The attention devoted to sickness and health is omnipresent these days, and with good reason. The pandemic is filling the airwaves and prompting fear in the hearts of many. What we need is accurate information, smart practices. This is where the knowledge of the physician specializing in infectious disease, one who knows the immune system intimately, can be invaluable.
So what specifically is the immune system? It’s the part of the body devoted to fighting off invading micro-organisms that are a part of our world. The complexity and effectiveness of our immune system is nothing short of staggering.
What are the functions of the immune system? This system is critical for survival. Our immune system is constantly alert, monitoring for signs of an invading organism. The immune system functions to keep us free of infection, be it through the skin, a skin structure, or our intestinal lining. Cells of the immune system must be able to distinguish self from something else, i.e. “non-self.”
By now it is well-recognized the COVID-19 virus is more dangerous in the elderly.
A decline in immune function is consistently observed among older adults. Aging is also associated with increased inflammation in the absence of infection and has been found to predict infirmity. The result is seniors are more susceptible to infections and have more serious complications when they get one.
The term for this decline in immune function is immunosenescence. It reflects the deterioration of both components of the immune system—the acquired and the innate. The innate system is the ‘first responder’ to an alien invasion (of a microbe). The cells of the innate system act quickly, but are not specialized. The innate system is generally less effective than the adaptive immune response. The adaptive response is able to recognize a specific invading organism and remember it later, if exposed again.
Scientists specializing in the role of macronutrients, micronutrients, and the gut microbiome are convinced they all play a critical role in the functioning of our immune system. It turns out to be an incredibly complex system, with a multitude of factors and variables. Up until recently, we knew next to nothing about our gut bacteria and its complex interaction with our health and immunity. We do know one crucial part of gut health, not surprising, is our diet. But there are many ways to optimize the effectiveness of our immunity.
Your nutrition can affect the microbes residing in your guts, directly altering your immune response.
The microbial community in the mammalian gut is a complex and dynamic system, crucial for the development and maturation of every facet of our immune response. The complex interaction between available nutrients, the microbiota, and the immune system seems to be the most important ‘player’ in the fight against invading pathogens.
What does it take to have a healthy immune system?
We know well many micronutrient deficiencies have been identified as contributors to declining immunity. It is believed these could provide opportunities for directed therapies for potentially restoring immune function, creating better health through improved nutrition.
Some proffered recommendations: eat yogurt for breakfast! Apparently, the probiotics strengthen the immune system, as revealed by a study on athletes and their colds and GI infections. Yogurt is also rich in vitamin D, which also boosts your immune system.
Vitamin C is well-recognized as an extremely important part of an effective immune system, and a deficit can make you more prone to getting sick. Because your body cannot store it, daily intake is essential for good health. Foods rich in vitamin C include oranges, grapefruits, strawberries, bell peppers, spinach, kale, and broccoli.
Vitamin B6 supports many of the reactions that are integral to immune function. Foods high in B6 include chicken and cold water fish (e.g. salmon and tuna), and green vegetables. Another important vitamin for fighting infection is E, which is a powerful antioxidant. Foods rich in vitamin E include nuts, seeds, and spinach.
Some people think of tea as something consumed in the movies, yet studies reveal alkylamine, a naturally occurring chemical in tea, strengthens the immune system, again, helping it fight off infection more effectively. Honey has centuries of use because of its medicinal properties. Numerous reviews find honey, an antioxidant, acts as a natural immunity booster. So you might want to add it to your tea for both flavor and health benefits.
Another suggestion made by researchers is to eat more garlic, since it seems to stimulate many different cell types essential to the immune system. Ginger, another powerful antioxidant, has antiviral properties, probably a good idea these days. Consume more lemon. Lemon juice is high in vitamin C, and can be used for its antioxidant properties and to prevent the common cold.
How about a bowl of chicken soup? Thought by some to simply be a comfort food, the dish has a mild anti-inflammatory effect. Ingredients in the classic recipe (chicken, garlic, onion, celery, etc.) have been found to slow the migration of white blood cells into the upper respiratory tract, helping to relieve the symptoms of a cold. Additionally, a compound found in chicken soup called carnosine seems to prevent colds. How about a nice bowl of curcumin? This is a component in the spice called turmeric. Studies have shown curcumin helps to regulate the immune system.
Zinc is known to be an important micronutrient for the immune system. Even a mild deficiency in zinc has been associated with widespread defects in the immune response. Look to fish, seeds, nuts, and broccoli as good food sources. Selenium is a trace element that also has critical functional, structural, and enzymatic roles. Inadequate selenium is associated with a higher risk for a variety of chronic diseases since it is critical to immune function. Foods containing higher levels of this mineral include spinach, lentils, eggs, and fish.
Some recommendations for immune health are related more to lifestyle modifications.
Make workouts a part of your weekly regimen since regular exercise increases the activity of immune cells. Exercise also seems to flush bacteria out of your lungs, reducing the likelihood of an airborne illness. Experts suggest moderate levels of intensity, performed 4 to 5 times a week for 30-40 minutes.
Staying hydrated is required for immune health. Water helps your body produce lymph, which carries white blood cells and other immune cells. Sun exposure is important (although difficult in certain climes) since it is the most efficient way to stock up on vitamin D, an immune system supercharger. Surprisingly little is needed, just 15 to 20 minutes a day, to get the recommended dosage.
Getting the flu shot can improve your immune profile, and has been approved for all adults. Smoking suppresses the immune system generally, so quitting helps lower the risk of infectious disease. Smoking also damages the lining of our “windpipes,” explaining why smokers are much more likely to catch a cold virus.
Because of their effectiveness, nutritional therapies should be getting prescribed in the typical medical practice, though this has been rarely and inconsistently recommended. This therapeutic approach should be utilized more consistently in those demonstrating poor immune function, as well as healthy populations.
Our understanding of the risk factors for immune system dysregulation is far from complete.
We can say definitively that adopting these and related strategies will optimize your chances of reducing or delaying the onset of immune-mediated acute and chronic diseases. In summary, I would say, you have a road map. Your course of action, a plan for better health, can now be laid. Perhaps it is time for positive changes in your routine, and thereby your health. Though giant steps are hard to take, small ones require only a step, and if taken in the right direction, lead to the larger changes you choose.
Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine and surgery in the Upper Peninsula (Marquette and Escanaba). McLean is triple board certified in surgery, wound care, and orthotic therapy. He has lectured internationally on many topics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excerpted with permission from the Summer 2020 issue of Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine. Copyright 2020, Empowering Lightworks, LLC.