The world has turned into a giant petri dish for brewing potential pathogens that can wreak havoc on our health, productivity and wellbeing. With increased travel, both bacterial and viral infections can spread far and wide in a short period of time. Mass production of food brings infectious agents, animals and humans closer to each other, creating the conditions for an infection crossing the species barrier (so-called zoonotic diseases). Globally integrated logistics of food, goods and people adds a vector through which germs can spread from one country or continent to another at record speed.
However, we have now available more information than ever, the science progresses faster than ever and solutions to new problems arise almost as quickly as the problems in the first place. This article covers the best methods for you to fortify your immune system acutely and in the long-term.
Important micronutrients to support the immune system
People who are malnourished are more vulnerable to infections and sickness because their immune system lacks the resources to function properly. Correcting nutrient deficiencies is a useful strategy. Nutrition intervention in cases of vitamin D, zinc, iron and vitamin A, for example, have been shown to improve efficacy of preventing and treating pneumonia.
Vitamin D is central to the body’s immune system. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with increased risk and prevalence for infections in multiple studies. In one study among 19 000 subjects, people with lower vitamin D levels were more likely to suffer from upper respiratory tract infections. Several systematic reviews of daily vitamin D supplementation have shown it to be protective against respiratory tract infections (RTIs).
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Vitamin C is an antioxidant that animals produce in response to stress. Humans have lost that ability during our evolution and have to obtain it from diet. Vitamin C helps to recycle oxidized glutathione back into active glutathione. Based on a large meta-analysis, regular intake of vitamin C has not been shown to prevent colds but it can shorten the duration of colds (by 8 % in adults and 14 % in children) with slightly less severe symptoms. Athletes who take vitamin C regularly are half as likely to catch a cold as athletes who don’t.
In humans, zinc is required for the function of more than 300 enzymes and more than 1 000 transcription factors (proteins that regulate the function of genes). Zinc is important for hormone production and immunity. It is also known for fighting against infections. Low zinc status in the body can cause gastrointestinal problems and increase the risk for pneumonia.
Zinc acetate and zinc gluconate lozenges have been shown to inhibit cold viruses from latching onto the cells and shorten the duration of the flu. Lozenges are beneficial only in the early stages of infection. The optimal dose according to studies is 75–90 mg per day divided into multiple doses given 2–3 hours apart. Best results are gained when started within 24 hours of the first symptoms.
Learn more about the topic from the Biohacker’s Flu Guide here.
Next line of defense to fortify your antioxidant system
Selenium is an essential mineral that is a cofactor in glutathione production. It is also important for hormonal balance, antioxidant defense redox signaling, and redox homeostasis (balancing the oxidative stress in the body). Viral infections frequently produce a higher number of reactive oxygen species (ROS). When overwhelming the antioxidant defense system, the excess production of ROS induces oxidative stress. ROS in turn can enhance viral replication.
Viral infection then increases the need for certain micronutrients such as selenium in the antioxidant defense. Selenium deficiency has been linked to pathogenicity of several viruses and lower survival from pneumonia due to influenza.
Glutathione is the body’s main antioxidant defense mechanism produced in the liver. It protects against free radicals and helps to eliminate lipid peroxides as well as toxins. This is by far more powerful than antioxidant supplements or vitamins because the body will self-regulate glutathione’s role in the immune system.
One way to increase glutathione levels is by eating sulfur-rich foods like eggs, beef and dark leafy greens. Cruciferous vegetables, like broccoli and cauliflower, are also beneficial sources of sulfur.
If your antioxidant defense system clearly needs help and your gut may not be in the best condition, then using liposomal glutathione is the best option.
L-glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the bloodstream and accounts for 30–35 % of the nitrogen content of amino acids in the blood. The body is able to synthesize glutamine itself, but glutamine is also needed in the diet, especially in high-activity individuals, chronically stressed, and those with many different medical conditions.
Glutamine is used by various immune system cells and is required to support optimal lymphocyte proliferation and production of cytokines by lymphocytes and macrophages. Glutamine can help repair leaky gut and hence improve also the immune system function.
Many studies have demonstrated the antiviral activity of lactoferrin against viral pathogens that cause common infections. Lactoferrin consumption may protect the host from viral infections through inhibiting the attachment of a virus to the cells, replication of the virus in the cells and enhancement of systemic immune functions.
Lactoferrin-derived peptides are being researched as potent therapeutic inhibitors of influenza virus infections.
The best way to protect yourself from new pathogens comes through balancing the basic elements of your life: sound sleep, diverse whole-food diet, adequate exercise and movement, proper stress management and recovery, reduced alcohol and cigarette use, positive outlook on life and fixing possible nutritional deficiencies. In times of an epidemic, it is a great excuse to change your lifestyle. A well-functioning immune system is a reflection of the total state of health of the body.
Best recommendations for supplements, nutrients and technological tools for protecting your immune system and attacking pathogens are found in the Biohacker Shop.