As we move cautiously toward reopening our social and economic lives, what does our new society look like, and how can we remain vigilant against the threat of infection from all pathogens to avoid repeating this situation in the future?
Do we really have the power to improve our immune systems, and what are the lifestyle factors that have made this pandemic so destructive?
Moving forward, even if a vaccine becomes widely available, the logistics and timeline for such an endeavor bring about dozens of questions and potential roadblocks. And this leaves many of us asking: what can we do?
The answer lies in evaluating the things that put us at risk for worse outcomes during infection, and avoiding the enemies of healthy immune function.
The Power of Holistic Medicine on Immune Function
We hear a lot about “boosting” the immune system. And in truth, that’s catchy, but it doesn’t properly explain what’s going on. Immune function is a complex system that communicates with many different cells, organs, and tissues within the body. And it’s influenced by factors that build cells, make hormones, and control metabolic pathways.
The prompt response of immune cells to mount an appropriate attack on pathogens can be optimized or hindered based on these factors.
And fortunately, optimizing immune function is not unlike optimizing overall wellness. Read on to learn about the proactive ways you can heal the systems involved in immune function.
Metabolic Conditions Put Us At Higher Risk
By now, we’re most all aware that those with pre-existing metabolic conditions, like high blood pressure or diabetes are at a higher risk of more severe outcomes with COVID-19.
The data we have now even suggests that people with pre-existing conditions have the same if not higher risk than those who are 65 years or older.
This is a troubling thought when we realize that almost 70% of the U.S. population is overweight, and about 34 million (or 10% of the population) have type 2 diabetes or poorly controlled blood sugar–two conditions that make it very difficult for the body to fight off infection (1).
In addition, about 24% of Americans suffer from other metabolic conditions, like heart disease, kidney disease, and high blood pressure (2).
In total, this means that roughly half the people in this country are at increased risk of hospitalizations or death as a result of this illness.
However, the silver lining to these harsh statistics is that metabolic conditions are diseases of diet and lifestyle.
And diet & lifestyle are the two most modifiable aspects of life that every person has the power to positively impact.
Obesity Raises COVID-19 Risk
Far from being an issue of well fitting clothes or body confidence, being at a healthy weight may very well be the difference between life and death in terms of COVID-19 infection.
Based on data we have, younger people admitted to the ICU are more likely to be obese, regardless of sex (3).
Obesity impairs immune response to infection, and creates dysregulation in the body’s inflammatory response, in addition to creating oxidative damage which negatively impacts heart function.
The immune system relies heavily upon a healthy inflammatory response to carry out its chemical signaling, and recruit the appropriate number and type of specific immune cells.
But we now know that weight loss is not as simple as eat less, move more. The body’s preference for holding on to excess body fat is influenced by several root cause factors that functional medicine can improve.
If the calories in vs. calories out weight loss hypothesis were strictly true, we wouldn’t gain weight in middle age despite eating and moving the same, and we wouldn’t all have a waif-like friend who can seemingly eat twice as much and gain absolutely nothing.
What accounts for this vast difference in how we process and hold onto calories?
Weight Loss for Optimized Immune Function
The first is healthy endocrine function and blood sugar balance. Insulin, released by the pancreas in response to the digestion of carbohydrates, lowers blood sugar by allowing glucose into cells to be used as energy.
But when insulin is high, it’s also a fat storage hormone. This means that when refined carbohydrate intake is high, insulin regulates excess calories to be stored as fat–because it’s primary and most important function is to reduce blood sugar to avoid severe consequences for the body.
The second system responsible for weight gain and loss is a diverse network that’s as unique to each person as your fingerprint, and made up of organisms as numerous as the cells that make up your body.
These are your gut bacteria.
The microbes in your intestine don’t just help you digest food and process nutrients, but they impact important hormone functions, neurotransmitter production, and the level of inflammation in your digestive system. The same systemic inflammation that can interfere with the proper chemical messengers immune function relies on.
Your gut bacteria can also send signals to immune cells, alerting them of potential pathogens before they leave the intestinal tract (4).
So what do your gut bacteria have to do with weight?
Studies have found that lean individuals have a higher proportion of one type of intestinal bacteria than those with obesity. And, as patients lost weight, their number of these bacteria increased.
Now, this doesn’t mean that higher numbers of these bacteria will result in weight loss (because we also find higher numbers of this type of bacteria in those with IBS), or that with a lower proportion you’ll have trouble losing weight.
What it does mean, is that our gut microbiota influence immune and hormone function, which can then have a downstream effect upon inflammatory processes that contribute to weight gain.
Having a plan to heal digestive function, kick start weight loss, and reduce inflammation is crucial now more than ever.
Optimize your gut bacteria with a 21-day plan, including meal plans, and easy-to-follow shopping lists that walk you through each step of the process.
Nutrition for Immune Wellness
The immune system, and overall holistic wellness, depends upon nutrient availability to provide all the micronutrients our body needs to do its job.
For example, our bodies don’t make vitamin C. We MUST get vitamin C from the diet–otherwise immune cells can’t carry out their function. Does this mean vitamin C prevents infection from infection? No, but it allows the immune system to respond quickly and efficiently to all pathogens.
Nutrition supports the function of immune cells and allows them to mount effective responses against pathogens, but also to resolve that response quickly if necessary to avoid chronic, underlying inflammation.
The following are a few of the key nutrients our immune system needs to function properly, and the foods we mostly commonly find them in.
- Zinc: Pumpkin seeds, grass-fed red meat, chickpeas, oysters
- Iron: Liver, dark leafy greens
- B vitamins: Grass-fed meat, fish, eggs
- Vitamin C: Amla, citrus, kiwi
- Magnesium: Avocado,
- Vitamin D: fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), egg yolks
Immune-friendly supplements and herbs:
- N-acetyl cysteine (NAC)
- Mushrooms (turkey tail, reishi, chaga)
The food we eat isn’t just a sum of its calories and macronutrients. Or, in other words, we’re not just made of carbohydrates, fats, and protein. All calories aren’t created equal, and food choice has a major impact on the level of inflammation our gut produces.
An anti-inflammatory, gut-friendly diet supports what’s called barrier immunity in the digestive system. Our intestinal barrier functions at an important physical defense against pathogens. It prevents the passage of unwanted food particles, bacteria & viruses, and toxins from entering the bloodstream.
A healthy intestinal barrier allows water and nutrients to pass through, but keeps unwanted substances out of the body–passing them as waste.
The health of our gut lining is heavily influenced by diet. For example, the overconsumption of processed and high sugar foods, and refined vegetable oils irritate the intestinal living and provoke inflammation, microbiome imbalance, which leads to leaky gut and possibly autoimmunity (5).
One we have a leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, pathogens can potentially pass through our gut lining and enter circulation.
In contrast, when we eat a diet that has phytonutrient-rich veggies, healthy fats, and naturally-raised proteins (plus some good pre- and probiotics!), we keep gut bacteria balanced, inflammation levels low, and digestion functioning optimally. See Super-Powered Nutrition here.
Ultimately, important aspects of our health (like weight, inflammation, and stress) are influenced by our environment–our food, water, lifestyle, and toxin exposure. Managing these factors is where integrative medicine focuses to promote overall immune wellness–instead of focusing on isolated symptoms.
Sleep is a key player in adequate immune function and overall quality of life. We may be able to squeak by eating less than ideal food for several days, but even a couple nights of inadequate sleep take a major toll on our inflammatory and hormonal processes.
Melatonin, well known for being the sleepytime hormone, is actually a powerful antioxidant as well. It’s active in combating oxidative stress, cleaning up damaged cells, and promoting tissue function (6).
Many of us place less of an importance on sleep, not knowing that the body is busy healing, and cleaning up damaged cells while we rest.
Stress is also a modern pandemic negatively affecting immune function. In our chronically stressed world, this low-level stress that isn’t resolved can manifest as systemic low-grade inflammation due in part to HPA axis dysregulation, which affects cortisol levels, and blunts immune response.
Moving Forward with Functional Medicine
When we support overall immune response, we support what’s called community immunocompetence. This is the ability of the communities we’re part of to adapt and respond swiftly and efficiently to exposure to any pathogen.
When we return to normal, we also need to ask ourselves why and how we got to this point with our health.
Viruses will eventually attack us again in the future, and they will likely rear their head at a similarly inconvenient time.
Knowledge can be empowering, but only if we apply it correctly to our daily choices and lifestyles. We can rise above the message of fear by focusing on the aspects of life we CAN control.
If your goal for 2020 is to holistically optimize your health, virtual visits are here to heal gut function, address nutrient deficiencies, and bring your immune system back into balance.
Or, check out the simplest way to heal gut function and home, and optimize immune function in 21-days.