The immune system is very much in the limelight at the moment (March 2020). This article is being written as a guide on how to improve this very amazing part of us. I try and give links to authentic research for those who want some background. Though as we know, science does not have all the answers to all our health problems. We humans are too complex and more of a “work of art” than just a mechanical/chemical/electrical construct.
We have had around two million years to evolve and have become finely tuned to live on planet earth. Yet we are so versatile that as any new threats arise in our environment, we respond fabulously to cope with it. In other words, our species carry on ….. maybe a little to well perhaps!
Specifically, our immune system is very connected to our environment, the planet Earth. What we eat, drink and breathe make us able to live and thrive here. Our bodies use the nutrients and micro-nutrients in our food in ingenious way to keep us alive – in fact, more than just keeping us alive. Any new bacterial, viral, parasitic and fungal strains that appear are dealt with by our superb immune system. Every day, we are constantly surrounded by pathogens, either in the air that we breathe in or on surfaces/other living beings we touch. All are neutralised as they enter our tissue boundaries by our immune reaction. If on occasion these “nasties” manage to gain some residence in our body, our body up its game and produce fighting cells in profusion to repel them. All this is all done without our conscious intervention.
Okay, the medicines we have developed can help in some cases. Antibiotics might be needed if our immune system is compromised in some way. However, you will agree that medicine does not solve all our health problems and can even aggravate them. In this article, I am looking at what we can do to help ourselves to a better immune function.
Some say that they get all the vitamins and minerals in the food they eat. This might be true but can we say that our food production methods are good enough to provide the micro-nutrients that our body needs? In a study, analysis of nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 found that average vitamin C levels has dropped by 30 percent [link Scientific America]. Many other vitamins in food have also reduced during this period. In a study quoted below, when a person is stressed physically, emotionally or by illness, the body needs much more of the vitamin to remain well.
The RDA (recommended daily allowance) of 40-50mg per day was worked out to prevent scurvy. Later research says “recent scientific evidence indicates that an increased intake of vitamin C is associated with a reduced risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, and cataract, probably through antioxidant mechanisms” [link AJCN]. In fact even more recent study (Nov 2017) finds 1600mg per day massively helped the recovery of pneumonia patients in hospitals and reduced development of more serious respiratory infections [link NCBI]. The paper also also talks about the key role of this vitamin on our immune system when fighting viral, bacterial, fungal and parasitic pathogens.
With all this overwhelming evidence, I would recommend that all of us could do with checking our intake levels of this vitamin. I suggest starting at 1000 mg (1 gram) a day. Everyone has a different optimal dose and it is perfectly safe to experiment. Let me add that if you are ingesting too much vitamin C, all that happen is that your stool would be looser than usual. Then just reduce the dosage a little until all is normal again. Be aware that if you are unwell or under any type of stress, you might need to up the dosage.
Many studies have found a close link between gastrointestinal microbiota (includes bacteria and fungi) and our immune system. Here’s an example [link Front. Immunol.] This is a technical article that has in the conclusion “The human microbiota interacts at multiple levels with the immune system” and that “reducing antimicrobials consumption and assuring a diverse and balanced diet for the health of both host metabolism and its microbiota”. This means that reducing antibiotics use and adopting a diverse and healthy diet can help our natural immune system.
A team at Brown University including Shipra Vaishnava (an assistant professor of molecular microbiology and immunology) found that “Both our diet and the bacteria in our gut are critically linked in regulating how our immune cells behave. Finding what those links are at a molecular level is important to figuring out how we could use either diet or bacteria, or both of them together, to have a therapeutic effect in inflammatory or infectious diseases.”
So the strong link between our diet, gut microbiota and our immune system is pretty well established. Studies found that a diet of many different whole grains encourages good microbiota population. By eating healthily and a varied diet, we can help our immune function, but a new dimension to this is supplementing with probiotics. Result of probiotic intake can vary vastly from person to person. Formulations of probiotic supplements can vary widely too.
So if you suspect your low immunity is due to an imbalanced gut microbiota, it is well worth trying high quality probiotic and see how you respond. Find one that has a micro-encapsulation that stops stomach acids destroying the bacteria and allows it to reach the intestines.
An even more natural way that has very positive anecdotal evidence is to ingest fermented foods. These include sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, kombucha and kefir. Some of these products might have undergone a form of pasteurisation to make it easier to transport and store. This will reduce or remove the bacteria/yeast, and so look for “live” products. Or even better make your own – there are endless instructions and videos on the internet.
Besides antibiotics, other things that can upset a good intestinal microbiota balance are sugar, aspartame, heavily processed foods high in sugar, protein, fat, and different additives. These are worth avoiding if you want a strong immune system.
Here I will list other factors that is known to improve our ability to keep pathogens at bay.
• Having adequate rest and sleep – give yourself time to have enough of these
• Exercise at an intensity that is good for you – improved circulation really helps
• Keeping a good balance of life – avoid overdoing things
• Mindfulness of thoughts – only follow thoughts that make you feel good
Stress and the Mind
What we call “stress” is not all bad. In fact, acute (non-lasting) stress situations can result in a better state of mind when it ends. However, chronic stress can have severe health implications. A study by Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser of the Ohio State University College of Medicine “found that the students’ immunity went down every year under the simple stress of the three-day exam period. Test takers had fewer natural killer cells, which fight tumors and viral infections”.
Lyanne McGuire, Kiecolt-Glaser and Glaser in Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (2002) found that long term mildly depressed subjects had severely weakened immune response of the lymphocyte-t cell. It was the length and not the severity of depression that was the factor. Social isolation and loneliness was also a clear factor in reducing immunity.
These studies show that our minds can massively affect our immune response to bacterial and viral pathogens. Read on for suggestions on keeping our equanimity in difficult times.
In the time period when this article is being written, the Covid-19 virus has been sweeping the world and infecting and killing many. The media is pumping out dire predictions of how bad it can get and that there will be shortages of food. This has caused panic buying, emptying out the shelves of the supermarkets. The atmosphere is of fear and panic.
Since the break-out of the virus some weeks ago, most people will feel a level of stress that would vary with each person and the situation they are in. Okay we need some information supplied by the government suggesting the measures we should take to reduce the speed of spread of the virus. So we cannot totally shut off the media sources as this is where we get the information.
My suggestion is to reduced your exposure to the massive flood of non-informational items on the media. “Media” obviously includes the internet. Switch off when the information turns to speculation and opinions. Debates are not very useful to see or hear either.
Instead, carry on with what you are not restricted from doing. If not working, spend time doing a hobby or anything that keeps you away from the media. The more absorbing the task you are doing, the better. You want to give your mind a break from being subsumed. Do not go to bed after looking at the news. Same when you wake up – the radio is not a good idea unless on a music only channel.
Avoid talking to people who are unable to break away from the subject. Especially at work where they might be harder to avoid. Seek out and talk to people who have other subjects to discuss. Some people might have a positive slant/perspective on the situation. Then it is okay to listen. Catch your mind if it is going down negative pathways.
As we are all so different, some of the above suggestions might not apply to you. Find your own pathway to keep a peaceful mind. Some find yoga, meditation or other spiritual practises helpful. You might like to try some of these. It can be that we need a sanctuary, virtual or actual, where our minds can relax.
Some factual statistics might help:
In China, the percent of the population that got the virus was 0.006%
Of the ones that caught the virus 14% e were considered severe
5% of these were critical
As of writing this article, WHO considered the virus has “peaked” in China
Italy had a higher percent of about 0.06% were diagnosed
Of these 7% were considered critical
As of now it is not known where Italy is in terms of the virus progression.
Our planet has seen a succession of viral infections that seemingly appear from nowhere. This is becoming quite the “norm” these days. Vaccinations have had some success with some people but is not effective for new strains that pop up randomly. With this backdrop, it seems sensible that we do what we can do to have the highest level of immunity. This article gives some basic suggestions that is likely to help you achieve this. It certainly is not exhaustive and will be added to as needed.