Here it is October, and so far it has been hard to believe winter is upon us as the weather in September has been so wonderful.
Normally we are all exposed to millions of potential pathogens daily, through contact, ingestion, and inhalation and fall and winter are times when we have greater exposure due to being indoors more.
For two and one-half years people have been limiting their exposure to the pathogens that we would normally have been exposed to. Wearing masks and for some people, limiting contact with others has prevented our normal exposure. Active immunity happens when we are exposed to something that causes the immune system to develop antibodies. One of the hallmarks of our immune system is the ability to “remember” past exposure to pathogens. exposure can be from infection or vaccination, and then ideally, we are protected from infection upon future encounter with the same pathogen
Over use of sanitizers have compromised our skin microbiome the primary defense against pathogenic microbes, most people have dropped the masks and are not as readily sanitizing but the immune system may not be as robust as in previous years due to the protective measures that have been taken these past few years.
Now more than ever, most people should consider supporting their immune system starting now. The weather is starting to change, and in Traditional Chinese medicine historically during times of weather transitions people would drink ‘change of season soup’ made from a variety of herbs that supported the immune system over the winter months. When I was in clinical practice, I would not suggest that my patients make a soup, but rather would recommend similar combination herbal remedies and vitamins that provided immune support during these times and periodically throughout the winter. It is also very important to recognize the amount of stress each person may have. Stress hormones weaken the immune system’s ability to fight infection if you feel stressed on a regular basis, is it very important to consider taking stress support supplements.
It is important to be aware of those things can depress the immune system including: older age, poor diet, environmental toxins, excess weight which is associated with low grad inflammation, chronic disease, chronic psychological stress, and poor or lack of sleep.
The elderly are a particularly high-risk group. The immune response generally declines with increasing age as the number and quality of immune cells decreases. This causes a higher risk of poorer outcomes if the elderly develop chronic or acute diseases. In addition, about one-third of elderly in industrialized countries have nutrient deficiencies. A diet low in fruits and vegetables can promote disturbances in healthy intestinal microorganisms, resulting in chronic inflammation of the gut, and associated suppressed immunity.
The microbiome is an internal metropolis of trillions of microorganisms or microbes that live in our bodies, mostly in the intestines. It is an area of intense and active research, as scientists are finding that the microbiome plays a key role in immune function. The gut is a major site of immune activity and the production of antimicrobial proteins. The diet plays a large role in determining what kinds of microbes live in our intestines. A high-fiber plant-rich diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes appear to support the growth and maintenance of beneficial microbes. Certain helpful microbes break down fibers into short chain fatty acids, which have been shown to stimulate immune cell activity. These fibers are sometimes called prebiotics because they feed microbes. Therefore, a diet containing probiotic and prebiotic foods may be beneficial. Probiotic foods contain live helpful bacteria, and prebiotic foods contain fiber and oligosaccharides that feed and maintain healthy colonies of those bacteria.
- Probiotic foods include kefir, yogurt with live active cultures, fermented vegetables, sauerkraut, tempeh, kombucha tea, kimchi, and miso.
- Prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, dandelion greens, bananas, and seaweed. However, a more general rule is to eat a variety of fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains for dietary prebiotics.
Eating enough nutrients as part of a varied diet is required for the health and function of all cells, including immune cells. Certain dietary patterns may better prepare the body for microbial attacks and excess inflammation, but it is unlikely that individual foods offer special protection. Each stage of the body’s immune response relies on the presence of many micronutrients. Examples of nutrients that have been identified as critical for the growth and function of immune cells include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, iron, and protein (including the amino acid glutamine). They are found in a variety of plant and animal foods.
Diets that are limited in variety and lower in nutrients, such as consisting primarily of ultra-processed foods and lacking in minimally processed foods, can negatively affect a healthy immune system.
A deficiency of single nutrients can alter the body’s immune response. Animal studies have found that deficiencies in zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, D, and E can alter immune responses. These nutrients help the immune system in several ways: working as an antioxidant to protect healthy cells, supporting growth and activity of immune cells, and producing antibodies. Epidemiological studies find that those who are poorly nourished are at greater risk of bacterial, viral, and other infections.
Do Vitamin or Herbal Supplements Help?
Spotlight on vitamin D
Vitamin D’s role in regulating the immune system has led scientists to explore two parallel research paths: Does vitamin D deficiency contribute to the development of multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, and other so-called “autoimmune” diseases, where the body’s immune system attacks its own organs and tissues? And could vitamin D supplements help boost our body’s defenses to fight infectious disease, such as tuberculosis and seasonal flu?
Eating a good quality diet, as depicted by the Healthy Eating Plate, can prevent deficiencies in these nutrients. However, there are certain populations and situations in which one cannot always eat a variety of nutritious foods, or who have increased nutrient needs. In these cases a vitamin and mineral supplement may help to fill nutritional gaps. Studies have shown that vitamin supplementation can improve immune responses in these groups. Low-income households, pregnant and lactating women, infants and toddlers, and the critically ill are examples of groups at risk.
Several herbal supplements have been suggested to boost immune function. What does the research say?
- Echinacea: Cell studies have shown that echinacea can destroy influenza viruses, but limited research in humans has been inconclusive in determining echinacea’s active components. Taking echinacea after catching a cold has not been shown to shorten its duration, but taking it while healthy may offer a small chance of protection from catching a cold.
- Garlic: The active ingredient in garlic, allicin sativum, is proposed to have antiviral and antimicrobial effects on the common cold, but high-quality clinical trials comparing garlic supplements to placebo are lacking. A Cochrane review identified only one trial of reasonable quality following 146 participants. Those taking the garlic supplement for 3 months had fewer occurrences of the common cold than those taking a placebo, but after contracting the cold virus, both groups had a similar duration of illness. Note that these findings are from a single trial, which needs to be replicated.
- Tea catechins: Cell studies have shown that tea catechins such as those found in green tea can prevent flu and some cold viruses from replicating and can increase immune activity. Human trials are still limited. Two randomized controlled trials found that green tea capsules produced less cold/flu symptoms or incidence of flu than a placebo; however both studies were funded or had author affiliations with tea industries.
8 Steps to Help Support a Healthy Immune System
- Eat a balanced diet with whole fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and plenty of water. A Mediterranean Diet is one option that includes these types of foods.
- If a balanced diet is not readily accessible, taking a multivitamin containing the RDA for several nutrients may be used.
- Don’t smoke (or stop smoking if you do).
- Drink alcohol in moderation.
- Perform moderate regular exercise.
- Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep nightly. Try to keep a sleep schedule, waking up and going to bed around the same time each day. Our body clock, or circadian rhythm, regulates feelings of sleepiness and wakefulness, so having a consistent sleep schedule maintains a balanced circadian rhythm so that we can enter deeper, more restful sleep.
- Aim to manage stress. This is easier said than done, but try to find some healthy strategies that work well for you and your lifestyle—whether that be exercise, meditation, a particular hobby, or talking to a trusted friend. Another tip is to practice regular, conscious breathing throughout the day and when feelings of stress arise. It doesn’t have to be long—even a few breaths can help. If you’d like some guidance, try this short mindful breathing exercise.
- Wash hands throughout the day: when coming in from outdoors, before and after preparing and eating food, after using the toilet, after coughing or blowing your nose.