Health has never been a more prominent topic or concern than in the era of COVID. The novel coronavirus is proving to be a fierce foe that can target even the hale and hearty. But for all of us, supporting our immune system is the cornerstone of our well-being, whether we’re living in a pandemic or not.
“Health is defined now by most medical establishments as a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity,” says naturopathic doctor Brian Davies, founder of Westcoast Integrative Health Inc.
“Health is something we need to continue to work toward,” he says, “and not simply take for granted. So, starting with this definition is important, because it suggests the need for balance in our physical, mental, and social-emotional well-being.”
Immune system redux
To best support our immune system, it helps to have a sense of how it works. Put simply, its job is to defend against disease-causing microorganisms. It has two main components.
- Innate immunity, the immune system we’re born with, consists of physical barriers like our skin as well as cells that attack pathogens that enter the body, responding quickly via effects like fever.
- Adaptive immunity is the part of our immune system that learns to react to foreign agents. When it’s exposed to a new germ for the first time, it responds by trying to fight it off; we might get sick, but our immune cells remember the invader and mount a more rapid response when it returns.
Having a healthy immune system doesn’t mean never getting ill. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. And remember that not all viruses are created equal, as we’ve all learned with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID.
Feeling symptoms = our immune system at work
“Having symptoms such as fever, cough, muscle aches, headache, and the like are indications that your immune system is working to fight off infection, not the infection itself,” says Ashley Stapleton, naturopathic doctor at Edgemont Naturopathic in North Vancouver.
“Being healthy doesn’t mean you won’t get sick once in awhile, but [rather] when you do, you’re able to quickly and effectively eradicate the pathogen,” says Stapleton. “In certain cases, it doesn’t matter how healthy you are: there are some viruses that our immune systems haven’t figured out how to deal with, such as HIV or herpes viruses.”
Nevertheless, the global health crisis may have led to a greater awareness of the importance of taking care of ourselves, a wake-up call of sorts.
“I have definitely seen a shift in people using some additional time created by the pandemic to really look at and make changes to their lives and lifestyles,” Davies says. “The pandemic has really made a lot of people step back and consider their own health and the health of their aging loved ones.” Some other transformations Davies has seen in his clients include
- increasing their amount of physical activity
- leaving their jobs or changing careers to reduce the stress in their lives
- moving out of the city
- taking much more of an interest in food preparation, healthy sleep, and meditation or other mind/body/spirit practices
Immune system support
No matter what’s happening in the world, it’s always a good idea to do what we can to bolster our immune system. So, what does that look like? It depends on a person’s biochemistry, genetics, and personal history.
“When looking at key support for general immune health, a healthy lifestyle is a critical part of supporting our immune systems,” Davies says. Some people who should consider modifications to their lifestyle to better support their immune systems are those who
- eat highly processed foods
- don’t sleep well
- are under excessive emotional or physical stress from injury or overexercise
- consume excessive amounts of alcohol
- smoke cigarettes
All of these factors put excess stress on the body, which is known to suppress innate immunity and dysregulate our adaptive immune system.
“I believe that a healthy balance of moderate exercise; healthy eating with a focus on whole-food proteins, healthy fats, and colourful veggies and fruits; routine sleep; and some mindfulness or self-awareness practice are keys to being the healthiest you can be,” says Davies.
Age and immunity
As we age, our natural immunity tends to go down; our biochemistry becomes less efficient. However, it’s important to consider not just the number of years we’ve been alive but what our biological age is.
“Biological age has now become something that we can objectively measure to determine how our bodies are aging biochemically,” Davies says. “Once a certain part of the biological aging process is assessed to be poor, like poor immune-cell activation … then more specific nutritional and lifestyle support can be used to address these different issues.”
“Generally, though, it all still comes back to lifestyle and diet,” says Davies. “The more effort we put into our health, the more we get out of it.”
Caring for your immune system
Here are some other approaches to providing your immune system with support.
Cut out sugar
Filling up on sugar-loaded empty calories may decrease your intake of the nutrient-dense foods needed for adequate levels of immune-supporting nutrients, according to naturopathic doctor Ashley Stapleton. “Brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, healthy fats, and good-quality proteins are crucial in supporting your body’s immune system.”
“[Sugar] also changes the character of your gut bacteria, leading to a loss of microbial diversity,” says Stapleton. “Our microbiome is a key barrier in our immune system, and changes can lead to gut permeability and inflammation, which make you more susceptible to disease.”
“Alcohol intake has a significant negative impact on your gut bacteria,” Stapleton says. “It limits the communication between the microbiome and the intestinal immune system. It damages the lining of the digestive tract and other frontline immune cells, which can lead to leakage of damaging microbes into circulation … It also impairs the immune cell function of the respiratory tract, making you more susceptible to respiratory infections.”
Get plenty of good sleep
“Sleep disturbance can suppress antiviral gene activities,” Stapleton says. “[While we sleep,] many virus-fighting immune cells are created, and pro-inflammatory cells are limited.”
“Stress can have a disastrous effect on your immune system,” Stapleton says. “When we have a stressful event, our bodies release cortisol into the bloodstream. Over short periods of time it’s incredibly helpful, but over the long term, it can have some negative side effects.” Consider meditation, yoga, walking, deep breathing, or light exercise.
Supplemental immune support
Probiotics have been shown to upregulate the immune system and may exert antiviral effects by crowding out pathogens.
“Vitamin C … supports our immune cells and the damage that our immune cells can create while fighting off an infection,” says naturopathic doctor Brian Davies.
The sunshine vitamin has a direct effect on modulating immune cell function, and, when combined with vitamin K, it forms a dynamic duo that may promote immune function.
“Zinc … helps with the rapid division and maturation of our immune cells in both the adaptive and innate immune response,” Davies says.
New views on immune health
People are becoming more invested in their health and well-being, with the pandemic putting immune health in the spotlight. A majority of consumers say they are more conscious of their immunity since COVID-19 emerged, and much of this interest is focused on products to help support their immune systems.
COVID supplement bump
As the pandemic took hold, health-conscious consumers stocked up on vitamins and supplements, with US sales increasing by about 50 percent in the first half of 2020 and 26 percent in the third quarter.