Boosting Immunity in COVID Times
And what role food plays in it
It’s COVID time. And seems it’ll be so for a while. At least till we discover that elusive vaccine.
Until then, all we can rely on is our own, ill-understood, oft-ignored Immunity. And boy are the marketeers having a field day selling it to you!
Every food and beverage brand worth its anti-oxidants is suddenly claiming their product ‘helps boost immunity’.
Side note: whenever a brand says ‘helps’, read it as, ‘we can’t scientifically back that claim. but we’ll still make that claim, because we know consumers won’t read so closely. and we’ll use words like ‘known to’ or ‘supports’ or ‘helps’ — to disclaim any legal liability’.
But, I digress.
Point is, our immune system is our only defense against this novel coronavirus. And our defense needs strengthening, if it is to have a shot at beating this new enemy.
But before we go around buying ‘immunity boosting’ foods, we need to pause and understand what immunity means in the first place. And how, if at all, can it be boosted!
Let’s break this down. FITSHIT style.
What is the Immune System?
Our entire body, is our immune system.
Before I explain that, allow me to setup an analogy I’ll use extensively throughout this article.
Think of our body as our country. Just like our country, our body too is under constant threat from various enemies and infiltrators. All the openings in the body (nose, mouth, rectum) are gaps in our borders, from which said infiltrators get in. And our immune system is our nation’s army.
Just like a nation’s defence forces, our body has a first, second and third line of defence. Just like we have the army, navy and air-force, the body too has specialized forces to ward off different modes of attack. And just like our nation, the threats our army needs to neutralise, can be both external and internal.
Paint this picture in your head. And stay with me. I’ll make it increasingly vivid with every passing stroke.
First & Second Line of Defence
Did you know that your skin, nasal hair, tears & saliva are all part of your defence system?
Viruses can’t permeate through human skin. Nasal hair catches germs (booger). Tears have eye-cleansing enzymes. Saliva has enzymes that kill bacteria in food and prevent mouth infections!
Intrigued? Here’s more.
The digestive fluids in your stomach are highly acidic. Any bacteria that passes your skin and mouth and enters the digestive system, gets killed here.
Few that don’t, are attacked by the good bacteria in your stomach lining. A few-few that still survive and enter the blood stream, get caught in the liver’s mucus lining and get coughed out.
Basically, there’s a part of our Immune system that’s constantly at work. A part we don’t even notice. Doctors refer to it as the Innate Immune System.
Think of it as border patrol. We don’t usually think too much about them, but they’re the reason we’re not flooded by insurgents.
Immune system: the last defence
But border patrol isn’t infallible. It’s built and trained to keep the general insurgent out. Not a specially trained one. Like COVID-19.
It’s for specific, new threats like these, that the body deploys its offensive, special ops unit – The Adaptive Immune System.
When we think about boosting immunity, or anti-bodies and vaccines, it’s this part we’re usually thinking of. Made up of White Blood Cells (WBCs), anti-bodies, B-lymphocytes, T-lymphocytes, bone marrow, spleen etc — it’s a complex response system that we very loosely refer to as the Immune System.
These guys are the offense in our defence. When all sorts of body-barricades get breached, when specialised aggressors fool all our defences and reach the inner sanctorum of the Parliament, that’s when the body unleashes it’s adaptive unit. A complex system of ‘killer-cells’, if you will, that fight and push back enemy pathogens.
I’m not going into details here, but read this to get an overview.
Immunity in COVID times
I hope you see now, why I say our whole body is our immune system. A majority of the bacteria and viruses never make it past our skin and mouth and nose. They’re captured by the first line of defence.
When you sneeze and cough and have fever, it’s actually your immune system that’s at work. Sneezing expels the bacteria that manage to enter through the nose. Coughing removes bacteria that get caught in sticky-mucus. And fever, is actually the body raising its temperature to kill a virus that it knows doesn’t like heat!
Your body is the battlefield. And small skirmishes and insurgencies are being fought (and mostly won) there everyday.
Every now and then though, a new virus comes to town. An unknown enemy with an unknown weapon that even your adaptive-troops have never encountered before. They’re great at beating any weapon system they have prior experience with (it’s called immunological memory. read this.), but this one baffles them.
It’s like trying to kill a dragon with bullets. It’s not impossible. Constant heavy shelling can push it back and make it recede. But it requires energetic troops, heavy weaponry and consistent fighting.
Yes, one day a hero will come along and show us that all we needed was a scorpion-sting-arrow, shot through the chink in the dragon’s back-armor, straight at its heart (assuming it doesn’t have two, in which case we’re fu*ked).
But as it seems today, our hero is at least a year away. And until then, all we have is our ill-prepared immunity-army to fall back on.
Can we really ‘boost immunity’?
That’s the million-dollar question then. Can I really do something to fight-off this new threat?
Is there something I can eat? Some concoction I can drink? Some exercise I can do? To ensure my immune system is strong enough?
These are important questions. And yes, food & nutrition does play a role. But it isn’t some silver bullet. And to understand it’s role in immunity building, we need to view the whole battlefield holistically.
So the right question to ask is, if Immunity is like an army — how does one boost an army?
Well, you either increase the size of your force, or you increase their battle readiness. The latter being a combination of having the best weapons, and your troops being well-rested and well-fed (no one won a war with a tired, hungry army).
Unfortunately, increasing the size of your force isn’t in your hands. WBCs are your troops, but there are no supplements or specific foods known to increase WBC counts.
Let me say that again. Nothing you can do, will increase your WBC count.
Their count does increase whenever the body is under attack from foreign agents, but you don’t have any control on that process. The body decides when it needs reinforcements and calls in the reserves.
The only factor we control, is keeping our army well-rested and well-fed. Keeping them in fighting-fit shape. And, if done right, that can be a huge advantage!
So what depletes immunity?
Go back to the nation example. We’re seldom at war with outsiders. We spend most of our time & energy fighting low-level shelling at the borders, and on internal security threats.
Beating these aggressors costs time & energy and depletes our resources. If this goes on for too long, and then the big battle comes, our troops will be half-dead and our guns half-empty. We won’t win.
The same happens with our bodies, that are in constant battle with many low-level attackers.
Common external viruses: Today’s flu was 1920’s corona. Thankfully, now it’s a known enemy. Our immune system knows where the chink in its armor is. But defeating it still requires considerable energy and resource expenditure. And that weakens the troops.
Internal & External wounds: Did you know that ‘inflammation’ is actually an immune response! (joke in the doctor community is that if you actually found an ‘immunity boosting’ food, it’d give you fever, make your eyes water, and give you red, inflammatory patches on your skin…that’d be the only way to prove it’s working!)
The reddening of the area around an external wound is an ‘inflammation’. The body is basically increasing temperature in that area to kill pathogens. And it mounts a similar response for wounds in the gut and in the throat that we can’t see. And like any defence, inflammation uses up system resources.
Free Radicals: are a by-product of metabolism. And as the name suggests, these anarchists, if allowed to build up inside the body, can cause a lot of cell-damage. I can’t go into details again (read this), but a high concentration of these is linked to serious diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s! And these are yet another internal insurgent that the immune system needs to fight.
Yes, when it comes to immunity, stress deserves a special section.
You see, the stress our ancestors experienced, when they were being hunted by a predator, was a very different kind. We now call it Acute Stress. It’s intense, but it lasts a only a few hours — during which time the body fires up the immune system and gets ready to heal bodily wounds.
Thankfully, that stress is largely gone from modern life. Unfortunately, what’s replaced it, is Chronic Stress.
Constant, low-level tension (boss, work, kids, spouse, money, career) that goes on and on. This persistent stress keeps our immune response system in constant fight mode (constant cortisol production). Slowly depleting resources until there aren’t much left.
Chronic stress breaks our immune system. It’s been clinically proven to reduce immunity. I’ve simplified the causality — but do give this brilliant paper a read if you want to get into specifics.
Finally, now that we get the landscape, we can come to the answer.
The only controllable way in which we can boost our immunity, and make sure it is strong enough to fight novel viruses like COVID-19, is by ensuring that our system isn’t always busy fighting these other, low-level, chronic aggressors.
We need to devise a plan, that reduces the quantity and intensity of these small attacks, so that it takes very little immunity-resource to bury them. And here’s how we can achieve that:
Minimise external insurgents: This is why washing hands is necessary. This is why bathing and sanitisation and wearing clean clothes and not going near people who have the flu, is necessary. I’m sure you get this. So I’ll move on.
Minimise Stress: I know I sound like Mom right now, but ‘beta pls don’t take so much stress na’.
Do yoga, meditate, play some game, have sex (said no Indian mom, ever). If nothing helps, go stab your boss. It’ll be a few hours of acute stress but then everything will be as it should be. Just don’t ask your system to be in constant fight mode. Pls.
Reduce Inflammations: Since none of us is getting wounded in war, it’s the internal inflammations we need to worry about.
We’re eating such shitty, sugary food nowadays, that our gut is constantly getting wounded. And the immune system is constantly being pressed into action. So eat anti-inflammatory foods (here’s a good list), practice some Intermittent Fasting, and heal your gut. So that your troops don’t need to fight these stupid battles.
Reduce Free Radicals: Free Radicals are formed due to oxidative stress. And you know what reduces that — those famous anti-oxidants. And while green-tea is great, there are many other anti-oxidant rich foods too. Eat these, and ensure that no anarchists are going around burning buses inside your body and keeping the forces busy.
A word for sleep & exercise
I‘m sure you’ve noticed that you catch a cold mostly when you’re stressing a lot, or are underslept (especially after drinks night). It’s no coincidence. When I say rest the troops, I mean it in a literal sense too.
All repair and restore functions happen only while we sleep. Sleeping less, is a sure shot way of reducing immunity.
Also, exercising helps. A lot. It’s actually a 4-pronged attack!
- The heavy-breathing helps expel pathogens from the respiratory tract
- The temporary increase in body temperature can help kill bacteria (just like a fever)
- The increased blood flow, also means that WBCs can travel faster across the body and fight insurgents better
- Exercise releases endorphins! It makes you happy. And happy means no stress! Masterstroke!
So there. That’s my ultra-simplified yet hopefully holistic overview of the Immune System and how you can strengthen it.
As you’d notice, food does have a role to play. Two roles, rather. Anti-inflammation and anti-oxidation. As much as possible, do try and include whole foods (not supplements) that are rich in these, into your diet.
But if you truly want a corona-crushing, rambo-army of immuno-fighters, you need to bring the whole system (sleep + exercise + stress-relief + food) to the party. And make sure your soldiers are in prime-form, before they take on the big-dragon.
Founder, and nothing else.
PS: You might’ve noticed the conspicuous absence of Vitamin C here. After all, isn’t that the best Immunity Remedy? Well, let’s just say that unless you were Vit C deficient to begin with, up-dosing on it doesn’t seem to increase your ability to fight even common cold (read this). And if you want to understand the history of the American-marketing fuelled Vitmain Supplementation craze, read this brilliant Vox article.
Full Disclosure: At ‘and nothing else’ we’ve formulated our own Immunity product. This article is a synopsis of our internal research and reflects how we think about food and it’s role in strengthening immunity.