With the whole world clamouring for information during the rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, the global public health community has been echoing a message familiar to all proponents of natural health: live a healthy lifestyle to arm yourself against illness.
In this first of a three-part series on immune health, we’re here to offer you a
refresher and a few basic factoids to add to your arsenal of knowledge, since knowledge, as we all know, is foundational to good health—and a strong immune system.
Virus? What is a virus?
If your body’s cells were like a car or plane, you’d be right to refer to viruses as hijackers. After all, viruses only survive if they can find a likely carrier (living, normal cells) to take over. If the carrier allows entry, the virus can then kill, damage, or change the cells in its quest to survive, multiply, and make more of itself—making you sick in the process. But if the carrier (you) has a good defence system (your immune system), then the hijacker is more likely to be defeated.
A viral glossary
a microscopic parasite that depends upon its host to replicate; viruses are much smaller—and different from—bacteria; there are more than 200 different viruses that cause the common cold
a family of viruses that cause infections in animals or humans; in humans several types of coronaviruses cause mild to more severe respiratory infections like colds, pneumonia, or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)
severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2: the specific name given to the newly discovered coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19
the name of the disease that is caused by the most recently discovered coronavirus
Immune system? What is the immune system?
“Your immune system is your interface with the environment,” says Andrew Weil, MD. “If it’s healthy and doing its job right, your body can interact with germs [like viruses] and not get infections, with allergens and not have allergic reactions, and with carcinogens and not get cancer. A healthy immune system is the cornerstone of good general health.”
What happens when the virus invades?
Even with a strong immune system, sometimes the virus is a successful hijacker. But the immune system doesn’t just give in; it gets immediately to work to get rid of the thief. Our normal white blood cell (leukocyte) count is about 5,000 to 11,000 per microlitre of blood. When we get sick, this number skyrockets as our immune system produces more white blood cells to respond to the virus.
These cells immediately go to work to defeat the hijacker. It’s while they’re working, though, that we get all those annoying symptoms. “Symptoms like a stuffy nose or fever are actually the result of your immune system going to work,” says Dr. Thomas S. Ahrens, a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing and international researcher, who has authored five books and more than 100 research papers.
An immune system glossary
innate (non-specific/natural) immunity
general protection we’re born with; fights harmful germs (e.g., viruses) that enter the body (e.g., through skin or digestive system) using immune cells (e.g., T cells—“helper/killer cells”—and phagocytes—“eating cells”)
adaptive (specific/active) immunity
protection that is acquired/adapted through life; immune system makes antibodies to fight specific bacteria/viruses
passive (borrowed) immunity
short-term immune protection from another source
(e.g., antibodies from mother’s breast milk)
Did you know?
When we’re suffering from a common cold (upper respiratory tract illness), with one sneeze we can eject up to 20,000 droplets that contain the hijacking virus particles. Someone needs only to touch or breathe in these particles to give the virus the opportunity to hijack its next victim.
Immune system helpers
As a potent immune strengthener, chaga can help us ward off harmful pathogens, thanks to its significant antiviral activity, without toxic side effects. It can also help reduce inflammation in the body.
A well-known herb for targeting colds, extracts of echinacea have demonstrated a positive effect on the immune system by increasing the number of white blood cells, which fight infections. In a 2014 review of 24 studies involving more than 4,500 subjects, echinacea was found to help in preventing colds.
Otherwise known as vitamin B9, folate is essential in the body’s ability to make red blood cells and in the development of the fetal nervous system, DNA synthesis, and cell growth. Deficiency is thought to hamper immunity.
One of the essential amino acids, lysine is a building block for protein that plays an important role in the immune system. Lysine is available in foods, primarily from meat and dairy products, and also in supplement form as L-lysine.
Oil of oregano
Oregano oil has long been used as a remedy for the symptoms of colds, flu, bronchitis, and other respiratory complaints because of its anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. According to researchers, carvacrol—an important constituent of oregano oil—has a unique way of breaking down the norovirus’ external proteins which would allow other antimicrobials to invade the internal part of the virus to kill it.
These beneficial bacteria are found in foods like yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables like sauerkraut and pickles and also sold as capsules, tablets, and loose powder. Probiotics can help promote immune health by secreting protective substances in our gut that then activate the immune system, preventing pathogens from taking hold.
A powerful antioxidant found in citrus fruits, preliminary research shows quercetin may stop the rhinovirus in its tracks by preventing it from replicating and spreading. The rhinovirus is the most common cause of upper respiratory infection, or common cold.
It’s an important trace mineral for human functioning including for the central nervous, endocrine, and cardiovascular systems; muscles; and immunity. Selenium is found in meat and dairy products as well as nuts, seeds, and brown rice. Also taken as supplements, selenium has been the subject of ongoing studies focusing on selenium’s beneficial impact on white blood cells and immunity.
Vitamin B complex
The B-complex family includes eight vitamins, all of which work together to convert the food we eat into fuel. A lack of B vitamins, such as B12 and B6, has been linked specifically with poor mood and a decrease in immunity. Because B12 is found mainly in animal products, vegans and vegetarians might need an extra boost as may older people who are more at risk of B12 deficiency.
An antioxidant that can be taken as a supplement on an ongoing basis to stimulate components of the immune system, vitamin C may help to shorten the duration of the common cold. Research has shown that people with higher vitamin C stores have lower risks of hypertension, coronary heart disease, and stroke.
Supplementing with vitamin D helps to ensure we get enough in our system, since sun exposure can be a challenge in our Northern climate, and food sources are few. Studies have shown that vitamin D can strengthen our immunity to infections due to vitamin D receptors on cells of the immune system.
This super antioxidant is also involved in boosting the body’s immune function, helping to fight off bacteria and viruses. Vitamin E is also important for healthy skin and eyes. Good food sources of vitamin E include vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables, red bell peppers, eggs, seeds, and nuts.
Research has demonstrated that people who supplement with zinc seem to catch fewer colds, and those who already have colds to experience reduced duration and symptoms with zinc supplementation. Zinc stimulates the production of our own immune cells so we have a better defence against viruses and bacteria.
This article was originally published in the May 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title “Health Experts Say: Stay Healthy!.”