Can Obesity Affect Your Immunity?

  • 4 mins read
  • Health Conditions
  • Written by: Reshma Pathare

Did you know obesity can influence how often you get ill? A lot of awareness has been raised about how obesity is not just a cosmetic concern, but also a medical problem that increases your risk of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure amongst others.

However, not many know that this excessive deposition of fat tissue in the body can also weaken one’s immunity. Let us delve deeper to find out the link between obesity and immunity.

Understanding obesity

Accorded the status of a ‘global public health problem’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO), obesity is a lifestyle disease caused by an imbalance in consumption and expenditure of energy.

  • Chronic inflammation accounts for around 50% of deaths over the world. A large chunk of it is attributable to obesity. 
  • Between 2017 and 2019, the prevalence of obesity among adults over 18 years of age stood at 12.7% in Thailand, 28% in Indonesia, 44.1% in Singapore, and a whopping 50.20% in Cambodia.  
  • From 1980 to 2014, there was a four-fold increase in the number of adults around the world, who have diabetes. In the WHO South-East Asia region, the number increased from 17 million in 1980 to a whopping 96 million in 2014. Most of these cases were attributed to excessive weight gain and obesity, which are important causes of insulin resistance.

Of course, there’s much more to it than meets the eye in this simplistic description. While obesity may predominantly happen due to genetic predisposition, there are myriad other factors that also kickstart or contribute to making a person overweight, obese, or super-obese.

Symptoms of obesity

Clinically speaking, obesity is determined by Body Mass Index (BMI). While there may be small differences depending on ethnicity and gender:

  • On average, a BMI above 25 but less than 30 signals that a person is overweight 
  • A BMI of 30 and higher points to obesity.  
  • A BMI of more than 40 signals morbid/super obesity.

Check your BMI with the Good Health By Yourself BMI Calculator.

Albeit, BMI cannot be considered the sole measure of obesity, because, it does not differentiate between weight gained via muscle and weight gained via fats. The latter is a problem, which is why other metrics like waist-to-hip ratio are used to determine is a person is obese or not. Try the Good Health By Yourself Waist-to-Hip Calculator, for an instant check!

Obesity symptoms can include everything right from the obvious to the obscure:

  • fat deposits on the body
  • having trouble sleeping
  • snoring a lot
  • sweating a lot
  • skin-related problems like itching and rashes in places where the skin folds
  • feeling out of breath due to simple tasks like climbing short stairs or walking a bit
  • repetitive constipation or acidity reflux.

What causes obesity?

  • A person with a family history of overweight-ism or obesity will be genetically more prone to having the same condition.
    Genes play a large role in determining where and how your body stores its fat deposits, how fast is your metabolic rate (i.e., how fast your body can break down the consumed food into energy), and how many calories does your body burn during exercise or physical activity.  
  • While we cannot exert control over our genetic makeup, it is certainly in our hands to keep at bay the other causes that contribute to exacerbating obesity. These include consuming the wrong kinds of food, consuming high-calorie beverages, and leading a sedentary lifestyle.  
  1. Fried food, junk food, and processed foods that are laden with calories and lack fiber or nutrition are all causative in contributing to obesity.
  2. So also, high-calorie sugary drinks like soft drinks and alcohol have the same effect. 
  • Add to that, a sedentary lifestyle with little or no exposure to even basic activities like brisk walking, jogging, or swimming, and you are bound to pile up subcutaneous fat and visceral fat.

The visceral fat build-up is more dangerous as this is building up in the organs inside the belly. Medically known as visceral adipose tissue accumulation, this condition is seen to lead to pro-inflammatory metabolic abnormalities, among others.

  • There are also other causes of obesity such as pregnancy, smoking, lack of sleep, consumption of certain medications, and excessive stress. 

How does obesity affect your health?

Obesity is not called a global public health issue for nothing. It is a condition that has a multitude of effects on one’s physical and psychological health.  

  • Obesity increases blood pressure and cholesterol levels, thus increasing the risk of heart attack and heart diseases.  
  • It makes you prone to certain cancers like cervical cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and endometrial cancer among others.  
  • Obesity inflicts excessive stress on a human’s musculoskeletal frame, thus causing aches and pains in joints and conditions like osteoarthritis.  
  • Digestive problems like gallbladder disease, liver problems, and heartburn are traceable to obesity, as is sleep apnoea.  
  • Obesity is seen to affect insulin function and raise the risk of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. It is also seen to affect a person’s immunity and causes various health problems that stem from a compromised immune system.

What is the importance of inflammation in the immune response?

In the past few decades, researchers have been keenly observing the multi-layered relation between obesity, inflammation, and meta-inflammation.  

Let us first understand what exactly is inflammation to decipher the immune system’s inflammatory response. 

Our body has an inbuilt immune system that is meant to protect us from external agents. These could include bacteria, viruses, toxic chemicals, etc.  

If the body senses the entry of any of these offensive agents, the immune system activates itself and sends out inflammatory cells and pro-inflammatory cytokines (a type of protein) that stimulate more inflammatory cells to stop the offensive agent in its path before it can cause too much damage. The stoppage can be in form of swelling, bruise, scabs, etc.

Inflammation is of two kinds: acute, and chronic.

  • Acute inflammation is an immediate and short-term response. For instance, if you fall down and hurt your knee, the immune system will immediately start sending its inflammatory cells to begin the process of scabbing and healing. It is chronic inflammation that is problematic. There are certain biological, chemical, and physical triggers that make the inflammatory responses go awry such that the body begins attacking its own healthy tissues. When that happens, the white blood cells enter the bloodstream and cause the body to start heating up.  
  • Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, leads to several long-lasting health problems such as inflammatory arthritis (which includes a group of ailments such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, etc.), inflammatory bowel diseases, asthma, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, type-2 diabetes, and some cancers.

There are certain lifestyle factors that contribute to the development of chronic inflammation viz. alcohol consumption, smoking, chronic stress, and obesity.

Obesity, immunity, and inflammation – The connection

Obesity has been identified to be a major factor in low immune system causes, making way for a suppressed immune system. In fact, the waist-to-hip ratio becomes important in this regard because several studies point to the fat accumulated near the belly being more causative of an underactive immune system or malfunctioning immune system, rather than body fat spread all over the human frame. Chronic inflammation has its roots in the bridge between adipose tissue and our immune system.

Deep belly fat related immunity problems

While obesity brings a lot of health problems to the bearer, the visceral adipose tissue aka deep belly fat is an interestingly important part of our immune system, as it contains different types of cells of the innate immune system, as well as, adaptive immune system.

Immune cells are important in determining the working of adipocyte metabolism, and adipocytes (fat cells) regulate the working of these immune cells. Add to it, adipocytes also pro-inflammatory cytokines, and adipokines. These help a lot in maintaining the body’s immune system and combat infections.

Obesity causes serious disruptions in the immune and endocrine functions of deep belly fat. This causes tissue damage and inflammation and consequentially leads to diseases linked to chronic inflammation such as type 2 diabetes and inflammatory arthritis among others.

This is particularly seen in adipose tissue inflammation related to the momentum i.e., the folds of fat hanging below the stomach. Omental adipose tissues contain T-lymphocytes that have more pro-inflammatory cytokines than can be found anywhere else in the body.

However, a high-fat diet can switch the production and functioning of cytokines to a permanent state, thus increasing the risk of chronic inflammation and related health problems.

Overall body fat and immunity problems

Awareness is increasing about the fact that fats are an active endocrine organ in themselves! Earlier, it was thought that only white blood cells can produce cytokines; but now, it is proven that even adipocytes aka fat cells are capable of emitting cytokines that strengthen immunity.

However, the more the deposits of fat in the body, the more cytokines are produced, because, excessive fat puts the body into a permanent ‘firefighting mode, thus making the body prone to constant aka chronic inflammation.

Does sugar lower immunity? Yes!

If your diet comprises foods rich in added sugar and refined carbohydrates, it will not only lead to obesity and insulin resistance but also chronic inflammation. As seen above, obesity in itself leads to an impaired immune system.

Apart from that, when fat/protein combines with sugar in the bloodstream, it creates a harmful compound called Advanced glycation end products (AGEs) which, in turn, leads to oxidative stress and inflammation. Further, high levels of sugar heighten gut permeability, thus allowing toxins and bacteria to move into the bloodstream more easily and cause inflammation.

Sugary foods also increase LDL cholesterol, which in turn increases the C-reactive protein – an important marker for inflammation.

Apart from causing chronic inflammation, high sugar diet also leads to oxidative damage, which increases your chances of catching infections.

Keep your weight and immunity under check?

Measure your BMI

How to tackle obesity to enhance immunity

If you are wondering how to have a strong immune system, try to not become obese! For, obesity and immunity-related inflammation are locked in a vicious circle wherein obesity increases inflammation and inflammation makes it difficult to reduce obesity.  

  • Hence, eat a healthy diet. Stay away from sugary foods and foods containing refined carbohydrates. 
  • An ideal diet for an obese person should include foods containing omega-3 such as tofu, walnuts, some fish, and leafy greens; foods rich in omega-6 such as soybean, corn, eggs, and poultry, vegetables, fruit, and plant-based oil such as olive oil.
  • Try not to lead a completely sedentary lifestyle. Depending on your age and capacity, start light exercises such as brisk walking and jogging. Yoga is a good option to promote physical as well as mental wellness.
  • Finally, lower your stress levels and get enough sleep.

Conclusion

It is never too late. Even though it may seem daunting at first, it is always advisable to reduce obesity rather than deal with ailments related to chronic inflammation that stems from the impaired immune response. Make the choice wisely.

Read more on ways to strengthen your immune system.

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