The spread of the Omicron variant around the world is a timely reminder that COVID is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Immunity and the immune system have become trending topics coinciding with the pandemic, and most now know that keeping the immune system healthy and strong is essential to fight against virus infection and the range of symptoms that have been described.
The immune system is made up of organs, tissues, cells and proteins. These work together throughout our body to fight off pathogens such as viruses that cause infection and disease.
There are two connected wings of the immune system – the innate wing and the adaptive wing.
The innate wing is essential, as it drives a non-specific and immediate immune defences when the body is challenged. It also supports the development of the adaptive immune response, which is the wing of the immune system that responds to the COVID vaccine.
Regardless of vaccination status, our day-to-day living and immune resilience depends foremost on the innate wing of the immune system.
There are many ways to keep our innate immune system in good working order. These include good quality daily micro-nutrition and also lifestyle manoeuvres that altogether enable the immune system to remain fighting fit, ensuring it is able to ‘pounce’ when challenged.
Ten tips on how to support the innate anti-viral defences:
1. Adequate sleep – the body repairs itself and the immune system replenishes during sleep, which is when we are most at rest. The power of sleep must not be underestimated.
2. Minimise stress – stress induces a hormone called cortisol which can stress the immune system and reduce its ability to defend the body.
3. Develop or maintain an exercise routine – it is well established that exercise is important for immune function. Exercise increases blood and lymph flow as your muscles contract, and also increases the circulation of immune cells. Exercises which increase breathing help expel foreign particles and pathogens that may be residing in the airways.
4. Minimise alcohol consumption – alcohol can suppress your immune system, making you more vulnerable to infections caused by bacteria and viruses. Alcohol is known to disrupt the function of the natural cells in the upper airways that help expel viruses and other pathogens.
5. Stop vaping – recent studies are highlighting that vaping can damage vital immune system cells and may be more harmful than previously thought. Some studies are indicating that vaping increases susceptibility to COVID infection. Smoking cigarettes does the same.
6. Maintain or develop good gut health – the gut is the major conductor of the body’s innate immune system. Gut health depends on healthy gut bacteria (called the gut microbiome). The best way to promote good gut health is to take multi-species probiotics in a formulated product, or include naturally fermented foods in the diet (apple cider vinegar, kimchi, miso, cultured milk/yoghurt foods for example).
7. Ensure adequate daily intake of dietary fibres. Dietary fibre is the essential food for our gut bacteria, which they metabolise for their own survival, and also release chemicals from their metabolism into our bodies that are immune-protective. Different healthy bacteria have different preferences for the fibre that they can metabolise the best, so variety is the spice of their life.
8. Pay attention to zinc intake. Zinc is known to play an essential role in the immune system, and zinc deficiency is linked to increased susceptibility to infection. There are a variety of common foods that contain meaningful amounts of zinc, such as seeds, whole grains, legumes (lentils, chickpeas), dairy foods and eggs.
9. Pay attention to selenium. Dietary selenium is crucial for many immune cell functions. In New Zealand for example, there is a lack of dietary selenium in the food chain, if the soil is not supplemented. An easy way to obtain 100 percent daily requirement for selenium is to eat one Brazil nut a day – it’s that simple.
10. Maintain high levels of dietary antioxidants. Vitamins A, C, and E are ‘ACE’ for good immune function. Their role as antioxidants leverages how they work together to combat free radicals, which are associated with not only pollution, but also exercise and immune stresses. Vitamin C is especially important and is known to underpin anti-viral defences. Eating the daily recommended intake of five portions of colourful vegetables will naturally provide these important vitamins.