Upgrade Your Immune System
In this guest article, friend of the clinic and Nutritional Therapist James Dunham discusses the importance of your immune system in the fight against viruses and shares his top tips for upgrading your immunity for better health and wellbeing.
Taking steps to optimise your immunity.
As we continue to return to life that more closely resembles pre-lockdown, questions remain over how best to protect ourselves and the ones we love from coronavirus. Whilst the public health messages remain important, there seems to have been a lack of conversation around what else we can do for ourselves.
An analogy that fits the situation well is that when programmers come across a software virus they don’t try to eradicate the virus, they upgrade the software so it becomes harder to penetrate. Taking this approach with our immunity empowers us as individuals, rather than passing responsibility for our health to pharmaceutical companies to come up with a vaccine.
So how do we upgrade our software? To answer this it’s useful to look at data around who is suffering most from this virus; a March 2020 article in Lancet, a highly respected professional medical journal, looked at what determined the severity of COVID symptoms.1 The authors noted that along with age and being male, people with comorbidities such as obesity, type 2 diabetes (T2D), and high blood pressure fared worst. These underlying conditions have a negative effect on the immune system, which could be the key reason these individuals are worst hit.
If your immune system is already under stress from the unhealthy inflammation caused by these conditions, it has less resources to fight off a virus or infection. Think of it like an immune ‘bucket’ with a tap at the bottom. When individuals receive an immune stress, like corona virus, this causes the bucket to fill up but if the immune system is functioning properly the assault can be dealt with effectively by releasing the tap. However, if someone’s immune bucket is already full dealing with chronic inflammation, they may be unable to deal with a secondary source of immune activation, causing the bucket to spill over, manifesting as a more severe response to viral exposure.
We cannot ignore the modern epidemics of obesity, T2D and hypertension, conditions collectively known as metabolic syndrome. The prevalence of obesity and T2D is a relatively recent phenomenon. In 1996 there were 1.4 million people with diagnosed diabetes, in 2019 this had more than doubled to 3.8 million.2 This is one in fifteen people. Of these about 90% have T2D, a lifestyle induced condition.3
A recent government report stated the majority of adults in England were overweight or obese; 67% of men and 60% of women. This included 26% of men and 29% of women who were obese. Perhaps more worryingly 20% of year 6 children were classified as obese.4
Fig. 1 below shows the increase in overweight individuals and obesity in England from 1993 to 2018.
The third factor included in the metabolic syndrome condition is elevated blood pressure. Blood pressure is considered high if consistently measured above 140/90mmHg. Hypertension figures for adults in England show a similar trend, outlined in fig. 2 below.
The upward trend in these conditions is undeniable. The factors to blame for this rise are too numerous to go into detail here but a couple of factors deserve highlighting.
How best to treat underlying causes?
Conventional medicine is fantastic when it comes to acute illness or injuries but dealing with a problem by treating the symptoms does not address the underlying cause and fails to work with the body to bring it back to health.
The consumption of ultra-processed food in the developed world has skyrocketed in recent years, with one study noting ultra-processed food comprised almost 60% of energetic intake of American adults,5 with UK figures likely to be similar. Processed foods are often ‘empty calories’ offering little or no nutrients leaving individuals overfed but under nourished. Processed food can be defined as food-like substances generally consisting of at least one of three ingredients; added sugar, refined carbohydrates, and industrial seed oil.
Invariably processed foods are pro-inflammatory, cause blood sugar spikes and crashes (sweet cravings anyone?) and increase the likelihood of insulin resistance, the often- undiagnosed stage prior to type 2 diabetes.
Improving health and strengthening your immune system today
1. Replace processed foods – real, whole foods should be the cornerstone of your diet. Think what your grandma would have cooked. It is highly likely these meals will be more nutrient-dense and more satiating, meaning you are less likely to snack between meals. Be cautious with anything that comes in a packet with a list of more than five ingredients.
2. Sleep – the importance of getting sufficient sleep, which is between 7-8 hours for adults, cannot be understated. Sleep is the lifestyle factor that impacts all others. This deserves an article – or a whole series of articles! – of its own. Suffice to say insufficient sleep, not just quantity but also quality, results in higher next-day blood sugar levels, decreased will- power and increased cravings for energy-dense, refined carbohydrate foods.6 After a poor night of sleep are you more likely to go for the carrots and hummus or the crisps?! If you struggle to get to sleep (sleep onset insomnia) or struggle to stay asleep (sleep maintenance insomnia) Greg Potter PhD does a great job of setting out how to address these issues here and here.
3. Time restricted eating (TRE) – it is now becoming clear that when we eat has a significant impact on health and disease. TRE refers to eating and drinking all your daily calories within an 8 – 12 hr or less, daily window. For example, finishing your dinner by 8pm then waiting until 8am before having your first calorie containing food or drink would be a 12 hour fast, or 12:12. Small studies in humans have tested daily eating durations of 4 to 11 hours per day and found that TRE decreases blood pressure, improves blood sugar, and can help with weight, energy levels, sleep, and appetite. 7 Some benefits of TRE occurred even when people did not lose weight, suggesting that a shorter daily eating duration may improve health independently of weight loss. (TRE does not necessarily involve calorie reduction, however setting a window is also likely to result in eating less by cutting out that late-night grazing.)
4. Movement – be active, especially in the morning. If you can get outside and expose yourself to daylight not only will this help your insulin sensitivity and mental health, it will also help sync your circadian rhythm so your body receives a strong signal that the day has begun and begins the process of building sleep pressure, meaning you are more likely to sleep better that evening.
These factors are the fundamentals of good health and wellbeing.
Article author: James Dunham, Nutritional Therapist DipCNM ANP specialising in gut health and energy.
1 Diabetes UK Facts & Stats January 2019: https://www.diabetes.org.uk/resources-s3/2019- 02/1362B_Facts%20and%20stats%20Update%20Jan%202019_LOW%20RES_EXTERNAL.pdf
2 As opposed to type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition where the insulin producing cells of the pancreas stop working effectively.
3 Zhou F, Yu T, Du R, et al. Clinical Course and Risk Factors for Mortality of Adult Inpatients With COVID- 19 in Wuhan, China: A Retrospective Cohort Study. Lancet. 2020 Mar 28;395(10229):1054–1062.
4 Statistics of Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England 2020: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and- information/publications/statistical/statistics-on-obesity-physical-activity-and-diet/england- 2020/part-3-adult-obesity-copy
5 Steele E et al Ultra-processed foods and added sugars in the US diet: evidence from a nationally representative cross-sectional study British Medical Journal Vol 6, Issue 3
6 Greer S, Goldstein A & Walker M The impact of sleep deprivation on food desire in the human brain Nature Communications Vol 4, Article number: 2259 (2013)
7 Manoogian E, Chaix A and Panda S When to Eat: The Importance of Eating Patterns in Health and Disease Journal of Biological Rhythms. 2019 Dec; 34(6): 579–581.