During this difficult time when many of us are thinking more about our health, one question seems to bubble up to the surface time and time again – how can we boost our immune system?
The immune system is a complex system made up of body cells, organs, lymph glands and nodes, and bone marrow. It is our natural defence system and works by blocking the actions of potentially harmful invading agents such as viruses, germs, and toxins. The immune system’s job is to attack pathogens on contact.
It is supported by several lifestyle variables including adequate sleep, moderate exercise, a healthy balanced diet, and low stress levels. When our immune system is under strain we become unwell.
But what do our bodies need to strengthen a healthy immune system?
Vaccination is the only proven method of improving immune system health. In 1796 Edward Jenner was the first doctor to develop a vaccine to treat a mild illness, cowpox. The word vaccine derives from the latin word vacca, meaning cow.
Vaccination works by introducing low level, harmless versions of common illnesses such as flu or malaria. The body learns how to fight the pathogen which builds an immune system response. This immunity can subsequently prevent the illness taking hold if it enters the body.
Researchers at the Jenner Institute at Oxford University are currently working on the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. The team have identified a so called “vaccine candidate’ and are currently working towards the first clinical testing phase. Hundreds of other scientists around the world are also working hard to develop a vaccine to prevent COVID-19, but there is a vast amount of work to be done. We will be following their progress closely.
Sadly, there are no quick fixes to boost our immune system health, it’s a long game. But there are plenty of easy to action things that we can do to make a start, especially whilst we have more time to look after ourselves during this extended lockdown period.
When we are asleep at night our bodies make a hormone called melatonin in the pineal gland. This gland is active only during darkness when it releases melatonin into the bloodstream. Its role is to regulate our body clocks or circadian rhythm which importantly signals to our body when it is time to sleep, making us feel sleepy. Levels of melatonin drop naturally during daylight hours.
Healthy levels of melatonin can be disrupted by a variety of factors, amongst them poor sleep, insomnia, shift pattern working, and stress and anxiety. They can also be disrupted by exposure to bright light when our bodies are ready to sleep from sources such as smartphones and tablets.
Several studies have shown that melatonin can have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. It acts by regulating the production of cells with an abnormal immune response.
Melatonin is also known to act as an antioxidant, scavenging free radicals and stimulating the actions of further antioxidants.
Disruptions in the production of melatonin could prove to be a factor in the inflammatory response that produces cell damage during coronavirus infections.
Dr. Jean Monro of Breakspear Medical advises that the anti-inflammatory effect of melatonin can be enhanced by high doses of vitamin C. Two mushrooms, Shiitake and Coriolus have anti-inflammatory effects that may counteract immune hyperactivity of viral infections. Pre-biotics can be also used which include beta-glucans.
With moderate physical activity the human body can increase its ability to flush out bacteria from the lungs and airways, boosting the immune system.
During exercise our heart rate is raised prompting an immune system response. It deploys white blood cells from other parts of the body, including infection fighting T-cells and killer cells, flushing them into the bloodstream. This rush of white blood cells enhances immune system response by hunting down pathogens at an accelerated level.
Moderate to vigorous exercise session of up to 60 minutes also has a positive effect on the body’s immunosurveillance system. This is the method the body uses to survey for harmful pathogens (germs and bacteria) which works in parallel with other immune system defences. The effects of exercise are thought last for up to three hours, kickstarting our immune system before levels return to normal. Moderate exercise includes activities such as walking, running, or cycling. It is recommended that we carry any of these out for up to 150 minutes each week.
With one in five of us is drinking more during the coronavirus lockdown, and a massive one in three are drinking less or have stopped drinking completely. But how does alcohol affect our sleep?
Alcohol can affect our sleep in several different ways. Firstly, it is a diuretic which could wake us from sleep to visit the bathroom more often. Alcohol produces more activity in the sweat glands, further dehydrating the body. It’s also a relaxant which can affect the muscles in the throat whilst sleeping, raising the likelihood of snoring and reducing the quality of sleep.
Alcohol has an effect on the body’s gut bacteria, potentially allowing more harmful bacteria to pass straight into the blood. When this happens the actions of immune system white blood cells are reduced, opening up the risk of infection spreading.
Both processes work to maintain a healthy balance inside the body, but detoxification is carried out more specifically by the liver and blood.
Detoxification is a major body function largely carried out by the liver. This organ is, metabolically, the most complex organ in the body. It is concerned with energy balance regulation, blood protein synthesis, immune modulation, and detoxification of substances, both of external and self-made origin.
The liver works by removing unwanted and potentially toxic chemicals from the body. Many toxins are generally fat soluble which makes them difficult to transport across membranes ready for the body to excrete naturally. The liver acts by chemically altering the toxic compounds making them more water soluble so that they can be more readily excreted in the bile or urine.
It makes sense that if we eat well our bodies will be able to fight infections off better, but evidence of this is surprisingly limited. The link between poor diet and immune system health is not fully understood but there is enough data to support that view that a healthy balanced diet will broadly support good immune system function.
We will explore the impact of what we eat in more depth in our next article.
Read more about the Jenner Institute vaccine development.