Viruses And Your Immune System
Improve the immune system’s ability to fight off infections
With its rapid spread, there are many questions and concerns about the new Coronavirus (COVID19). How serious is it? Is it like a cold or the flu, or more dangerous? Will it mutate like the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic and return with a vengeance in the autumn? All these questions are currently impossible to answer – information changes by the hour, and we will only know when this crisis is over. Under such myriad uncertainties, we are not surprised that people get anxious and hoard toilet paper.
In a health crisis like this, when there is no cure or vaccine, it becomes more important than ever to focus on the factors we can control, including our own health. We have a responsibility to ourselves, and to others around us, to remain as healthy as possible. Dr. James Robb, an American pathologist, was one of the first molecular virologists in the world to work with corona viruses as early as the 1970s. Dr. Robb has followed the coronavirus and its multiple clinical transmissions from animals to humans (e.g. SARS, MERS). He recently advised his family and friends to take a number of steps to protect themselves. You can read his recommendations and my interview with him at the bottom of this article. Note: his advice is not endorsed by any health authority.
Since the start of the outbreak, the Coronavirus has mutated once. (Skip this paragraph if you have had enough of symptoms and statistics). The following graphic shows a comparison of different conditions and their symptoms:
While colds more often lead to sore throat, runny nose or sinus pain, the flu is more likely to cause fatigue, fever and muscle aches. COVID19 most often causes a dry cough, fever and shortness of breath.
Some COVID19 statistics from the WHO’s recent visit to China: 88% of patients have fever, 68% suffer from cough, 38% from fatigue, 14% from sore throat, 14% muscle pain and 11% chills. 80% of those with Covid19 have mild symptoms, whilst the other 20% have severe symptoms requiring hospitalization for at least two weeks. 15% require concentrated oxygen and 5% need artificial respiration. Symptoms usually appear 2-14 days after becoming infected. The available research suggests that you can be contagious before you become ill and that young children can be carriers and spread it to the elderly or those who have lowered immunity. Mortality increases with age and with chronic diseases.
As I wrote in the beginning, this article will focus on taking care of our own health. Although you cannot control your immune system, overall health is a key factor in your body’s response to viruses, such as COVID19 and other infections.
White blood cells (leukocytes) are a key part of the immune system’s response to pathogenic microbes (viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites). Many things can adversely affect the immune system, making infections harder to fight off. These include certain foods, environmental toxicants, stress, depression, latent infections, nutrition, chronic inflammation, poor intestinal health, inactivity and poor sleep.
Let’s say that your immune system must react daily to foods that your body cannot tolerate. After some time, or several years, this can lead to decrease in the activity of the immune cells and the immune system as a whole, which then becomes less effective at fighting off infections. During my 15 years in practice this is something I have often witnessed in clinics. Many clients with chronic health conditions/symptoms or autoimmune disease have a low leukocyte count. 4-9 months after changing dietary and lifestyle factors, the leucocyte count returns to normal while chronic symptoms disappear or are alleviated.
Microbes have been around for billions of years and have helped shape the development of this planet and even us as a species – they are the ultimate survivors and masters of evolution. Fungi, bacteria and viruses are opportunistic, meaning that if the immune system is compromised, they take the opportunity to multiply. Many people, especially those with chronic symptoms, have latent infections. These can show up when you are hit with a cold or the flu, get sun burned or have an intense period of stress since the immune system is busy taking care of the acute infection or other stressors. For instance, people with latent herpes infection might get a cold sore on the lip.
How can we take greater responsibility for our own health?
What follows is a set of tips that can improve your general health, making it easier to fight off infections. The below points do not necessarily appear in order of priority. This is intended as general advice and not intended to replace any medical care. For instance, diet, exercise and sleep are very important for my well being, whereas stress may be a bigger factor for you. In our clinic we find that interventions take at least 3-4 months to take effect and that everyone who properly implements our personalised advice sees improvements in their health.
Göran Burenhult, a Swedish professor in archeology, explains that we are evolved and biologically adapted to eat traditional foods and that our processed modern diet increases our risk of chronic disease. Every time you eat something that you do not tolerate, the immune system reacts. The result is inflammation, which is a very effective first defense strategy against invading triggers or acute infections. Chronic immune activation and inflammation, on the other hand, leads to health disorders.
We advise our clients to follow a modified Mediterranean diet, which contains many important nutrients (fiber, carbohydrates, proteins and fats). We advise getting at least 50% of your daily food intake from vegetables, fruits and berries which colors contain beneficial vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and thousands of phytochemicals, and promote a healthy intestinal flora. The rest of the plate includes healthy fats (avocado, olive oil, nuts and seeds), some gluten-free grains, starchy foods (squash, pumpkin and root vegetables) and bioavailable, quality protein such as Swedish grass-fed beef, game, bird, fish and seafood. Offal (e.g. liver, heart) is extremely nutritious and contains significantly more bioavailable iron than meat or vegetarian sources.
Foods that we ask our clients to avoid or minimise include industrial/processed meat, chips, fries, processed sugary foods/drinks, refined carbohydrates and excess alcohol. Many of our clients react to cereals and grains (even if gluten-free) and are asked to reduce these as well. It is important to drink enough fluid; an adult can aim for about 1.5 liters. Other healthy drinks are bone broth, herb/fruit tea, green juices and smoothies. Be cautious with caffeinated drinks and limit coffee to 2 cups per day.
Toxicants and pollution
We all know that excess exposure to toxicants, heavy metals and pollution isn’t good for us, but living on this planet makes exposure unavoidable. The upper limit for humans is set by exposing lab animals to a certain dose, but what happens if we are exposed to these doses from multiple sources? Toxicants and heavy metals can accumulate in bodily tissues and the brain. An excess affects all bodily systems and may lead to disease. We advise our clients to consider their exposure and reduce it where possible. Organic household-, skincare products and food are quite easy to find nowadays.
Stress, rest and recovery
My favourite lecture at the IFM last year was by the American doctor Robert Sapolsky. Dr Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neuroendocrinology and his lecture was about how our immune, nervous and hormone systems are jointly affected by chronic long-term stress. Stress can be psychological or physical. It could be a work deadline, unemployment, a bad relationship, poor finances or grief.
As a nutritional therapist, I also look at these non-obvious stress factors as well as excess calories, latent infections, nutritional deficiencies, gut problems, excess heavy metals, sleep problems, lack of social contact, too much – or too little – exercise, lack of rest or recovery. I ask my clients if they have time for a hobby. Are they passionate about something?
It is very important to aim for a balance between work and personal life, responsibility and pleasure. Living a meaningful life that gives you joy and happiness also helps you to make positive choices. Sometimes you need to detox from diet, friends, social media or your job and surround yourself with people that make you feel good. Try practising daily gratitude. Chew your food slowly and carefully. Listen to calming music, get out into nature. Have fun, laugh a lot.
Food Pharmacy recently interviewed me and published an article about sleep and the immune system. Since sleep is so critical to a healthy immune system, I urge you to read that interview here.
Many nutrients can help to support the immune system. The International Society for Immunonutrition just published a position statement advising the elderly to increase their intake of vitamin E, Zinc, vitamin C and vitamin D particularly for those with low serum vitamin D. These nutrients have been shown to enhance T cell and B cell (antibody) immunity in human studies. I agree and would say that anyone suffering from chronic symptoms would benefit from taking this.
Whilst I cannot give specific advice in an article like this, if you would like some personalised advice or to test your nutrient status, my contact details are at the bottom of the article.
Dr. Robb’s recommendations to his friends and family
1. Don’t shake hands! Bro fist, click together your heels or greet in any other way.
2. Wash your hands carefully and frequently for at least 20 seconds. Teach your children to wash their hands for as long as it takes to sing Happy Birthday twice.
3. Do not touch public handles, light switches, rails in subways, or any other surface that many people touch. If you think about it the mobile phone is a real little dirty pig and so is the keyboard.
4. Wipe surfaces with disinfectant wipes and carry them with you in the car and in your bag.
5. Sneeze and cough into a napkin that you immediately discard.
A few other things that make common sense
- Keep a distance (at least one meter) from those who appear sick and cough/sneeze.
- Your hands touch everything and it’s so easy to infect oneself so be mindful not to put your fingers in your nose, mouth and eyes. Apparently most of us touch our faces at least 20 times per hour….
- If you are really worried and feel sick: Call your healthcare provider
Interview with Doctor Robert Rountree, Colorado.
Maria: Please tell me about yourself
Dr Rountree: I’ve been in clinical practice of family medicine for over 37 years and have extensive experience treating a wide range of immune-related disorders as well as acute and chronic infections. I’ve been lecturing at the IFM on the pathophysiology of inflammation for over 20 years. A little more than ten years ago I became the course director and core faculty for IFM’s Advanced Practice Module in Immunology and immune-related disorders, an annual course which has given me an opportunity to take a deep dive into how the immune system functions. I am also the Chief Medical Officer at Thorne Research and the author of several books.
Maria: You have been my mentor and a good friend for several years, ever since I attended my first IFM seminar 10 years ago. You are a wealth of information and have the added benefit of being a normal/conventional medical doctor and an expert in functional medicine. I think it was the combination of these two fields that prompted me to interview you. There is such conflicting information regarding the coronavirus. How do you interpret the current situation?
Dr Rountree: The biggest issue is that we haven’t had the capability of testing the entire population, so we really have no idea how many asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic cases are out there. The number of formally diagnosed cases are probably just the tip of the iceberg. That is both good news and bad. The bad news is that this virus may be impossible to contain because it is spreading faster and wider than we suspected. That means it is going to develop worldwide no matter what we do. The good news is that it only tends to cause serious harm in a relatively small number of the people that become infected.
Maria: How do you think this virus is different to any other ‘’normal’’ virus and ”why the big fuzz”? It feels like the media hype it more when there’s a ‘’real name’’ to it compared to ”the normal flu”.
Dr Rountree: One of the main differences between this virus and the flu is that the SARS-associated coronavirus appears to be completely new, meaning that it has molecular structures that are unfamiliar to our immune systems. That means it can infect us and start multiplying before our immune systems can adequately respond. For most otherwise healthy people, their immunity does eventually kick in and eliminate the virus, but for a person with impaired or dysfunctional immunity, they can have an inappropriate response that leads to life-threatening pneumonia. The big mystery is why the virus doesn’t seem to have a significant impact on kids. Is it simply that kids have a more robust initial immune response that keeps the virus from taking over?
Maria: What is your most important advice in terms of boosting your body?
Dr Rountree: Since at least 75-80% of people don’t appear to develop severe disease, that implies that it is possible to mount a healthy immune response even to a “new” pathogen. We know that a healthy immune response results from basic healthy lifestyle practices such as eating a healthy diet, avoiding sugar as well as refined and processed foods, minimizing alcohol, getting plenty of sleep, stress management, and getting fresh air, sunshine, and regular doses of the natural world (walking in the woods or by the ocean).
Maria: How are you personally preparing yourself? Would you avoid doing anything and what would you definitely do?
Dr Rountree: I’m staying at home more and getting extra rest! As you know I have a cabin up in the Colorado mountains and I love to spend time there. A lot of my travel plans (for speaking at upcoming conferences) have been cancelled, which is probably a blessing in disguise.
I’m also taking a few immune supportive supplements, including a probiotic, vitamin A and D, zinc, N-acetylcysteine, yeast beta glucan, olive leaf extract and elderberry extract.
If you’d like to get in contact with me you can email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a guest post. Any opinions expressed are the writer’s own.