Bet you’re saying WHAT !?! Did I read that right? Surely she meant I should boost my immune system.
We don’t want to boost the immune system – but we do want to balance it. Here’s why.
What is immunity anyway
Our immune system isn’t “one thing”. Its a set of connections between certain cells, proteins, tissues, and organs. All these components work together and coordinate their efforts to keep us healthy from invading bacteria, viruses and other assailants.
The immune system is a carefully orchestrated response team. We have two parts, that work together to keep us healthy.
Innate immunity refers to the part that we are born with. It’s our first line of defense. Our skin, respiratory tract, GI tract, urinary tract, and eyes are all part of the team. White blood cells are part of our innate immunity. This system is always on – constantly looking to protect us from invaders. That’s why we don’t want to ramp it up. It would be in over attack mode. You’d always have a stuffy nose, a fever and generally feel crummy. Usually, it does a good job on its own unless you’re run down or the invaders are more than the innate can handle. In that case, we have a backup system if our innate immunity isn’t quite enough to attack an assailant. That’s our adaptive immune system.
Adaptive, or acquired immune system is just that – what we have adapted to or acquired over our lifetime. It’s our second line of defense. This might come from a vaccine or the fact that it can remember certain illnesses we’ve previously had. That’s why you can’t get some illnesses twice, like chickenpox or the mumps. T cells and B cells are part of our adaptive immune system.
While the innate immune system acts quickly, it takes time for our adaptive immune system to respond. As long as it remembers the pathogen, it will kick into action if the innate immune system can’t handle it. There is cross-talk between them, which is somewhat of a new concept!
The bottom line is that we want to OPTIMIZE our immune system. We want to balance the innate and adapted. Don’t seek to take gobs of antioxidants, vitamins or minerals in an effort to boost immunity. Just as too few nutrients cause harm, so may excessive amounts.
Grant it, if you are run down and your immunity is lacking due to deficiencies or a poor diet, we certainly want to correct that.
Taking too much of some nutrients can cause excessive absorption of others. Conversely, too much of one vitamin may inhibit the absorption of another. Some can even have unintended consequences.
Taking high doses of vitamin C has become super popular, as there are reports that it fights the COVID-19 virus. Is it a good idea? Actually, not if you have a variant on the gene HFE and possibly for others. Vitamin C enhances the absorption of non-heme iron. In men and post-menopausal women, excess iron is not needed – it is actually a pro-oxidant.
There has been talk of intravenous Vitamin C in the treatment of the Corona virus. It’s rather complicated, though. Intravenous Vitamin C may be a treatment for a cytokine storm that occurs – also known as sepsis. It seems that a short round may help prevent the dire consequences of this. However, these high IV doses may cause osmotic cell death in the lungs but not apoptosis – which may lead to localized inflammation in lung tissue. It’s not quite so simple and more investigation is essential. A clinical trial is underway to be sure this procedure is helpful and not harmful.
If you do choose to supplement with Vitamin C, know that the upper tolerable level is 2,000 mg. Excessive amounts can cause diarrhea- a symptom of COVID-19 in some people. Also, the higher the dose of Vitamin C, the less you absorb, so divide up your doses if you choose to take it.
Good food sources of Vitamin C are red and green peppers, strawberries, citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes, kiwi, cantaloupe melon and potatoes. If you can’t find some of these fresh, another perfectly fine option is frozen.
Another popular supplement right now is zinc. While it may play a role in shortening the common cold, its role in COVID-19 is uncertain. Excess zinc may impair the absorption of copper and iron. While adequate zinc is necessary for our taste perception to be on target, zinc taken through the nose, as in one popular supplement, can actually cause permanent damage to one’s sense of smell – and smell is vital to our taste! Additionally, excessive zinc can actually impair immunity! Who knew !?! If you choose to supplement, don’t prolong use longer than a few days.
Better yet, look to food. We do want to have adequate zinc intake to keep immunity balanced. Seek out beef, oysters, pork, dark meat chicken, pumpkin seeds, yogurt and cashews to fill your needs on a daily basis.
Many people are loading up with Vitamin D, which may only be helpful if your levels are low. For the elderly, taking too much vitamin D may actually increase the risk of upper respiratory infection! FYI, if Vitamin D levels are low, taking vitamin A may increase the risk of complications of a viral infection. If you have gotten your vitamin D levels checked, a Registered Dietitian can advise you how much supplemental D you will need to bring levels up to normal. Additionally, other nutrients are needed as co-factors to help D to work properly, such as magnesium and Vitamin K.
The bottom line is, know what you are doing – and don’t run out and take any old supplement you read about. It may not be right for you!
Practice the known factors to balance immunity: eat a varied diet rich in fruits and vegetables; get sufficient sleep; decrease stress as much as possible; exercise and wash your hands properly and frequently. Learn which foods are the best sources of each vitamin and mineral here.
Before loading up on a bunch of random supplements, know what you are doing! Consult with a professional to learn what is right for your body. Otherwise, you might be unknowingly decreasing your immunity!