Immune function is getting a lot of attention these days with the looming threat of COVID-19, but sadly, for many, our immune systems were very much in a suboptimal state when this new threat was introduced. Are you confident your immune system is prepared for a COVID attack? Will you be ready for the next threat? And, what about the threat that is present every day, silently threatening our lives, but getting no daily media coverage and not violently stirring emotions, the news cycle, and social media? That threat? Cancer.
As a physician who studies the physiology of wellness and disease, I am absolutely astounded by the complexity, the genius, and the miracle, of the human body. Like a high-performance car or racehorse, when our bodies are optimally fed and cared for, their performance is artful, and we feel energetic and pain-free. Our thinking is sharp, and our immune systems behave like an amazing security and defense system, protecting us from myriad threats, from outside and from within. And when infection or insult does occur, our immune systems quickly go about the task of infection eradication, injury repair, and then restoring balance and vigilantly scanning for the ever-present next threat.
Unfortunately, however, like so many things that function silently and, in the background, our immune function can be easy to take for granted and easy to neglect. This results in suboptimal or poor performance. This poor immune function performance leads to greater susceptibility to infection and to cancer, poorer recovery and wound healing, and suboptimal response to vaccinations. Adding a few supplements when a new threat is looming may offer some added support, but this is not unlike finding a lighter-weight jockey for your racehorse when it hasn’t been training.
Like with our health in general, there are some principal ways to ensure our immune systems will be at their best, ready to defend and repair. This way, when the next insult threatens our health and happiness, whether it is an infection, injury, or cancer, we aren’t trying to win a race with a machine that has been neglected and cannot perform. Daily, routine, practice of these principles is necessary, long-term, to provide your best defense and your best offense against disease.
Now, here is some great news. The same principles that will ensure you have the most robust immune system possible for suppressing cancer, or fairing competitively against the next viral pandemic, are the same principles that will help you avoid chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, or Alzheimer’s disease. The same principles, again, are those that help ensure you live longer and full of vitality late into those years.
So, what are these lifesaving principles? Any client of WellCentric Health should already be intimately familiar with them but let’s go through them for review.
Nutrition and dietary support
To cover all the ways our nutrition can impact our immune system could be a book in itself. Our diets influence our microbiome, the integrity and function of our gut lining, and the function of the cells that comprise our immune systems. Our diets can provide the elements essential for immune function pathways or elements that essentially poison those same pathways.
Adhering to general, healthy, nutrition principles, will be all you really need to do, diet-wise, to support your immune system. Get several servings of fruits and vegetables per day. “Eat the rainbow.” Buy organic (at least for the “dirty dozen”) to avoid the toxin exposure and for the better nutrient content of the food. Insist on grass-fed, grass-finished, free-range, and wild-caught meats. Again, they’ll provide greater nutritive value and fewer toxins and contaminants.
Exercise improves the function of our white blood cells which are responsible for finding and killing pathogenic invaders and rogue cancer cells. Exercise also helps move them through the body faster, thus improving surveillance. It also induces the release of cytokines that regulate immune function and can lower cortisol which suppresses immune function. As well, exercise reduces inflammation and combats obesity, which itself is an immune suppressant.
Studies clearly demonstrate reduced infection rates among those who regularly exercise. Those who exercise do not get as sick and they recover faster when they do get sick. Along with this, those who regularly exercise enjoy reduced cancer rates and a greater chance of cure.
To optimally benefit from the remarkably restorative powers of sleep you need a sufficient quantity of sleep, and you must ensure it is good quality sleep. Just as with food, quality sleep strengthens immunity and poor sleep weakens immunity. When we sleep and when we eat both regulate our circadian rhythm, which also plays an important role in regulating our immune systems.
Ensure you’re getting between seven and nine hours of sleep per night. Practice good sleep habits to help ensure good quality, restorative sleep, and avoid eating in the three-hour window before bed. Your cells associate the work of digesting food with wakefulness and, thereby, will interfere with your need or desire to sleep.
If you cannot extricate yourself from stressful environments or situations, you must learn effective ways of mitigating that stress. Acute or short-lived stress is not the problem. The problem is chronic stress. According to the American Institute of Stress, 77% of Americans suffer from stress that affects their physical health, 73% suffer stress that affects their mental health, and it is only getting worse.
Stress, among other things, causes the release of cortisol. Long-term exposure to elevated cortisol blunts immune system responsiveness and function. It results in chronic inflammation and, again, can increase the risk of cancer.
The field of psychoneuroimmunology studies how our minds, our thoughts, influence our bodies in health and disease. One of the very strong causal associations observed is that of positive or negative social relationships on health and disease. As discussed above, chronic stress and cortisol exposure lead to reduced immunity and many disease states, and positive, supportive, social interaction with others is one effective way of reducing stress. One study demonstrated that lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50%. How does tonight look for getting together with friends or family?
Toxin avoidance and elimination
In a study conducted by the Environmental Working Group and Commonweal, newborn babies’ cord blood was sampled and found to contain 287 of 400 chemicals tested for with an average of over 200 toxic chemicals per child. Consider that many such toxins only continue to accumulate in number and quantity over our lifespans. Also, consider that recent evidence shows the effects of such toxic burdens can be passed down at least two generations and we can see that the immune suppression from toxin exposure can impact our offspring and not only ourselves.
Take the time to learn about all the myriad ways you are exposed to and accumulate toxins and then be determined about reducing your toxic burden. Your immune system, and your children and grandchildren, will thank you.
Finally, the place so many turn to when a threat looms, supplements. Supplementation can absolutely be beneficial in adding support but, again, is secondary to the basic lifestyle considerations listed above.
We receive many questions about supplementation regarding staving off COVID-19, and justifiably so. I argue that to truly be fully nutritionally replete, especially in today’s food environment, you need to be well educated and well-disciplined. For the rest of us, supplements can fill the gap, acting as insurance. Certain nutrients and supplements are either critical for the immensely complex immune system to function well or have been shown to provide a boost or turbocharge our immune systems.
Let’s cover a few that have good scientific support.
Vitamin D Vitamin D can increase the cell types and the chemicals responsible for killing pathogens as well as suppress inflammatory chemicals that are the actual cause of death from COVID, the cytokine storm. Studies reflect greater resistance to COVID infection, fewer or no symptoms in those who do contract the virus, and dramatically improved survivability in those that have adequate levels.
If you have not been supplementing with Vitamin D, there is a very good chance your levels are too low. If your levels are not between 50 and 60 ng/ml, supplementation is advised. High doses and time are required to get levels up, but do not stay on high doses of vitamin D long term as vitamin D can build to toxic levels.
Suggested dosing: It’s safe to start with 5,000 IU of Vitamin D3 per day, but better would be to have your vitamin D level checked and dose accordingly.
Vitamin K2 Vitamin K2 ensures calcium is deposited where it belongs and not in places where it can do harm, such as our blood vessels. Vitamin K2 can help prevents dysfunction of our blood vessel lining, the endothelium, and our lungs. Like vitamin D it also suppresses the production of some of the inflammatory cytokines that result from COVID infection and that, in excess, do the damage leading to critical illness and death.
Suggested dosing: 200 mcg per day. Review with your prescribing physician if you are on coumadin.
Zinc Zinc has direct anti-viral activity and stimulates anti-viral immunity. Immune cells release zinc ions that prevent viruses from binding to cells—the first necessary step for infection. Zinc may also inhibit two of the enzymes necessary for the COVID virus to replicate. When taking zinc it is important to also get your copper to avoid an imbalance.
Suggested dosing: 10-15 mcg, three times per day.
Omega 3 Fatty Acids (Fish oil) Omega 3s are a great supplement and one I consider foundational. With regard to immunity, it can lower chronic inflammation and upregulate the immune cells responsible for fighting infection, priming them for battle.
Suggested dosing: Four grams per day of a quality triglyceride form.
N-acetyl Cysteine (NAC) Another foundational supplement for so many reasons, but with regard to immunity and COVID-19 there is some evidence that NAC and interferes with the virus’s ability to bind to the cell receptor that allows entry of the virus into the cell. Additionally, if infected, among the very damaging consequences of the infection is massive oxidative stress damage. NAC supports glutathione production which helps to control oxidative stress, thus reducing cell and tissue damage.
Suggested dosing: 600 mg three times per day.
Multivitamin/mineral supplement The above supplement recommendations may be specific to immune function, but support for metabolism, hormones, tissue repair, and so much more, is necessary for the immune system to function at full capacity. We cannot afford to have any component of our body performing suboptimally. A multi-vitamin and mineral supplement in addition to a healthy, well-balanced diet will help ensure that deficiency states are not to blame for immune compromise.
Many other supplements are available that support the immune system. This list was comprised of those with reasonably good evidence for their efficacy with regard to COVID-19. This list is also oriented toward prevention and not treatment.
At WellCentric Health, it is our mission to help you find the root cause of your problem and guide you through a personalized care plan. Our functional medicine doctors in Reno, NV recognize that in order to treat one part of the body, all other parts must also be considered. Schedule a consultation with Dr. Robert Watson, MD here.