- and a little bit about Covid
A healthy immune system is both a detective, scanning the body for potentially threatening invaders, and a first responder, challenging pathogens and killing them off. It’s the gatekeeper for coordinating the body’s entire health and function.
Then along comes getting older, a natural process unique to every one of us. But one thing’s for sure – the efficiency of the human immune system changes as we age whether we like it or not. In infancy, the immune system is dependent on maternal antibodies that our mother gives us, through the birthing process (cesarian births won't provide any) and breast-feeding. As we grow older the natural immune responses mature and as immune memory is accumulated, i.e. against viral strains, it grows stronger. But then it declines - sometimes rapidly - as we age onwards.
Okay, hands in the air – I’m 62, and while I like to think my diet's super-healthy and reasonably fit, I’m still 62, and whether I like it or not, my body’s making me all too aware that it’s responding to that fact. I for one want (- need! I’ve got 5 horses to stay fit for!) to stay healthy into my older years, and while many of us will, others may experience alterations in the immune system which can trigger many age-related diseases. It’s that ‘inflammage’ thing - chronic low-grade inflammation making us more susceptible to type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and dementia. It also plays a leading role in certain autoimmune conditions that are more common in older adults, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
The impact of aging on the immune system still remains relatively unresearched in the medical community, although science is now progressing , especially with the onset of Covid. Studies are suggesting that older individuals (60 years and above) may exhibit chronic, low-grade inflammation, even in the absence of pathogens, with the prediction of earlier mortality. Inflammaging is thought to be a result of multiple mechanisms, and right up there as a major factor behind it all is a less-than-healthy diet, leading to a compromised gut barrier function, the source behind auto-immune syndrome, and the deterioration of the all-important immune-cell army.
As you can imagine, the connection between Covid and older adults is under intense study. Because the elderly tend to experience more inflammation in general than younger individuals, this may contribute to the greater morbidity and mortality among this group from Covid, with research suggesting that Covid patients aged 80 or older are hundreds of times more likely to die than those under 40. In the UK alone, over 90% of the Covid-related deaths have been in people over 60.
This may be due, in part, to underlying conditions like diabetes and obesity, but some scientists suggest another driver of increased disease risk may be inflammation and the aging immune system, with severe Covid showing inflammation in the respiratory tract.
A significant amount of evidence suggests that exercise has a profound effect on the functioning of the immune system. In 2018, researchers found that a high-intensity interval walking protocol in older adults with stable rheumatoid arthritis was followed by an improvement of oxidative burst and bacterial infection clearance. It was also associated with reduced disease activity, improved cardiovascular fitness and improved natural immune functions. Not unsurprisingly, study results show that increasing physical activity enhances natural immunity, which reduces infection and inflammatory risk.
Focusing on nutrition to improve immunity in older adults has also led to decreased inflammation, with a combined exercise/nutrition programme showing anti-inflammatory responses. Combating metabolic inflammation means a diet rich in fibre and cutting back on the carbs. Taking probiotics are also useful therapeutic agents, as they help sustain the beneficial gut microflora population – this is important as it’s these friendly flora that create the immune cells.
Finally, let’s not forget the dark cloud that is stress, which is a whole other subject in itself. Chronic stress release a buffet of hormones which shut down many integral functions of the body when it hits survival mode, so getting help to manage mental health stressors is crucial. Then there are environmental stressors – chemicals in the air, food toxins (glyphosate), radiation from mobile phones etc etc etc., with gazillions of studies showing that environmental stressors induce negative changes in the immune system, wreaking dysfunctional havoc in our much needed immune response.
Yes, I take supplements as part of my early morning routine, so here’s a few of my favourites that I use to boost my immune system.
1. One that I would absolutely never be without is NAC – N Acetyl Cysteine. It’s the precursor to glutathione, which is the body’s natural master antixodant. It does two interesting things – it activates immune cells so they’re more effective in fighting off infection, but it also regulates immune cells so they’re less likely to contribute to an autoimmune response. It’s inexpensive and widely available.
2. No. 2 is without question a good probiotic, but make sure you get one that’s shown to be stable to survive stomach acid and pass through to the small intestine. A good probiotic has certain organisms that suppress the unhealthy gut microbes and promote the health of the beneficial microbes, which in turn multiply and increase their population. The more beneficial microbes there are, the more effective the immune system will be.
3. Curcumin – but there’s curcumin and there’s curcumin. Always opt for Curcumin Phytosome as it’s very well absorbed with over 20-studies showing it’s a good anti-inflammatory and immunomodulator.
4. Finally, medicinal mushrooms! I love them – I add them to my one and only morning coffee - no you can't taste them! - along with my collagen peptides, but you can also stir them into soups, sauces, you name it. They prime the immune system to keep it on its toes, so to speak, so the immune system is ready to respond when major infection strikes.