Living in New York City, the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is easy to not see any light at the end of the tunnel. Life won’t be what it used to be for a very long time—or maybe ever. Most New Yorkers know someone personally who lost their life to the virus and many others who got infected, developed mild to moderate symptoms, or barely escaped and struggle to recover their health.
Physicians and researchers have neither found a treatment nor a vaccine to prevent infection, though some pharmaceutical drugs used off label have shortened the course of the disease in some patients somewhat. A few promising vaccine candidates are in accelerated clinical trials. Like me, you are probably awaiting the approval and availability of effective vaccines with impatience.
There’s more to COVID-19 than the virus
While we’re waiting, I want to share some encouraging information with you. Much of the preliminary data show that certain groups are at higher risk for a severe outcome of SARS-CoV-2 infection. High on this list are the elderly, followed by people with chronic conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity. What these groups have in common is that they usually also have an immune system that is not functioning optimally. (Men also appear to have a higher mortality rate than women, which seems to be more closely correlated to lifestyle factors than genetics.)
In my last article I described strategies in Chinese medicine that showed considerable promise in the prevention, treatment of and recovery from coronavirus infection. Here, I want to focus on a preventive strategy that can benefit everyone.
The interaction of our immune system and pathogens
Our immune system is a very complex and highly effective defense mechanism that allows us to survive in an environment replete with substances and organisms that have the potential to harm us. Every living being, including all flora and fauna, has an immune system. A compromised immune system that isn’t functioning optimally sets us up for a wide range of diseases, including infections and cancer, and can cause us to die prematurely.
Optimal functioning of our immune system depends on more than ten different spheres, including barrier functions, hygiene, microbiota, exposure to toxic chemicals and allergens, inflammatory triggers, stress and associated immune suppression, detoxification, cellular energy production, availability of nutrients needed for immune function, etc. Some of these spheres are influenced by our genetics, some by environmental factors, some by mental-emotional states. Just look at the fascinating research on so-called forest bathing and its effect on immune markers. Also consider that, according to multiple research studies and recent reviews, approx. 9 million deaths per year (16% of all deaths worldwide) were attributed to air, water, and soil pollution alone.
Focus on lifestyle medicine
You could easily write a whole book about each one of these areas affecting immune functioning, but it would take up too much of our precious time to sift through all this information here, so I will try to focus on the most relevant ideas and strategies. This is what lifestyle medicine is all about.
If you are already faced with one of the chronic conditions mentioned above, now is a good time to start working with a functional or naturopathic medicine practitioner. Together, we will identify lifestyle modifications that allow you to gradually get a better handle on these conditions. How to do this will vary from person to person.
Everyone benefits from a competent immune system
But even if you believe that you are in overall good health, it’s worth thinking about these different spheres affecting your immunity because we all can easily find room for improvement. The most obvious area deserving your attention is stress management and your quality of sleep. There is voluminous evidence that stress and sleep deprivation profoundly affect and suppress your immune system. If you don’t do anything else, this is where you can reap benefits almost over night.
You are what you eat, literally! So, committing to eating high-quality food at all times is the second most important strategy to support immune resilience. Convenience foods are out and organic, home-cooked meals are in. Learning more about ancestral diets will help you understand what foods promote human health and why. You don’t need a degree in nutrition to get started, but learning more about the power of foods is a wise investment of your time. A few inspiring cook books can help you, too.
Most of our immune system actually resides in our gut. That’s why our digestive system deserves so much respect. Most diseases in other parts of the body have a connection to gut health as well, which is why healing gut imbalances is always a good place to start healing everything else. Depending on the seriousness of your gut issues you may need to detoxify, rebalance your microbiota, and heal your epithelium. Probiotics, enzymes, and other nutrients can be appropriate in certain stages. Equally important is what’s coming out at the other end. Efficient elimination is an indication of your body’s ability to detoxify.
Botanicals and nutraceuticals provide additional support
Once you are considering botanicals and nutraceuticals to help your body heal and your immune system develop enhanced resilience, it pays to consult a healthcare professional experienced in using these options therapeutically. Most conventionally trained physicians did not receive any education in nutrition and natural medicine. Vitamin C is crucial, but there are many other phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that are needed for certain steps in our immune response.
Assessing immune resilience
One indicator of good functioning of your mucosal barrier tissues is secretory immunoglobulin A (sIgA), which has been shown to be more abundant in people with higher immune resilience and ability to fight off respiratory infections. It’s possible we will start seeing more interest in testing sIgA levels to assess how susceptible we may be to viral infections such as COVID-19.
Let’s not sit on our hands waiting for a coronavirus vaccine or cure and do what we can to support and improve the health of our immune system with natural strategies. Along with reducing exposure as best we can, boosting immune resilience is now the smartest approach for each of us to keep COVID-19 at bay.
© 2020 Christiane Siebert