How to Optimize Your Immune Function When Risk is High
It is normal to feel alarmed and concerned when seasonal immune threats are high. Fortunately, there are many practical steps you can take to reduce your susceptibility to these challenges, protecting both your health and that of your loved ones. Read on to learn more!
Take Practical Steps to Reduce Your Exposure
The first step towards reducing exposure to seasonal immune threats is to engage in practices that limit spread. The CDC and other public health authorities agree that the following methods are crucial for limiting spread:1
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least twenty seconds, or the length of time it takes to sing the happy birthday song twice. Wash every time you blow your nose, cough, and sneeze, and after you come home after being in a public place or handle shipped packages.
- If you don’t have access to soap and water, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol to cleanse your hands. Scrub the sanitizer over the entire surface of your hands and let dry.
- Cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze.
- Avoid touching your face, especially with unwashed hands.
- Disinfect surfaces that you frequently touch, such as your smartphone, computer keyboard, doorknobs, light switches, remotes, etc.
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick, especially high-risk individuals such as those with heart or lung disease or diabetes.
- Avoid crowds as much as possible.
- Avoid all non-essential travel.
- Stay home if you are sick, except if you need to get medical care.
Modern Medicine Offers Little to Help with Seasonal Bugs
While modern medicine is efficient at responding to acute medical and surgical problems, it has very little to offer to help with seasonal immune challenges. Most seasonal bugs are viral in origin, so antibiotics have little benefit. In fact, antibiotics are often incorrectly and unnecessarily prescribed for viral illnesses, which contributes to antibiotic resistance.2 Furthermore, the medical compendium of antiviral drugs is very small, and resistance of these foreign invaders to antiviral drugs is a growing problem.3 As a result, the treatment of seasonal illnesses is usually focused on either symptom management or extreme resuscitative care. The types of drugs that are frequently used include pain relievers (analgesics), expectorants, and decongestants.
Why are such threats a challenge to address? The difficulty lies partly in the simple structure of viruses – a nucleic acid (either DNA or RNA) encapsulated in a “shell” – so they have few components that can be targeted by antiviral therapies.4 Secondly, viruses are highly adaptable, able to rapidly change their genetic information with each successive generation, and thereby evade antiviral drugs.3 Finally, antiviral drugs need to be able to kill a virus without killing all the human cells that the virus has infected; it turns out that this is a formidable task, as many viruses commandeer their host’s cellular machinery to serve their own needs!5 Together, these unique characteristics of viruses make them notoriously difficult to eradicate.
How Does the Immune System Respond?
Each of our bodies harbors an elegant approach for responding to immune disruptions – our immune system. Your body responds in two broad steps: First, it mobilizes the innate immune response, and then it activates the adaptive immune response.
Innate Immune System
The innate immune system provides the first line of defense against invaders. It consists of several components:
- Physical barriers such as the skin, mucosa of the lungs, and lining of the intestine
- Biochemical mechanisms such as nasal secretions, bile, and gastric acid
- The inflammatory response: Interferons are inflammatory mediators produced as part of innate immunity by virally-infected cells; they stimulate cells to produce proteins that inhibit viral replication within infected cells.6
- Phagocytes, a type of white blood cell that engulfs pathogens
In the innate immune response, the host first senses the microbe and its constituents, such as uncapped viral RNA, or cellular damage caused by the microbe. These constituents are recognized by the host cells’ pattern recognition receptors. An effective innate immune response is crucial for launching an effective initial attack against seasonal invaders. However, long-term resistance to these bad bugs comes by way of the adaptive immune system.
Adaptive Immune System
Innate immune recognition of seasonal invaders subsequently activates the adaptive immune response. The adaptive response consists of white blood cells and antibodies, which produce an antimicrobial response tailored to the specific invader, in contrast to the generalized response generated by the innate immune system. The antibodies produced by adaptive immune cells target microbes for destruction and can ultimately provide long-term immunity against the germs.
Seasonal Immune Threats Trigger Widespread Inflammation
While pathogenic microbes are harmful in and of themselves, the inflammatory response launched by the body to target these microorganisms can have equally, if not more, adverse effects. For example, in the deadly Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, it was the inflammatory response that ultimately killed people, not the virus itself. The strain of influenza responsible for the pandemic precipitated a severe immune reaction called a “cytokine storm,” which caused such severe harm, including irreversible heart and lung damage, that many people could not survive its effects.7 Based on this information, we can conclude that managing the collateral damage caused by the immune system is crucial for helping our bodies successfully manage and overcome seasonal immune threats. Fortunately, there are many strategies we can incorporate into our daily lives to support our immunity while also promoting a healthy inflammatory balance, including nutrients, botanicals, and lifestyle practices.
Fortify Your Immune System with Nutrients & Botanicals
Although we currently lack medications for the treatment of seasonal illnesses, there are many things we can do in our daily lives to support our immunity, fortifying our internal defenses. Rather than succumbing to fear and panic, strengthen your immune system with nutrients and environmental inputs that allow it to function optimally.
Vitamin A, also known as retinol or retinoic acid, plays a vital role in the immune system.8 It promotes the migration of CD8+ immune cells to the gut to protect it from invaders. Vitamin A also supports the integrity of mucosal barriers involved in the innate immune system, such as the mucosa of the respiratory tract and gut. Supporting barrier integrity helps the body defend itself from unwanted bugs.9
Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) is a water-soluble vitamin well known for the critical roles in plays in immunity. It stimulates the production and function of white blood cells, particularly neutrophils, lymphocytes, and phagocytes. These cells are at the front lines of the immune defense against seasonal immune threats.10 It also helps protect white blood cells from oxidative damage and stimulates the proliferation of B- and T-cells involved in the adaptive immune response.11
Vitamins D3 and K2
Research indicates that vitamins D3 and K2 work synergistically to support immunity. Lung cells are rich in vitamin D receptors, indicating a high need for this vitamin in lung tissue. Indeed, vitamin D deficiency confers an increased risk of common seasonal health disruptions, specifically in the respiratory tract. In fact, vitamin D deficiency triggered by a lack of sun exposure in the winter may serve as a “seasonal stimulus” for invaders.14 Conversely, vitamin D sufficiency supports healthy immune defenses and respiratory function. Vitamin D’s immune-promoting activities may be mediated by the upregulating effect it has on the production of peptides, such as LL-37 and human beta-defensin 2.15
Vitamin K2 is a fat-soluble vitamin that works in concert with vitamin D. While research on the health effects of K2 outside of bones and the cardiovascular system is limited, preliminary research suggests that K2 beneficially modulates the immune system.16
It is crucial to consume balanced proportions of vitamins D and K2. The ideal ratio for vitamin D to vitamin K2 is 45 mcg of K2 for every 5000 IU of vitamin D.
Glutathione is the body’s premier antioxidant. It plays several crucial roles in the immune system, including managing the inflammatory response to microbial stressors and fine-tuning innate immune function. Research indicates that animals with seasonal respiratory dysregulation have diminished levels of glutathione.17,18
Artemisinin is a compound derived from sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua), an herbaceous botanical that is a cornerstone therapeutic in traditional Chinese medicine. It has traditionally been used to address bacterial and parasitic imbalances; however, a growing body of research indicates that artemisinin, a primary bioactive compound in Artemisia annua, also has potent benefits against viral threats.20,21
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) is a true multi-purpose botanical, supporting multiple aspects of the immune response to seasonal microbes. It modulates the immune system, supporting immune function while promoting healthy inflammatory activity.22 It also has direct microbial balancing properties against a variety of viruses.23
Andrographis (Andrographis paniculata) is an herbaceous plant that has long been used in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine for seasonal sniffles and respiratory complaints. Research indicates that Andrographis has both direct immune-stimulating properties and microbial balancing activity against viruses.24 It is useful in alleviating the occasional cough and sore throat, shortening the duration of these complaints.25 Andrographolide, a primary constituent of Andrographis, also protects against inflammatory damage in the lungs triggered by microbial byproducts.26 Dehydroandrographolide, another Andrographis constituent, upregulates human beta-defensin-2, a molecule that plays a critical role in the gut’s innate immune response to viruses.27
Curcumin is a primary component of turmeric (Curcuma longa), the bright orange rhizome prized in Asian cuisine. Curcumin inhibits the uptake and replication of harmful microbes in the respiratory system, while also inhibiting lung injury caused by microbe-induced cytokine production. 28 It also protects nasal epithelial cells against seasonal microbes.29 Curcumin has multifaceted effects on microbes, and may be less likely to induce microbial resistance than certain pharmaceutical options.30
Propolis is a resinous substance produced by honeybees that protects the beehive from microbial invaders. Fascinatingly, research indicates that propolis has similar beneficial effects on our own bodies! It upregulates immune function while defending the cells from viral entry.31 It has also demonstrated to protect lung function during respiratory dysfunction.32
Molecular hydrogen (H2) is a safe and effective antioxidant and immunomodulator. It helps to reduce the effects of microbial stressors on the body, including inflammatory imbalance and cellular and organ dysfunction.33,34
Lifestyle Strategies for Optimal Immunity
Nutrients and botanicals are potent allies for supporting your body when seasonal immune threats are present. However, they offer the most potent immune-boosting properties when employed within the context of a healthy lifestyle. Optimizing aspects of your lifestyle, such as sleep, exercise, and stress, will boost immunity and fortify your body against microbial stressors.
Sleep deprivation has repeatedly been shown to increase the risk of suffering from seasonal immune stressors.36 Conversely, high-quality, restorative sleep has profoundly beneficial effects on the immune system, promoting the production of cytokines that harm seasonal invaders (among other harmful microorganisms) and attenuating unproductive inflammation.37
Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep every night in a completely dark room free of light pollution from digital devices and outdoor sources. Create a wind-down routine to help your body prepare for sleep; relaxing and avoiding stressors before bed will improve your sleep quality, and thus have indirect beneficial effects on your immune function.
It’s normal to feel like holing up inside on the couch watching Netflix when everyone is busy coughing, sneezing, and generally feeling sick in the outside world. However, the last thing you want to do when seasonal immune disturbances run high is to live a sedentary lifestyle. Habitual exercise improves immune regulation, including the ability for your innate and adaptive immune responses to deal with these challenges.38 Choose a form of exercise that resonates with you and aim to do it for thirty minutes for four to five days out of each week.
When the risk of seasonal immune threats is high, it is reasonable to feel anxious. However, chronic stress dampens immune system function, so it does your body no favors when it comes to defending itself!39 It is crucial to incorporate stress reduction practices into your life daily, regardless of the season. Find an activity that calms and nourishes your soul, whether it’s listening to classical music, meditating, taking frequent walks in nature, or playing with your dog.
CBD extract can also help ease you through feelings of fear triggered by these health risks and support a healthy stress response. Stress promotes excessive sympathetic nervous system activity and hinders the healing parasympathetic response, which supports healthy immune function. CBD is a powerful ally for soothing your mind when seasonal disruptions run high.
Seasonal immune threats can be alarming and disconcerting. You have the power to support your immune system, and that of your loved ones, by strategically supplementing with nutrients and botanicals that may aid immunity. When combined with a healthy lifestyle, these practices can support you on the road to good health.
- Corona Virus 2019 (COVID-19) – How to Protect Yourself. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prepare/prevention.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fabout%2Fprevention.html Accessed 18 March 2020.
- Imanpour S, et al. Factors associated with antibiotic prescriptions for the viral origin diseases in office-based practices, 2006–2012. JRSM Open. 2017; 8(8): 2054270417717668.
- Irwin KK, et al. Antiviral drug resistance as an adaptive process. Virus Evol. 2016; 2(1): vew014.
- Lodish H, et al. Section 6.3: Viruses: Structure, function, and uses. Molecular Cell Biology 4th ed [online]. 2000; New York: W.H. Freeman.
- Walsh D and Mohr I. Viral subversion of the host protein synthesis machinery. Nat Rev Microbiol. 2011; 9(12): 860-875.
- Samuel CE. Antiviral actions of interferons. Clin Microbiol Rev. 2001; 14(4): 778-809.
- Teijaro JR, et al. Mapping the innate signaling cascade essential for cytokine storm during influenza virus infection. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2014; 111(10): 3799-3804.
- Huang Z, et al. Role of vitamin A in the immune system. J Clin Med. 2018; 7(9): 258.
- Timoneda J, et al. Vitamin A deficiency and the lung. Nutrients. 2018; 10(9): 1132.
- “Vitamin C.” Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/vitamins/vitamin-C#role-in-immunity. Accessed 18 March 2020.
- Carr AC and Maggini S. Vitamin C and immune function. Nutrients. 2017; 9(11): 1211.
- Hemila H. Vitamin C, respiratory infections and the immune system. Trends Immunol. 2003; 24(11): P579-P80.
- Ran L, et al. Extra dose of vitamin C based on a daily supplementation shortens the common cold: A meta-analysis of 9 randomized controlled trials. Biomed Res Int. 2018; 2018: 1837364.
- Gruber-Bzura BM. Vitamin D and influenza—Prevention or therapy? Int J Mol Sci. 2018; 19(8): 2419.
- Beard JA, et al. Vitamin D and the anti-viral state. J Clin Virol. 2011; 50(3): 194-200.
- Halder M, et al. Vitamin K: Double bonds beyond coagulation insights into differences between vitamin K1 and K2 in health and disease. Int J Mol Sci. 2019; 20(4): 896.
- Ghezzi P. Role of glutathione in immunity and inflammation in the lung. Int J Gen Med. 2011; 4: 105-113.
- Diotallevi M, et al. Glutathione fine-tunes the innate immune response toward antiviral pathways in a macrophage cell line independently of its antioxidant properties. Front Immunol. 2017; 8: 1239.
- Cai J, et al. Inhibition of influenza infection by glutathione. Free Radic Biol Med. 2003; 34(7): 928-936.
- Efferth T, et al. The antiviral activities of artemisinin and artesunate. Clin Infect Dis. 2008; 47(6): 804-811.
- Efferth T. Beyond malaria: The inhibition of viruses by Artemisinin-type compounds. Biotechnol Adv. 2018; 36(6): 1730-1737.
- Esmaeil N, et al. Silymarin impacts on immune system as an immunomodulator: One key for many locks. Int Immunopharmacol. 2017; 50: 194-201.
- Liu CH, et al. Antiviral activities of silymarin and derivatives. Molecules. 2019; 24(8): 1552.
- Pongtuluran OB, et al. Antiviral and immunostimulant activities of Andrographis paniculata. Hayati J Biosci. 2015; 22(2): 67-72.
- Hu XY, et al. Andrographis paniculata (Chuān Xīn Lián) for symptomatic relief of acute respiratory tract infections in adults and children: A systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One. 2017; 12(8): e0181780.
- Zhu T, et al. Andrographolide protects against LPS-induced acute lung injury by inactivation of NF-κB. PLoS One. 2013; 8(2): e56407.
- Xiong WB, et al. Dehydroandrographolide enhances innate immunity of intestinal tract through up-regulation the expression of hBD-2. Daru J Pharm Sci. 2015; 23: 37.
- Praditya D, et al. Anti-infective properties of the golden spice curcumin. Front Microbiol. 2019; 10: 912.
- Obata K, et al. Curcumin prevents replication of respiratory syncytial virus and the epithelial responses to it in human nasal epithelial cells. PLoS One. 2013; 8(9): e70225.
- Matthew D and Hsu WL. Antiviral potential of curcumin. J Funct Food. 2018; 40: 692-699.
- Anjum SI, et al. Composition and functional properties of propolis (bee glue): A review. Saudi J Biol Sci. 2019; 26(7): 1695-1703.
- Shimizu T, et al. Anti-influenza virus activity of propolis in vitro and its efficacy against influenza infection in mice. Antivir Chem Chemother. 2008; 19(1): 7-13.
- Yang M, et al. Hydrogen medicine therapy: An effective and promising novel treatment for Multiple Organ Dysfunction Syndrome (MODS) induced by influenza and other viral infections diseases? SOJ Microbiol Infect Dis. 2017; 5(2): 1-6.
- Itoh T, et al. Molecular hydrogen inhibits lipopolysaccharide/interferon γ-induced nitric oxide production through modulation of signal transduction in macrophages. Biochem and Biophys Res Commun. 2011; 411(1): 143-149.
- Spulber S, et al. Molecular hydrogen reduces LPS-induced neuroinflammation and promotes recovery from sickness behaviour in mice. PLoS One. 2012; 7(7): e42078.
- Cohen S, et al. Sleep habits and susceptibility to the common cold. JAMA Intern Med. 2009; 169(1): 62-67.
- Irwin MR and Opp MR. Sleep health: Reciprocal regulation of sleep and innate immunity. Neuropsychcopharmacol Rev. 2017; 42: 129-155.
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