The immune system is vital to healthy living. On a given day, we encounter myriad microorganisms that may be harmful to the body. Certain molecules found everywhere, such as free radicals, can also have a negative impact on health and lead to various infections and ailments. The immune system works to keep these microscopic invaders at bay, through many general and specific functions that combine to keep us healthy, so keeping the immune system in top shape is key to a more enjoyable life. Some common problems such as lack of sleep, stress and insufficient nutrition can weaken the immune system, leaving our body more vulnerable to infection. An overactive immune system can also be dangerous, and many immune functions involve regulating immune response. From scientific studies, we know that nutritional support is one way to make sure the immune system gets the nutrients essential to arming its defensive role.
- Nutrition and immunity
To protect the body, the immune system needs regular nourishment. Scientists have long recognized that people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases. An easy way to provide essential nutrients for the immune system is to take a daily multivitamin and mineral supplement. Unfortunately, taking large doses of a single vitamin might not necessarily be better. Researchers are currently investigating the immune boosting potential of a number of nutrients, including vitamins, minerals and other nutraceuticals such as phytonutrients. Some of them are worth mentioning here.
- Vitamin A: Experts have long known that vitamin A plays a role in warding off infection. Vitamin A deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease.
- Vitamin B6: Several studies have suggested that vitamin B6 deficiency can depress various types of immune response. Supplementing your diet with moderate doses can restore immune function, but higher doses don’t produce any additional benefits.
- Vitamin C: A good and inexpensive antioxidant for many years, vitamin C is, of course, helpful at boosting the immune system. However, vitamin C works better in concert with other micronutrients than on its own.
- Vitamin D: For many years, doctors have known that people afflicted with tuberculosis respond well to sunlight. An explanation may now be available. Researchers have found that vitamin D, produced by the skin when exposed to sunlight, signals an antimicrobial response to the bacterium responsible for tuberculosis, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Other studies have determined that vitamin D in the body enhances the capabilities of the immune system.
- Vitamin E: A study involving healthy subjects over 65 showed that increasing the daily dose of vitamin E from the recommended dietary allowance of 30 units (IU) to 200 increased antibody response to hepatitis B and tetanus after vaccination. We know that as we age we grow more susceptible to disease and infection, and vitamin E can help protect our bodies.
It is normal that human beings, from time to time, encounter stress. If stress continues for a long time, however, it makes us more vulnerable to illness, from mild afflictions such as colds to serious cardiovascular malfunction. Chronic stress exposes the body to a stream of stress hormones that suppress the immune system. We may not be able to get rid of stress, but we can learn to manage it, perhaps through meditation, pursuing a slower life, staying connected with people and working out to let off steam. Counselling can also be a big help.
Easing stress in turn lowers levels of the hormone and helps us sleep better, further improving immune function. People who meditate regularly may have healthier immune responses. Having strong relationships and a good social network is good for you; people who feel connected to friends, whether a few close friends or a large group, have stronger immunity than those who feel alone, and this has been confirmed by many studies. Although there are many other elements that affect health, pursuing meaningful connections with people is always a good idea.
- Ageing and immunity
Researchers believe that the ageing process leads to a poorer immune response, in turn leading to more infections, inflammatory diseases and serious conditions such as cancer. As life expectancy in developed countries has increased, so too has the incidence of age-related problems. Investigating the ageing process can benefit all of us.
Although some people age well, many studies have shown that the elderly are far more prone to infectious diseases. Respiratory tract infections, influenza and more serious ailments such as pneumonia are leading causes of death in those over 65.
Many researchers are looking at the connection between nutrition and immunity in the elderly. A form of malnutrition that is surprisingly common even in affluent countries is “micronutrient malnutrition”, a deficiency in certain essential vitamins and trace minerals normally obtained from or supplemented by diet. This can be common in the elderly. Older people tend to eat less often and have less variety in their diets. On the other hand, macronutrients consisting of proteins, carbohydrates and fats are unlikely to be an issue since they are well represented in a normal diet. To combat micronutrient deficiency in the elderly, it is recommended to take a multivitamin and mineral tablet to secure the daily requirements. This kind of common dietary supplement may help older people maintain a healthy immune system and boost quality of life in their later years.