linked to numerous health concerns. This study concluded that particle pollutant exposure likely damages mucous membranes and contributes to health concerns related to pollution.

See also Air Pollution Protection with Ayurvedic Detox + Tulsi, Amalaki, and Turmeric

What Exactly are Mucous Membranes?

The main internal barriers, made of mucous membranes, are the lining, or skin, of the intestinal tract and respiratory tract, as well as the blood brain barrier.

These barriers are lined with mucous membranes, or cells that produce mucus in order to maintain a healthy protective immune response.

The fourth barrier—your outer skin, or epithelium—is equally important in protecting your immune system.

When mucous membranes become irritated and damaged, they can either over- or under-produce mucus, which can compromise the ability of these protective barriers to keep us healthy and safe.

To review, the four critical immunity barriers are:

  1. The gut and intestinal barrier
  2. The lung barrier
  3. The skin barrier
  4. The blood-brain and CSF-brain barrier

Learn more about the four protective barriers.

A drawing of bacteria and viruses
Illustration by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Ayurveda and Mucous Membranes

Ayurveda described this same process thousands of years ago as a fundamental principle of optimal health. The delicate balance of the inner skin, or mucous membranes, of the body was maintained from season to season and as a preventative tool to slow aging.

Nature Balances Mucous Membrane Barriers

Survival for most species includes being able to adjust for the light-dark cycles of day and night, as well as winter and summer. These adjustments directly impact the function of the body’s mucous membranes.

The coldness and dryness of winter can dehydrate the delicate mucous membranes of the gut and respiratory tracts, compromising these protective barriers and immune strength.

Fortunately, nature had a plan for this. During dry, cold winters nature many of us eat heavy, warming, higher-fat and protein-rich foods, like nuts, seeds, grains, and tubers.

Then the rains of spring encourage excess mucus production, providing an antidote to the dryness.

In the same way, summer’s heat is the antidote to spring, drying up excess mucus. Summer’s heat is also accompanied by a harvest of cooling foods. Without an abundance of a late summer fruits and vegetables, the heat would accumulate and create excess dryness, akin to creating a desert. If summer’s heat is not balanced by adequate amounts of cooling fruits and veggies, your mucous membranes are at risk of drying out as the seasons transition to fall and . The long-term result is actually an overproduction of mucus, to compensate. Again, both dried out and over-productive mucous membranes can compromise your immunity.

Nature had a way to ensure that we stayed in balance, civilization lured us away from a lifestyle in harmony with nature’s circadian rhythms, diet, and seasonal cycles. Ayurveda tries to reconnect you to those natural cycles.

See also Should You Eat for Your Ayurvedic Body Type (Vata, Pitta, Kapha) or the Season?

Mucous Membranes and Aging

Aging also plays a significant role in the drying out the mucosal system.

After the age of 50, the qualities of vata accumulate, and the body begins to dry out, wrinkle, and become more brittle and less flexible.

With age, the drying of the mucosal barriers accelerates aging and compromises immunity. Ayurveda describes three stages of mucous membrane development: childhood is spring-like and governed by kapha and robust mucus membrane function (kids excel at making mucus);  middle age is governed by pitta, or fire, that, while fueling the most active period life, also accumulates heat and dries out the mucosal barriers; and finally, after 60, qualities of vata and a drying out of the mucosal barriers accelerate.

Excess kapha in childhood can congest mucous membranes. Excess heat during the pitta stage of life can overheat and dry out the mucosal barriers, making  natural vata dryness after 60 more challenging.

According to Ayurveda, keeping kapha, pitta, and vata in balance during these three stages of life is key to maintaining healthy barriers, optimal health, and longevity.

See also Podcast Episode 103: Immunity Detox with Dr. John Douillard, DC, CAP

Facebook Live on Mucus: Immunity’s MVP

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