One of the biggest things that can work against us when it comes to mounting a strong immune defense is increased inflammation. When your immune system is working to kill a bacteria or a virus – the immune cells themselves creates inflammatory substances. That’s part of how they fight the bugs. If your body is already under metabolic stress (due to unhealthy diet, being overweight or having a condition like heart disease or diabetes), the continued inflammation signaling from the immune cells can lead to metaflammation and inflammageing.
Balancing your immune system the healthy way
Poor nutrition is associated with inflammation and oxidative stress, which in turn can also impact the immune system. Adding nutrients with especially high anti-inflammatory and antioxidant capacity include vitamin C, vitamin E, and phytochemicals such as carotenoids and polyphenols can help control inflammation (1). Anything that causes chronic inflammation impairs our immune response and anything that prevents or fights inflammation helps it. This is why lifestyle choices like managing our weight, eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity and adequate sleep are so important. Many of us struggle to accomplish healthier diets and overall health oriented lifestyles, and this is where supplemental support can help.
Nutrients to the Rescue
There are nutrients that are safe to take on an ongoing basis to support your immune system function. Vitamin C helps the body make white blood cells as needed. Quercetin is a polyphenol derived from plants that has good anti-inflammatory activity. So, it supports healthy immunity by helping to control silent internal inflammation. Zinc is a trace mineral, meaning that the body only needs small amounts, and yet it is necessary for almost 100 enzymes to carry out vital chemical reactions. It is a major player in healing damaged tissue, and supporting a healthy immune system (2). Daily-recommended intake of zinc is 8 mg for women, and 11 mg/day for men (3) Supplementation with doses of zinc in excess of the UL is effective to reduce the duration of common cold symptoms. The use of zinc at daily doses of 50 to 180 mg for one to two weeks has not resulted in serious side effects. However, it is important to go back to the daily-recommended intake once you are better because over-intake of zinc can cause micronutrient imbalances and very high dosages can actually have an inhibitory effect on the immune system.
These Boosters Help Immune Response
There are some ingredients that directly stimulate increased immune cell production. A well-known one is the herb Echinacea, which has long been used to help people get over colds and flu bugs. Echinacea is one of the most popular herbs in America and is a Native American medicinal plant named for the prickly scales in its large conical seed head, which resembles the spines of an angry hedgehog (echinos is Greek for hedgehog). Archaeologists have found evidence that Native Americans may have used echinacea for more than 400 years to treat infections and wounds, and as a general “cure-all.”
It is most helpful when taken at the first sign of a cold or flu. However, you should only use echinacea when you are actively fighting a bug, because over stimulating an immune response by taking immune stimulant daily can end up fighting against the immune system over time. A few echinacea constituents that you’re probably familiar with are essential oils, flavonoids, inulin, polysaccharides and vitamin C. Also, echinacea is part of the daisy family, so anyone with hay fever or ragweed allergies should not use it (4).
Another popular home cures for colds is garlic. Many cultures have a home remedy for the cold using garlic, whether it’s chicken soup with lots of garlic, a drink made with raw crushed garlic, or if it just involves eating raw garlic. A 2001 study of 146 people did find that taking garlic from November through February decreased reports of cold-type infections. In the garlic group, there were 24 reports vs. 65 in the placebo group (5). Garlic is a food, of course, so overall it tends to be safe. Some experts say don’t overdo it if you are taking blood thinners, though.
Remember to Modulate with Care
This brings me to an often-overlooked but important topic for a vigilant immune response to cold and flu bugs – immune modulation. Many people have conditions that create an imbalance immune system, which is made up of two main sides: TH1 and TH2 immunity. TH1, also known as innate immunity, is the side that fights bacteria, viruses, damaged cells and cancer cells. You need to be able to upregulate TH1 immunity quickly when you are exposed to a cold or flu bug. TH2, also known as acquired immunity, is the side that makes antibodies and causes allergic responses to food and environmental allergens like dust and pollen. This side gets upregulated in people who have allergies, food sensitivities and some autoimmune conditions. It can also get upregulated in response to chronic stress, even ongoing physical stress such as occurs in overtraining. Overtraining is most common in professional or amateur athletes, but can occur in anyone who exercises too much, i.e. 2 – 4 hours a day. Signs of overtraining are noticing you take longer to recover from exercise, mood changes, difficulty sleeping at night and getting sick more often. While it is important to get regular physical activity – moderate activity is best. Try to get at least 30 minutes of activity five days a week and work your way up to an hour, five days a week.
One of the most important supplements I teach about and recommend in my practice is Moducare. Studies show it helps restore balance to between TH2 and TH1 immunity, and by helping to down regulate overactive TH2 immunity, the TH1 side improves so you are ready for colds and flu when you are exposed. So it is one of the best supplements for people to take when they have allergies or autoimmunity. I also recommend it for people who have chronic stress, because chronic stress elevates cortisol, and cortisol suppresses immunity. This is why it is common to come down with a cold or flu when you have been under a lot of stress. It is also why people who have been under stress for years are at increased risk for getting cancer.
Moducare is a blend of plant-based compounds known as plant sterols and sterolins, combined in a very specific 100:1 ratio. Research has shown that the blend of sterols and sterolins in this specific ratio exhibit the best immune balancing activity. One study showed that marathon runners who took Moducare did not get the same immune deficits or cortisol spikes as people who did not take it (6), resulting in less post event upper respiratory infections for those runners taking Moducare. Because Moducare controls overactive TH2 immunity, this also results in decreased inflammation.
Don’t Forget the “D”
Vitamin D is another key nutrient to make sure you are getting enough of for a healthy and balanced immune system. Vitamin D levels in the range of 30 – 50 ng/mL is considered an adequate level. Vitamin D can modulate the innate and adaptive immune responses. Deficiency in vitamin D is associated with increased autoimmunity as well as an increased susceptibility to infection (7). Vitamin D is also an immune modulator and this is why it is also a great nutrient for immune support. There have been multiple cross-sectional studies associating lower levels of vitamin D with increased infection. Vitamin D levels fluctuate over the year. Although rates of seasonal infections varied, and were lowest in the summer and highest in the winter, the association of lower serum vitamin D levels and infection held during each season.
The End All Be All: Our Immunity
Immune support is probably more involved than you realized, but there is a lot we can do to be smarter in the steps we take. Not only do we need daily good health practices, we can supplement with nutrients and specialized ingredients to support the maintenance of immune cells and immune system balance, and it may well be the single most important thing you can do for your healthy longevity. In turn, when your immune system gets out of balance, it can affect inflammation, mood, and your overall energy, so knowing how to take care of our immune system truly can have a positive impact on your daily life. It certainly pays to be smart about taking care of ourselves with an eye on our immune system.
(1) Strengthening the Immune System and Reducing Inflammation and Oxidative Stress through Diet and Nutrition: Considerations during the COVID-19 Crisis
(2) The Nutrition Source
(3) Linus Pauling Institute » Micronutrient Information Center
(4) Echinacea: Purported Benefits, Side Effects & More
(5) Preventing the common cold with a garlic supplement: A double-blind, placebo-controlled survey
(6) The effects of B-sitosterol (BSS) and B-sitosterol glucoside (BSSG) mixture on selected immune parameters of marathon runners: inhibition of post marathon immune suppression and inflammation
(7) Vitamin D and the Immune System
Bio: James B. LaValle, R.Ph., CCN, is an internationally recognized clinical pharmacist, author, board certified clinical nutritionist and naturopathic doctorate with more than 35 years of clinical experience. In addition to his LaValle Metabolix Practice he works with players and teams from the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL and is the Clinical Director of the Hall of Fame Health and Performance Program. He is best known for his expertise in metabolic and integrative medicine, with an extensive background in natural products, lifestyle drug/nutrient depletion and uncovering the underlying metabolic issues that keep people from feeling healthy and vital. LaValle is an appointed faculty member and course educator for the Integrative Medicine postgraduate program at George Washington University School of health sciences. He is author of more than 20 books including, “Cracking the Metabolic Code,” and serves as a scientific adviser for Probiotics.com.