Having a stronger immunity is important to everyone these days.
Doing so requires taking a more holistic approach to optimize health and improve immunity in the wake of COVID-19 said experts who spoke at the Changemakers in the Modern Health Movement session at the Natural Products Expo Virtual event, "Spark Change: Modern Health Innovations," on July 14.
“Our current paradigm in health care is very reactive,” said Dr. Sheila Patel, chief medical officer at Chopra Global and a board-certified family physician who works as an integrative medical provider that blends conventional medicine and Ayurveda practices.
As a result, the medical industry ends up treating diseases once they’ve gotten out control as has happened during the pandemic, Patel said, waiting for our immune system to be either underactive or overactive and then reacting.
“I think it’s really clear, it’s not working for chronic diseases,” she said.
That’s why taking a more comprehensive, holistic approach can boost immunity and health, said Philip C. Calder, professor of nutritional immunology, faculty of medicine at University of Southampton in the United Kingdom.
Here’s what both experts had to say.
What is immunity?
It's our ability to defend ourselves against pathogens, including dangerous bacteria, viruses and parasitic worms.
“Of course, not all bacteria and viruses are harmful to us,” Calder said. “It's really the harmful ones we need to worry about.”
There are four general features of immunity
The immune system possesses really powerful aspects known as innate immunity and acquired immunity to deal with harmful organisms, Calder said.
First, the immune system acts as an exclusion barrier to keep harmful organisms out. Secondly, the immune system can recognize organisms and identify if they are harmful or harmless if they break through the exclusion barrier. Third, the immune system eliminates harmful organisms.
Lastly, the immune system has immunological memory. “So a person's immune system remembers the encounters with harmful organisms,” Calder said. “This memory response is the basis of vaccination.”
That’s why a weak immunity creates a poor defense system against harmful organisms and leads to infections that can be severe and even fatal, especially during COVID-19.
“The vaccines work by stimulating immunity, training our immune system to better recognize and respond to later infections, taking advantage of that memory component,” Calder said. “Now, it turns out, although people don't often realize this, vaccines often work poorly in people with weak immune systems. So in other words, people who really need the help from vaccination can often respond less well to vaccines.”
That’s important to keep in mind, Calder said, as people have developed the chronic fatigue and other health impacts associated with “long-COVID.”
Mutations of the coronavirus, like are other viruses, are happening as the virus evolves making itself stronger to evade our immune system.
That’s created a battle between our immune system as it adapts to fight viruses. It’s part of the normal process of evolution, Calder said, although “our immune system is a little bit smaller than the evolution of viruses.”
Inflammation is tied to immunity
Inflammation is the immune system’s defense mechanism to help the body deal with harmful pathogens.
“But, as it turns out, inflammation isn’t really that well controlled,” Calder said. “When it’s excessive or uncontrolled, it’s harmful. A lot of problems caused by the coronavirus infection are in fact due to our own inflammatory response, rather than the virus itself.”
That’s why it’s important to balance the protective aspects of immunity with the harmful aspects of inflammation.
“We need some inflammation, but not too much,” Calder said.
Reduce stress, sleep more, because lifestyle choices play an important role
Negative contributing factors that can weaken one’s immunity, promote inflammation and adversely affect the gut microbiota (also known as gut flora) include: psychological and physical stress, sleep deprivation, cigarette smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, being overweight and obesity, especially when combined with diabetes and a poor diet.
Reducing stress, sleeping well, being physically fit, maintaining a good weight and eating a diverse, well-balanced diet help support immunity, control inflammation and promote healthy diverse gut microbiota.
Other helpful factors include vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fatty acids, essential amino acids and all support the immune system and can help control inflammation, Calder said. Other non-mainstream nutrients can play an important role in immunity and help control inflammation, such as polyphenolic compounds that give color to fruits and berries as well as yeast beta glucan, besides probiotics and prebiotics, Calder said.
Combining the right mixture can improve the body’s absorption rate and positively amplify results. For example, taking vitamin D with vitamin K may help with absorption rates.
Protect your skin and the gut
Skin is the largest organ in the human body. That makes it one of the most important protective barriers to ward off disease and infection.
There are lots of internal barriers, but one of the most important is the gut barrier. The gut wall is made of a single layer of epithelial cells, Calder said, that contain microbes, collectively known as the microbiota, living in the gut. Underneath the epithelial layer are immune cells that congregate together in structures running along the gut wall.
This is important because immune cells are making immunological decisions about what organisms are harmless or dangerous in the gut.
“The gut microbiota is a two-way contact with the immune system,” Calder said. “The immune system is sampling organisms living in the gut and making immunological decisions about what should the immune system do. And the organisms are communicating with the immune system and educating the immune system.”
That means things that weaken immunity and promote inflammation also negatively impact the gut microbiota, Calder said.
Reduce stress and focus on the “P’s” of health
“Science is reconfirming the importance of all these pillars of our lifestyle,” Patel said. That includes focusing on stress management, which can directly impact immunity and gut health.
“Stress creates activity in parts of our brain that aren’t healthy for the brain and impacts our blood pressure and our sleep,” she said. “When we aren’t getting good natural restful sleep, that is the root cause of all chronic diseases.”
Use an integrative lifestyle approach, Patel said, that is more proactive, preventative and participatory by allowing patients to take ownership of their health. It’s important to make practical lifestyle changes not only by eating the right foods and taking the right herbs or supplements but maximizing their impact with the right combination.
“If you synergize a few of the right things together, one plus one plus one doesn't just equal three,” Patel said. “It can equal 10. So you get much more benefit. That’s why taking this integrative lifestyle approach is really important.”
Patel said that means combining Western and Eastern techniques that integrate lifestyle changes that can positively impact the immune system, the GI system, nervous system and brain health. The health industry needs to focus more on the prevention of diseases with personalized treatments that focus on treating the root cause, Patel said, adding that mental and spiritual health now hold as much importance as physical health.
“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to health,” Patel said. “And we need it to be participatory, people to participate in their health.”