Barriers to Immune Resilience

                                                                                                                                                                                                                    Read time 5 minutes

An immune system with healthy reactivity and resilience is significant for fighting infections, preventing diseases, and achieving overall mental and physical health. For underserved populations, health inequities, including affordability, accessibility, and social determinants of health, sustain barriers to optimal health care1,2 and may present challenges in the development of robust immune resilience.3-5 Consideration of such factors and understanding healthcare system disparities that are beyond a patient’s control helps to develop personalized treatment plans while promoting patient empowerment and a collaborative patient-practitioner relationship.

Immune Fitness: Potential Barriers in Underserved Populations

A 2019 meta-analysis of 35 studies found that compared to higher socioeconomic status (SES), low SES exposure in childhood and adolescence increased levels of inflammation in adulthood (measured by C-reactive protein, IL-6, and fibrinogen).6 Another meta-analysis of 15 studies (n=43,629) also suggests an inverse association between childhood SES and adulthood inflammation, with participants from the least advantaged families measuring 25% higher in C-reactive protein levels.7 What other environmental and social factors may impact immune system responses? Healthy food access, exposure to pollutants, and chronic stress are a few factors that have been studied in relation to both immune system function and prevalence within underserved communities.

Nutrition & a Healthy gut

Adequate and uninterrupted access to healthy and varied foods is essential for positive health outcomes. Dietary patterns that include anti-inflammatory foods such as fruits and vegetables supply nutrients and natural antioxidants that may contribute to a more robust immune system through reducing inflammation and oxidative stress.8,9 However, reliable access to affordable, nutritious foods can be a potential challenge for immune health in underserved populations. Results from a cross-sectional study of over 12,000 participants suggested that individuals of low SES were more likely to experience food insecurity.5 In addition, food insecurity status was associated with increased inflammation based on C-reactive protein measurements.5 National statistics have found that Black, non-Hispanic households have been nearly two times more likely to be food insecure than the national average.10 Overall, data from 2018 suggested that 11.1% of US households were food insecure at least some of the time during that year.11 And due to the recent pandemic, initial reporting indicates the number of households experiencing food insecurity has grown substantially.12,13

Accessibility and consumption of varied and healthy foods also influences gut microbiome function, a key regulator of immune system homeostasis. Communication between the microbiome and intestinal mucosal immune system impacts immune response,14 and dysbiosis may contribute to blunted immune reactivity.15 In addition to nutrition-based studies, microbioscape research, which combines microbiome science and landscape research,16 suggests microbial input from the environment also influences immunoregulation pathways.17 Accessibility to green spaces, for example, has been shown to benefit health and lower all-cause mortality risk,18,19 yet studies indicate that access to urban green spaces within under-resourced US neighborhoods is limited.20,21

Exposure TO POLLutants

Ambient pollutants and toxicants such as heavy metals, pesticides, and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals have been associated with immune system imbalances,4,22,23 and disproportionate exposure levels have been documented for underserved populations in the US.24,25 A 2020 assessment by the Environmental Protection Agency indicated that unsafe air quality (with the highest fine particulate matter [PM2.5] concentrations) was most often recorded in low-income populations that included larger percentages of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities.26 The American Lung Association has echoed concern for environmental exposure inequality, indicating that within Medicaid and Medicare populations, lower SES and BIPOC communities have experienced an increased risk of death from fine particle pollution.27

Chronic exposure to pollutants and toxicants may lead to an overloaded body burden, increased systemic inflammation and clinical manifestations of immune dysfunction. A 2020 review reported common themes among cell and animal model studies that investigated the mechanistic effects of air pollutants on different immune cells.23 Ambient pollutants were found to directly activate cellular signaling pathways, triggering inflammatory cytokine release from the epithelium and macrophages. In addition, the pollution particulates enhanced TH lymphocyte 2 and 17 responses.23


Underserved populations that encounter access barriers through social determinants of health disproportionately experience psychosocial stress. According to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pandemic-related worries of possible job loss, obtaining needed health care, food insecurity, and housing instability may compound the already elevated risk of chronic stress in BIPOC communities.28 Experiencing stress can activate inflammatory responses, with acute stressors potentially enhancing immune response and chronic stressors ultimately suppressing immune function.3,29 A 2019 systematic review and meta-analysis of 75 studies explored this stress-immune relationship further by evaluating the effectiveness of stress-reducing psychological interventions on the activation of immune responses.30 After the specific intervention (i.e., stress management, relaxation, meditation, mindfulness, cognitive-behavior technique, or counseling), immune-related outcomes were measured either through in-vitro, in-vivo, or psychophysiological challenges (i.e., natural killer cell and cytokine responses, wound healing and skin testing, or speech tasks and treadmill exercise test). Overall, a small to medium effect size was suggested for all interventions, with those studies measured through in-vitro stimulations and psychophysiological challenges showing more optimal immune responses.30

Clinical Considerations

Immune system function is optimized by a range of factors, from a healthy diet and a balanced gut microbiome to chronic stress and toxicant exposures. Racial, economic, social, and cultural barriers create immune resilience challenges within underserved populations, illustrated through the disproportionate impact of chronic and infectious diseases in these communities.10,31,32 The barriers and social determinants of health are “antecedents” and “mediators” of physiological dysfunction in the functional medicine matrix model. They are important factors when considering immune health strategies and when determining what lifestyle practices are modifiable for a patient.

Meeting a patient where they are, understanding access barriers, and recognizing social conditions that may be beyond their immediate control are all part of a patient-empowered collaborative relationship. These considerations ultimately help to provide the most effective personalized intervention that supports optimal immune health. Learn more about immune reactivity and boosting resilience from functional medicine experts at IFM’s 2021 Annual International Conference (AIC).

AIC TOPICS and speakers: Improving Immune ResiliencE
  • Ritchie Davidson, PhDThe Plasticity of Well-Being: A Framework for Cultivation of Human Flourishing
  • Omowunmi Osinubi, MD, and Geoff DardiaImproving Immune Resilience in Veterans
  • Jeffrey Mandume Kerina, MDOptimizing Surgical Outcomes
  • James Carter, MD Innovative Functional Medicine Approaches to Wound Healing
  • Sunjya Schweig, MD Improving Immune Resilience in First Responders and Front-Line Healthcare Workers
  • Georgia Tetlow, MD, and Riva Robinson, MDProactive Strategies to Enhance Provider Well-Being
  • Facilitated Discussion COVID-19 Long Haulers: Resilience and Recovery

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