Covid-19 or Coronavirus is raging through the world and has already crossed the 1 lakh mark in India. Quite expectedly you are worried about your own health along with the health and well-being of your near and dear ones. With no probable vaccine insight and The Health Ministry of India warning “Learn to Live with Coronavirus” you have read that having a robust immune system is the only way to reduce the chances of having Covid-19. But do you know what does Immune system means and how to boost immunity? Are you confused about whether you have a compromised immune system and are searching for ways to strengthen it?
Here we have given you a sneak-peek into your own immune system and have also listed down a few effective ways to lend a helping hand to your immune system
What is your Immune System?
Your Immune system is a vast network of cells, tissues, organs, and chemicals working collectively and coordinating your body’s defenses against any pathogen invading your body. Without your immune system, you will be exposed to millions of bacterias, viruses, and toxins and something as mild as a seasonal cold or fever might prove to be fatal for you.
Its major components are
- White blood cells (WBC).
- Complement System.
- Lymphatic system.
- Bone Marrow.
How does your Immune System work?
Your immune system relies on millions of defensive cells called White Blood Cells (WBCs) also called leukocytes that originate in your bone marrow. These WBCs migrate into your bloodstream towards the lymphatic system ( a network of vessels that clears out bodily toxins). Your body has almost 4000-11,000 leukocytes per microliter of blood. They move about in the body and work like soldiers scanning the blood, tissues, and organs for any foreign substance. It basically identifies any invading germs through antigens that are molecular traces present on the surface of the pathogens and other foreign substances. As soon as it discovers the presence of antigen it’s just a matter of minutes before your immune system kicks in and destroys the foreign substance.
Leukocytes are specifically classified into two main cellular components
They together coordinate to attack the invading organism. At first, the phagocytes trigger the immune response by sending macrophages and dendritic cells into the blood. As they circulate in the blood they simply destroy any foreign substance by ingesting them. This allows the phagocytes to get information about the antigen present on the pathogen they had ingested and it sends this message to the lymphocyte. A group of lymphocyte cells called T-cells go in search of infected body cells and swiftly kills them off. Meanwhile, B-lymphocytes and Helper T-cells use the information gathered from the antigen of the pathogen to produce special proteins called antibodies. Every antigen has a specific antibody that can bind to it and destroy the invading cells. Both the B-cells and Helper T-cells can produce thousands of such antibodies that circulate through the blood and attacks the invaders until the threat is neutralized.
High Temperature and swelling are actually some of the symptoms that accompany the above process and they are designed to aid the immune response as the pathogens are not thermal resistant and can’t withstand high temperatures. Moreover, the affected cells release certain chemicals that make fluid leak to the surrounding tissue which causes the swelling and attracts the attention of the phagocytes which eventually consumes the invaders and damaged cells.
It’s important to remember that the function of the immune system isn’t to stop you from becoming ill rather its function is to control the threat to the body and prevent it from reaching alarming levels in your body. Through regular monitoring, the immune system also helps your body to develop long term immunity against certain diseases. Your immune system keeps a record of every pathogen they have ever defeated. When B and T-lymphocyte identify antigen on a pathogen they store it in their memory to fight off any future invasion. As soon as the pathogen enters the next time it swiftly deploys the specific antibodies to fight it off.
Do you have a compromised immune system?
You might be baffled with the working of your immune system and can’t understand how to determine if you have a weakened immune system and how to boost immunity? Well, it’s actually easy. There are a few telltale signs to know if your immune system is weak and how to boost immunity?
- Catching Cold
If you catch a cold very easily then it might be a sign of a weak immune system. According to Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, each year there are millions of cases of the common colds averaging about 2-3 colds per person per year, and children have even more but if you happen to constantly catch colds much more frequently it’s a clear sign of a compromised immune system.
- Duration of a cold
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most people recover from cold in about 7-10 days. So if your cold lasts for weeks it’s time for you to take notice of your immune system.
- A Dry Nose
Although having a runny nose is quite annoying, it’s actually an indicator of a strong immune system that is preventing you from catching a cold and flu. This is because having a runny nose indicates more mucus which actually traps and eradicates viruses entering your body when you blow out your nose. On the contrary, if your nose is dry always it indicates a compromised immune system as it makes it easier for germs to invade your body.
- Recovery Time from wounds
If your cuts and wounds take a long time to heal then it may also indicate a compromised immune system. Your skin actually goes into damage control mode after you get a scratch or any other wound by regenerating new skin. Your body sends nutrient-rich blood to help in the regeneration process. The completion of this healing process actually depends on a healthy immune system as White Blood Cells attack and kill any bacteria entering the wound. So if your immunity is weakened, your wounds will linger for a long time before they heal.
- Problematic gut
If you suffer frequently from gut problems like diarrhea, gas, or constipation this might be a sign of a compromised immune system. A study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) states that nearly 70% of your immune system is located in your digestive tract and signals derived from the gut microbiota are critical for the development of the immune system. If you have considerably low amounts of good gut bacteria it makes you vulnerable to a host of viruses that can make you sick.
- Very High-stress levels.
Do you know there’s a whole field dedicated to studies connecting stress and immunology called psychoneuroimmunology(PNI)? Yes and that might explain why you feel sick due to an emotional turmoil or why you just can’t get your shit together when you are stressed out.
According to researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease long term persistent stress could seriously compromise the immune system.
Dr. Nadia Hasan, DO, a physician at Delancey Internal Medicine states that the reason for this decreased immunity is the decrease in the body’s lymphocytes, the white blood cells responsible for protecting you against infection. So the lower your lymphocyte level, the more vulnerable you become to viruses like the common cold.
- You feel tired all the Time
Feeling sluggish all the time despite getting a sufficient amount of sleep is a clear indicator of a weak immune system. Dr. Hasan states that when our immune system struggles our energy level falls down. He further explains “That’s because your body is trying to conserve energy to fuel your immune system so it can fight off germs.”
How to boost immunity?
The idea of boosting your immunity is intriguing but your immune system is actually “a system”- not a single entity. So it needs balance and harmony for its proper functioning. There’s still room for researchers to know about the intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response but you can always add your bit to help your immune system.
This section is broken down into three major components that need work and will tell you how to boost immunity?
The food you eat largely determines how your immune system helps you in your journey towards a healthier life. This has been beautifully explained by a report by Harvard Medical School “Like any fighting force, the immune system army marches on its stomach. Healthy immune system warriors need good, regular nourishment.”
Here there’s a list of six foods that will provide adequate nourishment to your immune system warriors and do you know the best part? You can follow all the social distancing norms and still get them because of their easy availability in your nearby markets.
Garlic, a member of the lily family is one of the most widely used ingredients that make your food extra spicy. Do you know it also has a tag attached to it? Yes, it is popularly known as “Immunity Boosting Superstar”. For ages, it has been termed as an elixir of health and was also used to prevent gangrene in both World Wars.
It contains a compound called Alliin which turns into Allicin when crushed. Allicin contains sulfur which gives notoriety to garlic for its smell. This sulfur content is also responsible for its medicinal properties. A study published in the National Library of Medicine stated that garlic enhances the functioning of the immune system by stimulating certain cell types like lymphocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells, and natural killer cells by various processes.
It helps to treat the common cold, flu, and many other illnesses and also kill parasites. One clove of garlic contains 5 mg of Calcium, 12 mg of Potassium, and more than 100 Sulphur compounds, together with powerful enough to wipe out bacteria and infection. Garlic is the most beneficial if eaten raw(not cooked or dried) as heat and water inactivate its sulfur contents thus diminishing its antibiotic properties.
This is also another compound termed as an elixir of health for ages. It is actually a root or rhizome of the flowering plant Zingiber officinale.
Raw ginger has around 79% water, 18% carbohydrates, 2% protein, and 1% fat. It helps to treat the common cold, flu, and many other illnesses and also kill parasites. It is antibacterial and anti-inflammatory in nature. It cures sore throat, joint pain, flu, and cold and also decreases nausea and vomiting. Ginger consists of an active compound called gingerol which decreases chronic pain. It helps in the proper functioning of the immune system by activating it when it is suppressed and suppressing it when it is over-activated.
Popeye must have been knowledgeable enough to know about the power of spinach and eat it. This is one of the best leafy green vegetables to include in your diet which leaves your tongue happy with its delicious taste. It originated in Persia and quickly made it into our plates owing to its taste and high nutritional value. It is rich in Iron, Calcium, and Magnesium which is essential for a healthy immune system.
Keri Glassman, a Registered Dietician recommends eating two cups of dark, leafy greens each day. She adds that two cups of spinach offer 14 calories and it also fulfills your daily need of Vitamin A, roughly 30 % of your daily requirement of Folate(Vitamin B9) and Vitamin C and also a good amount of Vitamin K. It is rich in antioxidants that protect cell damage due to oxidative stress and also β-carotene which increases the ability of infection-fighting cells of your body thus increasing immunity.
It is also rich in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and flavonoids. According to a study by The National Institutes of Health(NIH) flavonoids help to prevent the common cold in otherwise healthy people.
It is actually a flower belonging to the plant species Brassica olerace. It is a part of a group of vegetables called cruciferous vegetables. A superfood supercharged with vitamins and minerals, it fulfills 135% of the RDI of Vitamin C, 116% of the RDI of Vitamin K, 14% of the RDI of Vitamin B9 (Folate),11% of the RDI of Vitamin A, 8% of the RDI of potassium, 6% of the RDI of Phosphorus and 3% of the RDI of Selenium RDI-Reference Daily Intake. It is also rich in β-carotene and a host of other antioxidants which also makes it a great choice to improve your overall immunity.
According to a study published by the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, Broccoli contains a compound called sulforaphane which is responsible for activating a set of antioxidant genes and enzymes in specific immune cells which then combat the injurious effect of molecules called free radicals that can damage cells leading to disease. It is best eaten raw or steamed as it helps to preserve its nutrients.
- Citrus Fruits
This group of fruits includes lemons, oranges, grapefruits, and limes. They are not only colorful and aromatic but they also have high nutritional value. They are a rich source of Vitamin C which helps to build immunity by increasing the production of white blood cells that help to fight infection.
A review by Nutritional journal stated that consuming citrus fruits can decrease and shorten the symptoms of respiratory infections like the common cold. It is also useful in improving the outcomes of diseases like pneumonia, malaria, and diarrhea. They are also rich in antioxidants that protect against oxidative stress and prevents damage to immune cells. Your body doesn’t produce or store Vitamin C so you need to fulfill your daily requirement by including it adequately in your diet.
We have grown up listening “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Well, maybe it does. Apple contains a fiber called pectin which acts as a prebiotic i.e. it feeds the good gut bacteria. Your gut bacteria work directly on your immune system by releasing substances directly into your gut that act on your immune system. According to Gregory Freund, a professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine “Soluble fiber changes the personality of the immune system- they go from pro-inflammatory, angry cells to anti-inflammatory, healing cells that help recover fast from infection. This happens because soluble fiber caused increased production of an anti-inflammatory protein called interleukin-4.”
Rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and antioxidants, it also contains Quercetin, a flavonoid which is essentially a naturally occurring plant chemical that has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. An Apple is the most beneficial when eaten fresh without removing its upper skin as discarding the skin removes most of its fiber and flavonoids and drying the apples removes its Vitamin C, predominantly contained in its flesh.
The immune system is very responsive to exercise, with the extent and duration reflecting the degree of physiological stress imposed by the workload.
A series of experiments conducted on mice in 2005 showed that if they jogged gently for about 30 minutes a day for several weeks, they are much more likely to survive a virulent form of rodent influenza than untrained animals.
A study published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science stated that during moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise bouts less than 60 minutes duration, the antipathogen activity of tissue macrophages occurs in parallel with an enhanced recirculation of immunoglobulins(antibodies), anti-inflammatory cytokines(proteins secreted by immune cells), neutrophils(a type of WBC), NK cells (Natural Killer Cells), cytotoxic T cells(lymphocyte cells) and immature B cells(a type of WBC ) all of which play critical roles in immune defense activity and metabolic health.
This study also stated that acute exercise stimulates the interchange of innate immunity( inborn defense against pathogens) system cells and components between lymphoid tissues and the blood compartment. This summation effect occurs over time, with improved immunosurveillance against pathogens and cancer cells and decreased systemic inflammation. Acute exercise may also serve as a simple strategy to enrich the blood compartment of highly cytotoxic T-cell and NK cell subsets.
According to a 2017 study published in Brain, Behavior and Immunity 20- 30 minutes of exercise can have anti-inflammatory effects that boost your immune system.
The following recommendation of exercise is as per the Physical Activity Guidelines, Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.
Recommendations for Kids
- Kids ( 3-5 y) should be physically active and have plenty of opportunities to move throughout the day.
- Children (6-17y) should get at least 60 minutes per day of moderate to vigorous-intensity physical activity, mostly aerobic.
- Include vigorous-intensity activity on at least 3 days per week.
- Include muscle and bone-strengthening (weight-bearing) activities on at least 3 days per week.
- Increase amount and intensity gradually over time.
Recommendations for Adults
- At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity workout or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity or a combination of both, preferably spread throughout the week.
- Moderate-to-high intensity muscle-strengthening activity (resistance or weights) on at least 2 days per week.
- Gain more benefits by being active for at least 300 minutes (5 hours) per week.
- Increase amount and intensity gradually over time.
Apart from incorporating a healthy diet and an adequate exercise regimen into your routine you also need to incorporate some minute but significant changes in your lifestyle can answer the most asked question i.e how to boost your Immunity? Make it a point to choose to follow these lifestyle changes even if the pandemic gets over as a healthy immune system is a road you need to follow every single day and not a specific destination where these changes are not needed anymore. Make these choices your lifelong buddies and see them supporting your immune system through thick and thin.
The following guidelines are a list of six lifestyle changes to accommodate your routine according to a report published by Harvard Medical School on 6th April 2020.
- Good Hygiene
Maintaining good personal hygiene is your first line of defense against any form of foreign invasion in your body as it helps to prevent the onset and subsequent spreading of an infection.
- Wash your hands with a hand sanitizer or water and soap for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom and while preparing food.
- After coming from outside head to your washroom and change your clothes and put them to wash and freshen up in the washroom before heading towards your room.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough or if a tissue isn’t at your disposal, cough into your elbow rather than your hand.
- Wash and bandage any wounds and go for a medical checkup in case it is serious.
- Do not pick any healing wounds or squeeze pimples as this allows germs to enter the body.
A report by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that annual flu vaccination can reduce your risk of infection by 40-60%. Proper immunization is required to adequately help your body’s natural immune system and help you know how to boost your Immunity? In case you are not sure about your immunization status consult your health care provider.
- Children need to receive the recommended childhood vaccinations.
- Adults should make sure their vaccinations are up to date.
- Travelers should get any necessary additional immunizations.
- Food Safety
Food poisoning though not a life-threatening condition can be prevented in most cases by preparing and storing your foods safely. The following precautions will help to kill any germs present in your food.
- Wash your hands with soap and water before and after each time you handle raw food.
- Rinse all meat, poultry, and fish under running water before cooking.
- Rinse all fruits and vegetables under running water before cooking or serving them.
- Separate raw and cooked foods and avoid using the same utensils for both raw and cooked meat.
- Cook foods thoroughly – Fish until its opaque, whole poultry (180° F), roast and steaks (145 °F) and ground meats (160° F).
- Defrost foods only in the refrigerator or in the microwave.
- Healthy Travel
If you are planning for a trip you need to consult your physician, at least three months in advance about your required immunizations.
- If you are traveling to an area where insect-borne is present, use a repellant containing DEET(diethyltoluamide).
- Avoid getting any unnecessary immunizations or tattoos abroad as needles and syringes (even the disposable ones) are reused in some parts of the world.
- Clean water
Make sure to consume clean water always as water is the most common source of contamination
- Boil any tap water before drinking or drink bottled water only; use boiled water for brushing your teeth.
- Don’t eat uncooked vegetables.
- Wash fruits thoroughly before consuming them.
- Avoid Dairy products as the milk may not be pasteurized.
- Safe Sex
We can’t avoid sex altogether to ensure protection against STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases), so our second best choice would be to follow safe sex guidelines
- Engage in one partner who is having only sex with you and has been checked for STDs.
- Use a latex, polyurethane condom (male condom made of polyurethane- a type of thin, clear plastic) or a female condom every time you have sex.
- For oral sex, use a latex or polyurethane male condom or female condom.
- For anal sex, use a latex or polyurethane condom.
The Bottom Line
If not for your immune system, simply brushing your teeth could introduce enough harmful bacteria in your bloodstream to kill you. Behind the scenes of your healthy body, the immune system is constantly gobbling up bacteria and blocking viruses from invading your cells. Like body’s other natural processes( digestion, heartbeat), your immune system is a function that you don’t necessarily control BUT you can always choose to not leave it alone in its battle to protect your body and lend a helping hand by knowing how to boost your Immunity by maintaining general healthy-living strategies.
An article in The Print by Alexander Sasha Poltorak states “ Coronavirus isn’t the killer, our immune response is” Yes your immunity is crucial in the treatment of Covid-19 but let’s face it none of this guarantees your safety against the Novel Coronavirus. But by knowing how to boost your Immunity then you need these steps to prepare and strengthen your immune responses for the fight when the virus attacks.
Let’s Fight The Fight.