Strengthen your immune system naturally

Dr Paul Clayton 2013

Strengthening your immune system though natural means has become a real priority, particularly in view of the fact that we are running out of effective antibiotics. The threat is very real.

“Drug-resistant superbugs represent one of the gravest threats in the history of medicine”. The Lancet

“The effectiveness of lifesaving antibiotics is at risk. Many medical advances that physicians and patients take for granted—including cancer treatment, surgery, transplantation, and neonatal care—are endangered by increasing antibiotic resistance.” Journal of the American Medical Association

We are running out of effective antibiotics because bacteria have a very short life cycle compared to ours, so they continually and rapidly evolve to resist and overcome the antibiotics we fight them with. Within a surprisingly short period of time, resistant strains emerge. Hence the rise of the hospital ‘super-bugs’.

So how can you strengthen your immune system? Are there foods and natural supplements which can enhance the immune system? It’s an important question because a weakened immune system leaves your body vulnerable to disease. Indeed the weakening of immune systems is implicated in the significantly increased incidence of cancer that has occurred in the last half-century.

Natural ways to strengthen your immune system

The Mediterranean Diet, which contains high levels of flavonoids (nutrients in fruits and vegetables), anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory ingredients, not only reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer, but also supports good immune function.

This way of eating is high in fruits and vegetables, wholegrains, beans and other legumes, olive oil, nuts and seeds, garlic, oily fish and a moderate intake of red wine. The key is a wide range. Even so, there are some specific foods that are high in the nutrients important for a healthy immune system. They include:

Nuts, seeds and whole grains: Pine nuts and pumpkin seeds are a good source of zinc, which is an important immune-boosting mineral, and promotes the function of the thymus gland, which is a controller of the immune system. Zinc also increases the production of infection-fighting white blood cells, and has anti-viral properties. Oats contain a type of fibre with anti-microbial and anti-oxidant capabilities.

Herbs and spices: Herbs and spices contain immune-supporting nutrients – so add turmeric to rice and grate ginger into stir fries.

Citrus and other fruits: Oranges and lemons contain limonoids – a type of polyphenol with antiviral properties. Polyphenols are some of the most important compounds in fruits and vegetables that give you protection from almost all the illnesses that threaten as we get older. Kiwi fruits and peppers are high in vitamin C and mangoes contain beta carotene as well as vitamin C – as do sweet potatoes.

Pomegranate juice, blueberries, blackberries and raspberries are also high in anti-oxidants which help mop up excess free radicals that can damage tissue.

Green tea: People who drank 5 cups a day of tea for 2 weeks had 10 times more virus-fighting interferon in their blood than others who drank a placebo hot drink, according to a Harvard University study.

Fish: Selenium, plentiful in shellfish such as oysters, lobsters, crabs, and clams, helps white blood cells produce cytokines — proteins that help eliminate flu viruses. Salmon, mackerel, and herring are rich in omega-3 fats, which reduce inflammation and help protect lungs from colds and respiratory infections.

Mushrooms: Shiitake, maitake, and reishi mushrooms appear to offer the biggest immunity effect of the mushroom family. Add a handful to pasta sauce, or sauté with a little olive oil.

But it is difficult – given our sedentary lifestyle – to eat a wide enough range of food daily without putting weight. So I also recommend that anyone over the age of 45-50 take a comprehensive daily nutritional supplement.

It should include optimum levels of the A-Z vitamins and minerals —as opposed to merely levels that prevent deficiencies like scurvy or rickets! Of particular importance for strengthening the immune system is vitamin D3 (800 IU a day), selenium (150 mcg a day) and zinc (10mg a day).

Vitamin A deficiency is associated with impaired immunity and increased risk of infectious disease, but it is better to supplement with beta carotene, which gets converted to vitamin A as needed, because it is important not to exceed the RDA for vitamin A.

But a narrow focus on vitamins D, E, selenium and zinc – or even vitamin C – is not enough. An effective immune-enhancing health supplement must also include polyphenols, flavonoids and carotenoids (derived from fruits and vegetables). Ensure it also includes Omega 3 fatty acids from fish.

I indicated that a comprehensive supplement is advisable for the over 50s. My opinion is that it is virtually essential in the elderly who tend to eat less and often have less variety in their diets. They commonly face what researchers call “micronutrient malnutrition” – depletion in essential vitamins and trace minerals – leading to less effective immune systems, a higher risk of infection, and slower healing. And if they enter hospital they are particularly vulnerable.

1-3, 1-6 beta glucans
Previous generations had a less sanitised environment. In particular, their immune systems learned to recognise molecules called 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans, which are present in the cell walls of fungus, moulds and yeasts. Those immune systems then responded by mounting a strong counter-attack.

Today changes in food growing and processing technologies have effectively removed these beta glucans from our environment due to routine spraying of crops with fungicides. Anti-bacterial sprays have removed them from many homes, too.

Of course, I am not advocating creating a dirty environment – but extensive research by a company called Biothera has shown that a small, deliberate and controlled challenge from a naturally derived beta glucans supplement can strengthen immune function.

This natural supplement is proven to increase the number and effectiveness of neutrophils – the main immediate defensive element in the immune system. Indeed when the Canadian Department of Defence tested some 100 immuno-enhancers this 1-3, 1-6 beta glucans came out as the number 1 effective immune booster.

Biothera’s beta glucans ingredient Wellmune WGP is patented and available in the UK in ImmunoShield – You’ll find a 60 second video there that explains how it works.

ImmunoShield can be taken by anyone as a daily supplement in periods of extra stress or threat, especially people who are at immediate risk of infectious diseases, taking immuno-suppressant medication or experiencing slow and incomplete healing.

It’s also relevant for long distance air travellers or people who are regularly traveling on crowded transport in the winter months, who are in close proximity at work – and at the first sign of a cold or sore throat.

Getting enough sleep is essential for health generally. Lack of sleep is perceived by the body as a form of stress — and stress reduces the immune response.

Exercise is an effective immune booster and important for health generally. Being unfit is as dangerous as smoking 20 cigarettes a day! A programme of regular, moderate exercise relieves stress and makes it easier for you to sleep at night.

In chronic or long term stress, our adrenal glands secrete a hormone known as cortisol. When cortisol output is high, the immune system is suppressed. Reducing stress is easy enough to advise – less easy to do. But walking, yoga, meditation techniques, making love – and a warm bath – are understandable favourites.

Can Herbals help?
A study on Echinacea at the University of Washington in Seattle on 400 children with colds found no difference in clear-up rates, duration or severity of cold symptoms between Echinacea and a placebo. Moreover most experts do not recommend taking Echinacea on a long term basis. Nor do they recommend Astragalus.

Laboratory research shows garlic may have some infection fighting properties, but human trials are inconclusive.

It’s increasingly important to ensure that your immune system is strengthened effectively – and the above are several natural ways to achieve this.