We have always heard the phrase from our elders that “Our health is in our hands” and it holds true, now more than ever. But does it come down to “How strong is our immunity?” When we talk of immunity, we generally talk of certain foods or drinks that can “boost” our immunity, regular exercises or eating a healthy diet that includes foods high in antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. HEALTH PLUS decided to take a deep dive into this discussion, exploring the truths and myths about OUR IMMUNITY.

Our immune system does a remarkable job at fighting off microorganisms to protect us against disease. Varying factors are at play, such as co-morbidities, age, healthy behaviours et cetera determine how resilient this defense system will be. Naturally, when a global health pandemic strikes, we are bound to feel more concerned than usual about staying strong and healthy. Until a vaccine is available, “our immune systems will need to adapt to COVID-19”, says a Harvard Health Expert.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 is a novel pathogen, meaning those who contract it have no existing antibodies to mount a defence. For that reason, it remains imperative to continue practicing social distancing, good hand and mask hygiene and cough etiquette.

To function well, it requires balance and sustaining, not boosting.

Dr Suzanne Cassel, an immunologist at Cedars-Sinai, a leading healthcare organisation, known for pioneering research achievements, says “The concept of boosting your immune system is inaccurate. There is still much that researchers do not understand about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 virus.” “You actually don’t want your immune system to be boosted, you want it to be balanced,” Dr Cassel says. “Too much of an immune response is just as bad as too little response.”

Harvard Health Expert shared, “the concept of boosting immunity actually makes little sense scientifically. In fact, boosting the number of cells in your body, immune cells or others, is not necessarily a good thing.”

Harvard Health continues, “The ongoing research exploring the effects of SARS-CoV-2 virus on the immune response is extensive. But for now, we recommend, general healthy-living strategies as a good way to start giving your immune system the upper hand with BALANCE being key and ‘sustaining’ or ‘supporting’ being a more accurate way of putting it.”

What can you do to SUSTAIN your immune system?

Healthy living strategies are always recommended as your first line of defence in giving your immune system the upper hand in the fight against invading germs. Every part of your body, not just your immune system, functions better when it is bolstered by healthy living strategies such as these tried and true basics:

1. Take steps to reduce your risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19

– physical distancing, hand and mask hygiene, reduce socialization

2. Eat Healthy.

Give yourself real food.

The idea of “eating the rainbow” that many children learn about in school is a good rule at any age. Consuming a wide variety of fruits and vegetables should provide enough zinc, vitamin D and other important minerals and vitamins to support a healthy immune system. Supplements may be helpful if your doctor tells you your levels are low. Minimise consumption of red and processed meats. Restrict saturated fats and sugars to 10% of total calories.

One habit to curb is eating or drinking more than 100 grams (8 tbsp) of sugar a day. That much sugar reduces your white blood cells’ ability to kill germs by 40%!

3. Keep physically active.

Regular exercise promotes cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and offers protection against diseases. Exercise also improves blood circulation, allowing immune system cells to move through the body more freely and do their job more effectively. Exercise dissipates stress, keeping anxieties in check. Try to get a minimum of 15-30 minutes of moderate activity for five days/week. So, take a walk, run, or even tune in to one of the thousands of free online yoga, meditation or workout videos. Dust off your weight bench and take the laundry off the treadmill. You don’t have to go to the gym every day; you just need to move your body daily. If you can take the stairs up to work, do so, and do it again when you come back from lunch. Those small activities add up.

4. Get adequate quality sleep.

Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. When we sleep, the body releases proteins called cytokines while sleep deprivation decreases their production. What’s more, the production of antibodies and immune cells is reduced when you don’t get enough sleep. The optimal amount of sleep for most adults is between seven and eight hours. However, school-aged children and teenagers might need up to 10 hours of sleep. Let’s not underestimate the ill-effects of insufficient quality shuteye!

5. Minimise Stress; Manage the Fears

Train your mind to remain calm despite the chaos. The unknown can be scary and can overwhelm us. Fear can inflate negative thoughts, which leads to unhealthy stress. Ongoing stress releases hormones that get us ready for emergencies, but also severely depresses our immune system. Combat this fear by acting on facts, not misinformation.

Practice meditation or inculcate a mindfulness ritual. Practice different breathing exercises, including diaphragmatic breathing to increase lung capacity.

Engage in a fun filled activity. Laughter isn’t just a quick pick me up. Laughter has the ability to reduce your stress levels and as a result can potentially help you fight off illness.

Immune system, Nutrition and the Elderly

As we age, our immune response capability becomes reduced. There appears to be a connection between nutrition and immunity in the elderly. A form of malnutrition that is surprisingly common is known as “micronutrient malnutrition” for example, deficiencies of zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, D and E — alter immune responses in animals. Micronutrient malnutrition, in which a person is deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals that are obtained from or supplemented by diet, can happen in the elderly. Older people tend to eat less and often have less variety in their diets. One important question is whether dietary supplements may help older people maintain a healthier immune system. Older people should discuss this question with their doctor.

So, what can you do? If you suspect your diet is not providing you with all your micronutrient needs, maybe, for instance, you don’t like vegetables, have a discussion with your healthcare professional on the need for adding a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement that may bring other health benefits. However, keep in mind, taking mega doses of a single vitamin may not bring added benefits – more is not necessarily better!

Health is one of those things we tend to take for granted until something threatens it. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill or one food that’s guaranteed to boost your immune system and protect you from getting sick. The best any of us can do to survive this pandemic is to be mindful of daily actions, our hands and points of contact, take care of ourselves, our well-being and give our immune system its best fighting chance of doing its optimized job. Our Health is in our Hands!