COVID-19 and our immune system
We’re probably all sick (excuse the pun) of hearing about COVID-19 by now… but here’s a little bit more on it anyway! In this article, we’ll talk about our body’s immune function – the things that can weaken it, making us more vulnerable to this virus, and some of the simple things we can do to strengthen it and ward off any illness.
COVID-19 is a strain of the coronavirus – a virus that in actually quite well-known in the medical world as the cause of the common cold, flu, and other similar illnesses. It is the COVID strain that is new – the ‘19’ in its name refers to 2019 i.e. the year in which this particular strain was discovered.
There are over 5,000 known species of viruses – they are the most abundant biological entity on Earth! Viruses are made of genetic material and their mission is to attach to a host cell (i.e. a human cell) and replicate. Every time we breathe, we inhale viruses, but we don’t get ill every time we breathe – a virus is opportunistic and can only cause disease when our body allows it to!
As far back as the 19th century, the French scientist, Antoine Béchamp talked about the ‘cellular theory’ of disease. Béchamp said that bacteria or viruses do not themselves cause disease, rather the symptoms of disease only begin to manifest from within the body if the body’s environment is already compromised. Our aim, therefore, should be to support our bodies to heal themselves and overcome infections, not just to suppress the symptoms of an infection. We can cultivate good health through diet, hygiene and healthy lifestyle practices, such as fresh air and exercise.
We have heard via the media that COVID-19 is generally spread though mucous droplets. This is why we are advised to cover our mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. We are also advised to wash hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds (Note: cold water won’t kill the virus and 20 seconds is how long it takes to thoroughly wash all areas of our hands).
We know that this particular viral strain targets the respiratory system – specifically our airways and lungs. If our body’s immune system is compromised, as is the case as we age or with other long-term conditions such as diabetes or heart conditions, we are more susceptible to the virus. Simply put, this means we have more chance of the virus taking hold in our body, not that we are more likely to catch the virus. The virus hits in two stages:
- In 80% of cases, the virus will pass with symptoms of the common cold. Other symptoms may include a fever, continuous dry cough, chest pain, shortness of breath, headache or loss of taste and/or smell. Symptoms will often be mild in most cases and often go unnoticed. In fact, a recent article in the British Medical Journal indicates that the virus does not show symptoms in 78% of cases, so people don’t even know when they’ve got the virus!
- If the virus progresses deeper within the body, it is typically accompanied by symptoms of pneumonia and the production of thick mucous in the lungs.
The immune system is the body’s mechanism to defend itself against any infection. When bacteria or a virus attempts to cause disease, the immune system will use its many components to fight off that infection. However, if our immune system is weak, we are more vulnerable to infection.
But what weakens the immune system?
- Refined sugars and artificial sweeteners – e.g. sweets, sugary juices, sodas and energy drinks, chocolate, cake, biscuits… basically everything that we may want to binge on when feeling under the weather! These things are refined, which means they are stripped of all the nutrients that may be present in unrefined foods – they have no nutritional value at all. In fact, these foods/drinks actually push vitamin C (the well-known immune-boosting nutrient) out of our cells!
- Coffee – compromises the immune system by reducing the absorption of nutrients into the body’s cells.
- Cigarettes and alcohol – these are toxins which have a negative effect on our immune system
- Dairy produce – e.g. cow’s milk, cheese. Dairy consumption leads our bodies to produce extra thick, sticky mucous, creating an ideal environment for viruses to attach to and making them even more difficult to expel.
- Junk or convenience food – contains high sugar and processed fats which damage our immune cells
- Processed meats – e.g. bacon, ham, sausages, sliced chicken. The additives and preservatives included in these foods deplete our immune system
- Microwave meals – microwaving food depletes food of its nutrients
- Alcohol-based mouthwash – e.g. Oral B, Listerine, Corsodyl. They destroy saliva’s natural protective antibodies so make us more susceptible to infections
The aforementioned things should ideally be eliminated (or at least reduced) in order to prevent weakening of our immune function.
Now let’s talk about what we can do to support the immune system
Our immune system uses a lot of energy to function effectively. Digestion of food also requires a lot of energy. There are times when the body will need to prioritise the needs of our digestive system over the needs of our immune system, which means that as it directs more energy to the digestive system, these opportunistic viruses take advantage and proliferate and we end up with colds and coughs!
So, at this time especially, we need to ensure that the body has enough focus and energy to support a strong immune system and heal itself. Here are a few basic things that we can easily do to support our body’s immune function:
- Eat 3 meals a day, avoid overeating and snacking. When we eat heavily, graze or snack between meals, the digestive system is forced to continually work. Eating three light meals a day allows our body to focus on digestion for just a short time, then re-focus its energy on the immune system again.
- Avoid drinking liquids at mealtimes. Consuming liquids at mealtimes dilutes our digestive juices, which are required to breakdown food. This means that our body will have to expend more energy on digestion. Conversely, drinking warm water or herbal tea after a meal will aid digestion.
- Opt for easily digestible foods. Easily digestible foods (e.g. soups, stews) place less burden on our digestive system, as does chewing our food well.
- Have an overnight fasting window. Ensure to have dinner no later than 7pm every evening and then have breakfast at least 12 hours later. Our bodies take the opportunity to rest and repair overnight whilst taking a break from digestion.
These are simple things that any of us can do to help our bodies defend against infection or illness at any time.
Look out for Part II of this COVID-19: Nutrition & Immunity series, where we’ll talk about specific food and nutrients that can help to boost our immune system, as well as some of the things that will aid recovery should we become infected with the virus.