If you’re like me, you’ve probably been reading (and watching) news unfold about the Covid-19 pandemic which isn’t showing signs of slowing down. And, if you’re like me, you’ve probably also wondered how we can help ourselves survive the pandemic. I mean, we can’t keep putting our lives on hold forever.
So if you’re like me, you’ve definitely pondered this question: Can you actually make your immune system stronger?
During the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve all heard too many times how the virus affects people differently, and much of it is to do with people’s existing health and the strength of their immune system. Younger people generally have fewer pre-existing health conditions and their immune function is more efficient than older populations. However, many young people have also tragically succumbed to the disease like their older counterparts. Is this situation manageable? Are we somehow able to improve our immune function so that we are in a better position to manage the virus (or any other invading pathogens)? Now I’m no doctor, or expert on infectious diseases, but I am a Certified Holistic Nutritionist and I take a lot of interest in researching about healthy food, lifestyle changes and their impact on our lives. This is a thoroughly researched post on if we can strengthen the immune system.
Luckily, the answer is yes. We can take steps to improve our health and immune system. But first, let’s understand the factors that can lower the efficiency of immune system. When we understand all the things that lower the functioning of the immune system, it will become easier to point out what we can do to improve its functioning.
What lowers our immunity? How to Make stronger immune system in 2021
- The use of corticosteroids can suppress a range of immune functions. Corticosteroids (also referred to as steroids) are inflammation-lowering drugs used in the treatment of diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, asthma or lupus. Unfortunately, this class of drugs also lowers immunity. Studies have shown that low doses of corticosteroids over long periods can decrease immunity and antibody responses.
- Malnutrition or nutrient deficiencies. A deficiency in protein, energy, vitamins and minerals results in decline in immune functions including phagocytes, NK cells, DTH, T-cells and antigen-specific antibody production, resulting in susceptibility to infections.
- Aging and immunoscence. Later in life, a decline in immune function is observed among older adults. Like very young children, older adults are more susceptible to infections, and can have serious complications as a result compared to younger people. This decline in immunity in the elderly is known as immunosenescence and reflects a decline in both the acquired and innate immune systems. With age, a declining T cell function arises from shrinking of the thymus. Ageing is also associated with increased chronic inflammation throughout the body, which in turn translates to reduced immunity and is a risk factor for various diseases. Additionally, the elderly are often deficient in a number of nutrients and this contributes to such declining immunity. Deficiency occurs due to older adults not eating sufficient amounts of nutritious foods as well as from poor absorption. Menopause affects the ability of older women to use nutrients effectively. Unfortunately, older adults also have a reduced response to vaccination meaning they are not as well protected by vaccines as younger adults are.
- Stress (physical and psychological). Physical stress examples are post-surgery when patients see a decline in delayed type hypersensitivity (DTH), physical stress from heavy exercise (hence only moderate exercise is recommended). Examples of psychological stress are post-divorce, caregivers of patients etc, all of who show a decrease in NK cell activity, antigen-specific antibody production and T-cell proliferation due to depression. People with chronic fatigue see a reduction in NK cell activity and proliferative response of T-cells.
- Poor lifestyle choices. Often considered a major cause of obesity (which itself impacts immunity) , poor lifestyle choices includes lack of physical activity, poor dietary choices, chronic stress, smoking, alcohol abuse and lack of sleep.
Simple and logical. All of the above lowers the functioning of the immune system and its ability to defend against viruses and bacteria. We know we must lower stress, eat healthy foods, maintain a good lifestyle at any age but this becomes even more important for those of us above a certain age (since natural immunity tends to decline with age, it becomes more important than ever to maintain a healthy lifestyle, practice stress management and eat nutritious foods).
Vitamins, minerals, fatty acids enhance immune function by enforcing antigen-specific antibody production, increasing T-cells along with their proliferative response, and promoting phagocytic activity and NK cell activity. Thus, eating nutrient-dense whole foods helps normalize immune function.
What helps immune function?
- Specific micronutrients (prevent deficiency). Micronutrients help the body’s natural defences at three levels – physical (the skin/ mucosa), cellular immunity and finally antibody production. For the skin, vitamins A, C, E and the trace element zinc help enhance its barrier function. Immune cells need vitamins A, Bs, C, D, E and iron, copper, zinc and selenium, and antibody production needs vitamins A, Bs, D, E and copper, zinc and selenium. If there’s a deficiency of these essential micronutrients, the immune system won’t function properly, predisposing the body to infections. These micronutrients are present in minimally processed whole foods, and are not present in optimal amounts in processed foods because processing strips foods of most nutrients.
- Avoid junk food. For the same reasons mentioned above. Junk and processed foods overload your system without providing any nutrients. Overly processed junk and fast foods are high in sugar, salt and trans fats, all of which increase inflammation and reduce immune function.
- Eat several servings of fruits and vegetables. People eating a higher intake of fruits and vegetables (3 or more a day) suffered fewer incidents of upper respiratory tract infections compared to those who ate fewer servings of fruits a day.
- Improve liver and gut health. An oft-ignored point – The liver and intestine (with its good bacteria) are also important organs not only in terms of absorption of nutrients but also for immune function. Large numbers of IgA-producing cells and intraepithelial T-lymphocytes (IELs) colonize the gut and play an important role in defending against pathogens. The NK (Natural killer) cells are also enriched in the liver and are very effective in fighting pathogens and cancer cells. This is one of the reasons a properly functioning liver is crucial for protection against a disease like cancer. Pathogens and toxins (and even allergens) activate the immune system. Eating lots of fruits and vegetables ensures liver and gut health. This also means drinking less alcohol so that liver function isn’t impaired.
- Moderate physical exercise at least 5 days a week. There are numerous studies to prove that an active lifestyle causes greater resistance to pathogens. Studies also show that exercise training of older and obese people results in reduced incidence or duration of upper respiratory tract infections as compared to those who are sedentary. The adaptation of the immune system depends on many factors such as duration, intensity, and the type of exertion. Moderate-intensity physical activity leads to significant improvements in the immune system. Moderate physical activity such as cycling for an hour, can increase the capacity of phagocytes. A point to remember in this context is that people who are new to physical exercise may suffer some short-term immune ‘disturbances’ as the body starts getting used to moderate activity levels. This is why it’s so important to start slow and gradually build on your activity levels, otherwise you risk over-stressing your body which will have a detrimental effect on immunity. Resistance exercise has been studied less exhaustively for its immune-boosting effects, but some studies have shown that NK cells and phagocytes remain elevated for up to 2 hours following an acute bout of resistance exercise.
- Avoid stress and practise stress management. As mentioned above in “what lowers immunity”, any kind of stress (psychological or physical) lowers NK cell activity, antigen-specific antibody production and T-cell proliferation. People suffering from chronic fatigue, which almost always occurs in people with chronic long-term stress, see a reduction in NK cell activity and proliferative response of T-cells. Practising stress management through meditation and deep breathing lowers cortisol levels, improves gut microbiota which in turn suppresses chronic inflammation, maintains a healthy gut-barrier function thereby helping to improve immune responses.
- Sleep. Lack of sleep interferes with immune function. Adults need a minimum of 7-8 hours of quality sleep each day to rejuvenate and repair damaged tissues. Getting any less sleep than that paves the way for high cortisol levels (associated with chronic stress) and chronic fatigue which impairs immune function. Ensuring adequate sleep is absolutely vital for good health and proper immune function.
- Avoid smoking and alcohol abuse. Both increase free radical load in the body and lower immunity. By avoiding these, you give your body a much better fighting chance against pathogens.