While naturopathic medicine has always had critics, evidence for and interest in holistic approaches continue to mount. In the midst of a devastating pandemic this continues to be the case. While naturopathic naysayers have previously argued that attempts to strengthen the immune system were nonsensical, recent research coming out of the University of Washington supports what NDs have long practiced – evidence based immune support, in the form of certain foods, vitamins and dietary practices – can and does make a difference in how your body resists pathogenic invaders.
As we enter flu season, with COVID-19 continuing to be a daily concern, there has never been a more important time to take immune strengthening precautions. What exactly does fortifying your immune system mean? A number of things actually.
In order to contract a virus like the flu or coronavirus, it needs to “take hold” in your body. These particles are so small that understanding transmission is not clear or easy but we do know that the coronavirus has an affinity for adhering to mucous membranes in your nasopharyngeal area (essentially in the back of your nose or throat). And we know that flu viruses can take hold in a similar manner or simply by breathing them in from exposed air around you. Coronavirus is more virulent than the flu and is spread through the air whereas influenza viral particles are spread through droplets.
All this to say that the healthier your respiratory tract, the less likely that these particles can take hold. Of course this is not to say that a healthy person will not get sick but we must remember that our body, just like all organisms, has defenses in place to keep us healthy. Nose hairs, moist mucous membranes, saliva with the proper enzymes and mucous of the right consistency all help to keep pathogens out of our organs.
If the pathogens do find their way inside, they are likely to encounter our lymph nodes and the rest of our lymphatic system; a key component of our immune system. This is where our B and T cells will go to work “fighting” the intruder. Of course the exact mechanisms of how this works is complex but most events in the body consist of a series of “reactions.” These reactions require certain enzymes and often enzymes require certain co-factors in the form of vitamins and minerals. It makes sense, therefore, that assessing adequate levels of these co-factors is one way to ensure that your immune system will be able to do its job when called to duty. Of course vitamins and minerals are not the whole picture but identifying and addressing deficiencies is one fairly easy way to identify weaknesses in the system. It’s not unlike those empty store shelves that we witnessed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you knew you didn’t have beans in the house, you were making sure to stock up on beans for the coming weeks – not knowing (at that point) what the future lockdown would look like.
So if you haven’t done so already, now is the time to take stock of your own internal “pantry,” so to speak. How are your Vitamin D levels? Your zinc and iron stores? Of course not every vitamin and mineral can be tested but functional nutrient tests do allow us to get a very good assessment of your metabolic pathways and identify any deficiencies that would benefit from supplementation. An article that was just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (ironically one of NDs most powerful critics!) found that those with low Vitamin D levels were almost twice as likely to test positive for COVID. After these findings came out, Dr. Anthony Fauci told the public he’s been taking Vitamin D and Vitamin C since the start of the pandemic.
Vitamin C, no surprise, is also an important component of an immune support protocol. Tissue repair, collagen formation, iron absorption, wound healing – these are only some of the roles that this vitamin plays in the body. Vitamin C can help to support that healthy mucous membrane mentioned earlier but, more critically, it helps the white blood cells that mobilize against foreign invaders to do so;  in certain neutrophils, it accumulates and plays a role in the movement and phagocytosis (ingestion of said pathogen) of these important cells. In B and T cells it is thought that vitamin C is involved in the differentiation and proliferation of these important components of the immune system. As an antioxidant it also aids in the generation of reactive oxygen species which are formed to help kill pathogens.
When we know that these immune related metabolic pathways are operating with the material they need, we can think about the foods we have access to that have medicinal qualities to them. Garlic and onions have anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. Mushrooms have anti-viral properties as well but also help modulate the cytokine storm that can be caused by illness (such as Covid) and they have substances that help our cells to function properly. Probiotics and fermented foods can help keep the balance – between the microorganisms that help us and those that are harmful – tipped in our favor. Broths made from bones can be healing to the gut and anti-inflammatory.
Once we have our immune system supported, we can turn our attention to what we can do to keep it working optimally. Or, in other words, what should we avoid that can throw its operations off balance leaving us more vulnerable to contracting pathogenic microbes in the world around us. Oxidative stress in the form of smoking and alcohol are the most obvious culprits. But sugar and processed foods are on the list as well. It was previously thought that sugar had a dampening effect on the immune system shortly after consuming a sweet treat. We now realize that this purported effect may be a bit of an oversimplification and the relationship may not be quite so clear or detrimental. But sugary treats and other processed foods do amount to ‘empty calories’ at a time when we’re trying to keep our body’s primed for peak immune system performance. So keep these foods to a minimum and focus on eating a rainbow (ie different colors) of fruits and vegetables, aiming for at least twenty grams of fiber a day and incorporating some fermented food into our regular rotation. And keep your water intake high to ensure that dehydration is not causing any metabolic slow-down.
And since we’re turning towards ’the basics’ here, remember that adequate sleep and low stress levels are also key components to optimizing immune system function. It may be easier said than done with the challenges of trying to work and live and parent right now but making time for sleep and self-care are part of your body’s defense. In Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep,” he states “Sleep restocks the armory of our immune system, helping fight malignancy, preventing infection, and warding off all manner of sickness.” There is no doubt that sleeping eight hours each night is an important part of an immune support protocol.
In a recent article in the New Yorker titled “It Will Take More Than a Vaccine to Beat COVID-19,” Dhruv Khullar states, “There are lots of ways to fight back against SARS-COV-2 and COVID-19, the disease it causes. We can limit the virus’s spread in the population at large; we can also build barriers against infection for at-risk people…” While Khullar is speaking about vaccine and drug development, from my perspective we have some of these abilities already. Given that these tools require daily effort on our part as well as access to healthy food, they are not generally discussed as part of the solution for our country at large but when it comes to taking ownership of your health, it’s important to keep this perspective in mind. The virulence of SARS-COV-2 may be a motivating factor for prioritizing immune support at this time, but the benefits extend beyond our body’s ability to fight viruses such as the flu to its ability to address cancerous cells and to defend against invading bacterial and fungal organisms. What can you do to strengthen your body’s defenses?
Carr, AC; Maggini, S. “Vitamin C and Immune Function.” Nutrients. 2017; Nov 3;9(11):1211. doi: 10.3390/nu9111211
Laterre, PF; Francois, B; Collienne, C; et al. “Association of Interleukin 7 Immunotherapy With Lymphocyte Counts Among Patients With Severe Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19).” JAMA Netw Open. 2020; Jul 1;3(7):e2016485. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.16485