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    July 2020

     

    BODY ARMOR: AUTOIMMUNITY AND HEALTH

     

    Staying healthy in these times is all about a balanced immunity.  Here we explain how best to support this delicate and dynamic system.

    Mythological tales, from Achilles to Dracula, are rooted in immunity.  And since medicine’s earliest days, physicians have relied on metaphors, using images like armies, orchestras, communities, weather, and gardens to try to explain what is, in fact, an extremely complicated system that controls the health and well-being of virtually every aspect of the human body.  In An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System, Matt Richtel describes it as the “Festival of Life”.  Our immunological system exists both inside and around our bodies, with organisms and agents swarming everywhere, some beneficial, some more dangerous.  Microorganisms like fungi and bacteria, and infectious invaders like viruses, are the party crashers.  Our immune system operates like a workforce of janitors and laborers, kicking out the rowdy, unwelcome guests and cleaning up after their messes. 

    “Festival of Life” could just as easily describe our lives before this pandemic crashed our festive existence as we knew it.   It’s best to shore things up.  And by that I don’t mean ‘strengthen’ or ‘boost’ your immune system.  Instead, it needs to be balanced and optimized, so it functions as it’s designed to.  Boosting your immune system is a dangerous, ill-conceived concept and probably not even possible.  When most people are seriously ill, the body’s overzealous response is to send proteins called cytokines, immune cells such as T-cells and B-cells (aka lymphocytes), microphages and others, to attack what ails us.  The result is called a “cytokine storm”, a cascade of inflammatory responses that wreak havoc on our body’s equilibrium.  An overactive, confused immune system also manifests itself in autoimmune disorders such as celiac disease, asthma, allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis.  Stronger is not always better. 

    Some immune factors are beyond our control, like aging (since immunity decreases as we get older), genetics and gender.  Though women are more susceptible to autoimmune diseases and are more likely to develop dementia (some types of dementia are related to immunity), women also tend to fend off viruses and bacterial infections more effectively.  But there are factors we can influence: mainly nutrition, exercise, stress management, and sleep.  Why is diet so important?  Seventy to 80 percent of the immune system resides in the gut.  There is literally just a single layer of cells that separates the gut microbiome from our immune system.  They are in constant communication.  Optimizing your gut microbiome is the best way to support immunity.    Fiber, derived from plants like vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruit, and legumes, is the heart and soul of gut healing.   A high-fiber diet can change what happens in your body in response to a virus, including what happens in your lungs.   Healing the gut reduces inflammation, which is an immune response.   Inflammatory diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, start in the gut.  If we understand how to keep our gut healthy, we will be more resilient against viral threats.   Prebiotic foods such as apples, leeks, asparagus, barley, oats, flax, chia, garlic, onions, jicama, and probiotic or fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh, kefir and yogurt, all of which can help restore the healthy bacteria of the microbiome.

    Though the jury is still out on the efficacy of supplements, many experts believe antioxidants (vitamins A, C, D, and beta carotene) support immunity, what not to eat is just as vital.  Concentrated carbohydrates like fructose and maltose, along with too much processed sugar, suppress immunity.  Those at risk for high blood sugar levels, such as diabetics, have more difficulty controlling infections, which thrive on concentrated sweets of all types.  Processed food, junk food, starch, bad fats, salt, thickeners, and chemical additives will have an adverse effect on the microbiome, creating inflammation.  Viral infections are much more deadly in those with chronic illnesses like diabetes or heart disease or who are obese.  Even if losing weight isn’t a concern, physical exertion is critical.  Exercise has massive anti-aging benefits and immune-strengthening abilities.  Very active exercise makes sirtuins go up.    Sirtuins are this great control system inside the body that lowers the inflammation level.  If there was ever a time to stay fit, eat healthfully and knock off central stomach fat, this is it.  Strength and interval training both are critical as each helps to reduce plaque formation in the arteries and keep HDL (good cholesterol) higher. 

    You may know that stress puts us into fight-or-flight mode, which stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and stress hormones like adrenalin, norepinephrine, and cortisol.  When that happens, we are focused on fighting the lion in front of us, not a virus or any other modern-day assault.  Meditation, breathing exercises, yoga, gratitude, and mindfulness are proven ways to calm the nervous system and keep stress at bay, so our bodies don’t suffer as a result.  Stress often interferes with a good night’s sleep, which can have disastrous effects on our health.  If people don’t sleep at night, their internal clock becomes disturbed, which has all kinds of consequences for inflammation and our immune system.  Melatonin is the key hormone here, which is definitely connected to immune regulation. 

    All of these habits can add up to an optimized immune system.   And we already know what is required to help fix the immune system: optimizing our health in every aspect.  We just need to do it!

    Martha McCully