(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Oct 4th, 2012)
Anyone following the BCO facebook feed (follow the link on the top left) may have picked up on the fact that last week I was off with a little cold. I’m all better now, but it just serves as a reminder that the seasons are changing and cold and flu season is just around the corner. Now is the time to batten down the hatches and bolster up our natural defenses against the onslaught of viruses and bacteria. As a baseline, we need good nutrition and a metabolism running at full capacity (yes, it always comes back to diet and exercise people) but there is a lot more than that we can do.
Let’s take a step back and talk about what actually happens in our bodies when we get sick. When a virus or bacteria gets into our bodies, it is recognized as foreign and multiple things are triggered from this. First of all, antibodies are produced to spread around the body and cover the invader and tag it for destruction. As well, a process called “chemotaxis” starts, which is a wave of chemical signals that attract cells of the immune system to the site of the foreign invader. These cells then do their magic and fight the infection. This ranges engulfing the virus or bacteria to digest it to cleaning up the waste from damaged cells and even killing cells that have become infected. At the same time, chemical signals are causing swelling, increased blood flow, and inflammation (which is appropriate in this situation).
That is the absolute basics of immunology and this is where we can have an effect. By knowing the chemical reactions that make up the mechanisms of the immune system we can influence these activities through our actions.
Boosting Immune Function
There are many ways that we can boost the function of the immune system so that it may perform better and provide better protection. B vitamins are the most commonly used nutrient in the inner workings of our cells. They help multiple chemical reactions happen for the cells to function. Supplementation with B vitamins will stimulate cellular function throughout the body, but more importantly in this scenario, they will improve function of the cells of our immune system.
Zinc is specifically used by the immune cells in the release of signal molecules during chemotaxis. Use of zinc as a supplement should be limited though, because it has a very low toxicity dosage (40mg). Eating good sources of zinc is a better way to take it in than supplementation, including seafood and meat, seaweed, legumes, and cereal grains. This increase in signal molecules increases the draw of immune cells to the area, creating a bigger response.
Do you know why our mothers always said that Chicken Soup was great for a cold? Well, the idea came around when soups were still made at home and not out of a can. Chicken broth came from boiling the bones of a chicken and leaching the flavour out of them. Along with the flavour came all the nutrients and minerals in the bones and their marrow. It’s not common knowledge, but our immune cells are produced from our bone marrow, meaning that when you have a real bone broth, we are providing the exact nutrient mixture our bones and the marrow require. Research has shown that bone broth does, in fact, stimulate immune cell production and maturation (development from a common cell into the different types of immune cells).
Along the same lines, T-cells (the ones responsible for recognising foreign viruses and bacteria and triggering the correct immune response) have been shown to increase in number with moderate levels of exercise. 20 minutes of walking will increase T-cell levels in the body for a brief period. This period last longer and longer the more regular the exercise is. So a 20 minute walk daily will pretty much have T-cell levels up all the time, making colds and the flu more likely to get squashed before they have the chance to take root.
Aiding Immune Function
When we are sick, the rest of the body does not sit idly by while the immune system does all the work. The liver processes excess waste, the kidneys filter out unwanted chemicals, and our blood vessels contract and dilate to push blood and nutrients where they are needed. The best way to improve these functions is exercise. Moderate exercise several times a week, if not every day, will stimulate both the liver and kidneys and, as we all know, will improve function of the heart. This will prime our bodies to fight off any invaders.
We can also look outside our bodies for ways to aid our immune systems. Foods like honey and garlic have been found to have mild antibacterial properties. Oil of oregano has similar effects but to a much greater degree.
Cleaning up after the Immune System
The majority of the symptoms of a cold or flu are not actually from the foreign invaders but from the collateral damage caused by our own immune system. Cells are destroyed to make sure the infection is contained causing sore throats and aches and pains across the body. To take care of this we need to help our bodies clean up after the immune system and to make sure things don’t get out of hand. This is where our antioxidants and anti-inflammatory supplements come into play. The antioxidants, like Vitamin A, C, and E, and the phytochemicals from dark berries and green tea, play an important role in repairing damage from the battle and helping us recover and be flat on our back for less time.
Anti-inflammatory foods help to contain the immune system. This may sound counter-intuitive after everything I’ve said before but the immune system is like the Incredible Hulk. Something comes along and triggers it and, “IMMUNE SYSTEM SMASH!” Before you know it the trigger is long gone but so is half of New York City along with it. This is why it is important to contain the reaction to only what is needed. Also, by the time we feel the symptoms of a cold the immune system is usually in full swing already. Eating anti-inflammatory foods at this point will not hurt our chances of fighting the virus or bacteria but it will decrease the amount of clean up needed at the end. Foods like healthy fatty fish, avocado, pineapple, turmeric, ginger, green tea, ginseng, and most dark green veggies are all great for reducing inflammation.
Here’s my routine when I come down with something. Every morning I take a B100 Complex (all the B Vitamins in 100% of their RDAs), a 25mg Zinc, and a Bromelain (the anti-inflammatory protein from pineapple) pill. I give myself a constant stream of tea made from honey (for the antibacterial properties), lemon and/or lime (for loads of Vitamin C), and fresh ginger (anti-inflammatory and great for anti-nausea too) early on and then when the symptoms begin to die off I switch to green tea. As well, I avoid sugars, which are highly inflammatory and food for the bacteria, like the plague. I also get adjusted regularly which helps to relieve the aches and pains as well as stimulate the immune system (that story for another time. It’s called the neuroendocrine connection for any interested parties) and I get acupuncture.
So I encourage you to stay as healthy as possible with diet and exercise but also not to give up and let a cold take over your life. Fight it off those invaders and get back on your feet. Drugs that cover up the symptoms may help you through your day but are not actually helping you win the battle going on inside your body. Take your vitamins and you’ll be back on your feet in no time.
Thanks for reading,