The human immune system is incredibly complex, second only to that of the brain and nervous control, but it can be simplified into two broad areas; short term and long-term defence. The longer-term strategies that our bodies use have evolved into highly refined and targeted responses to infections. It learns how best to combat the invader and produces antibodies against future attacks.
The short-term defence mechanisms revolve around the mobilisation of specialist cells to hunt and kill microbes wherever they can be found.
If we think of our bodies as a fort under constant siege, we can liken the defence cells to sentries. These patrol our tissues, organs and blood vessels with a single mission; seek and destroy. They are all-purpose germ-killing machines with fancy names such as neutrophils and macrophages. The moment they detect the chemical signatures of something foreign to your body, they march through membranes and tissues like a rapid response unit.
Once the threat is identified, these warriors can do one of three things; spray a lethal cocktail of chemicals, use its own DNA strands as a gladiator net, or swallow the offending microbe whole. It’s not subtle and it’s not pretty. Sometimes, they get things wrong and begin to attack your own cells, other times they lose their ability to sense and detect or find their way around your body. These faults increase the older we get, leaving us more vulnerable as we age.
When the ineffective guard cells blunder about lost, they often cause damage to your tissues. This is low grade inflammation that gives us constant pain.
1 – Drug Therapy
The good news is that scientists are working on ways to reset those defective guards, or neutrophils, by reducing a specific enzyme that sends them berserk. Janet Lord, from the University of Birmingham, UK, has been testing the effects of the family of drugs used to treat high levels of cholesterol. Early tests have indicated a correlation between the use of statins and the reduction of the influential enzyme.
Lord based her hypothesis on collected data from patients admitted to hospital with pneumonia. She discovered that people were much less likely to die if they were already taking statins for their cholesterol. Initial trials look promising, but her team are a long way off declaring this as a miracle cure. For one thing, statins can have nasty side-effects, so any benefits in reducing inflammation and improving neutrophil efficiency must outweigh their negative aspects.
2 – Exercise
This is a decidedly easier way to get those neutrophil guards working properly. In 2016, Lord’s team analysed the effects of exercise on the rejuvenation of neutrophils and their improved ability to locate and destroy foreign bodies. Their findings were impressive. Analysing data from older adults who regularly took 10,000 steps per day, the team found that their neutrophils performed as well as those of young people.
In addition to this, studies revealed that by increasing the levels of active skeletal muscle, they automatically stimulated the other type of guard cells, the macrophages. These are major contributors to reversing aging and inflammation.
Lord does stress, however, that while this is a useful correlation, it won’t stop anyone from contracting a viral disease but it does improve their chances of successfully fighting one and recovering in a timely manner.
3 – Supplements to Enhance T-Cells
Neutrophils are not the only type of defence cells to succumb to the effects of aging. T-Cells, which are critical in our long-term defence strategy, can also lose their effectiveness. These are particularly vulnerable since they are easily damaged by those defective sentinels.
Dayong Wu, an immunologist at Tufts University in Boston, studied the impact of vitamin and mineral supplements on animals, and their ability to enhance immune function. He claims that while a balance must always be considered to prevent toxic overload, a daily dose of Vitamin E can reduce the incidence of chest infections in the elderly.
Vitamin D also appears to improve long-term immune responses for those who may be deprived of natural sources, such as people who live at high latitudes during the winter months, when sunlight is scarce. Wu does point out that too much Vitamin D has the adverse effect of T-Cell suppression. His recommendation is to take between 1000-2000 International Units for optimal T-Cell health.
Zinc has long been known to provide health benefits, providing dosages are carefully monitored. It’s supposed to be especially effective in combatting viruses by increasing T-Cells activation, but the same caveat applies to zinc as it does for vitamins; too much will have the reverse effect.
4 – Addressing age related thymus shrinkage
The thymus gland sits beneath the breast bone. Its primary job is to mature and release T-Cells into the rest of the body. This heart-shaped patch of tissue stops growing at puberty and gradually decreases in size and function from then on. By the time we are sprouting grey hairs and complaining about the age of our doctors, this gland is reduced to mere fragments. This means we have far fewer T-Cells left to mature and put into action at a time when we need them most.
Reversing this decline is the subject of many anti-aging studies. Until the scientists can find a medical method of rejuvenation, we can take some comfort in the knowledge that exercise seems to slow the speed of decline in the same way it does for neutrophils.
Lord and her team used statistics from a study of long-distance cyclists to support her theories. She found that the leanest and fittest cyclists had the most youthful and efficient thymus glands.
5 – Improving Gut Flora
Some microbes can be highly beneficial to our wellbeing, particularly when it comes to having a variety of positive gut bacteria. Probiotics improve the efficiency of our digestive system, helping us to absorb all the nutrients required for good health.
Lord and her team analysed the medical data from patients with a harmful form of gut bacteria and measured their T-Cells and general immune responses. Most of those patients had levels of T-Cells similar to that of people who were ten to twenty years older than their actual age. Those same people then received a rather unpleasant sounding faecal transplant from younger, healthier donors and within a couple of weeks saw a massive reversal in their immune cell numbers and general health.
While none of us would voluntarily go to such extremes, we can eat foods which promote a range of positive gut microbes, such as leafy greens and a mixture of fresh fruits and vegetables.
One thing is certain during these uncertain times; anything we can do to improve our general fitness and wellbeing will contribute to our individual success at beating, not just Covid-19, but any viruses that will inevitably make their rounds when this crisis is over.
Stay well everyone.