Keeping one’s immune system strong is paramount, especially given today’s current events and the benefits it provides for overall health.
Now more than ever, patients are in search of ways to keep their immune systems as fit as possible. The word “fit” was utilized for a reason—immune support can be cared for in multiple ways, one of which includes physical activity. Many would agree that “moderate” exercise is ideal when it comes to immunity, but the question is, can too much exercise produce counteractive effects?
In an article published in Exercise Immunology Review, physiologists from the University of Bath’s Department for Health in England concluded that infections are more likely to be connected to diet, psychological stress, not getting enough sleep, travel and pathogen exposure at social gatherings, such as marathons, rather than from the actual act of exercising.
“Our work has concluded that there is very limited evidence for exercise directly increasing the risk of becoming infected with viruses,” said Dr. James Turner, a physiologist from the university’s Department of Health who contributed to the article. “In the context of coronavirus and the conditions we find ourselves in today, the most important consideration is reducing your exposure from other people who may be carrying the virus. But people should not overlook the importance of staying fit, active and healthy during this period. Provided it is carried out in isolation—away from others—then regular, daily exercise will help better maintain the way the immune system works—not suppress it.”
With that in mind, keeping a sturdy and resilient immune system is no simple task—there are various ways to help do so, including the use of natural products, which are supported by scientific data.
Immune-related Health Issues
A sign of a compromised immune system could start with the reappearance of infections.
“One of the most common signs that a person’s immune system is struggling is the recurrence of infections,” said Kim Plaza, registered nutritionist, Florida-based ADM Protexin, manufacturer of the Bio-Kult brand of probiotics. “These could be infections throughout the body, such as colds, chest infections, ear infections, urinary tract infections, stomach bugs, candida infections and athlete’s foot.1 As the immune system is responsible for recognizing harmful substances, allergies and conditions such as asthma, hay fever, hives and atopic dermatitis may also be evidence that the immune system is dysregulated. This may be because immune tolerance is built up over time throughout our lives, and if this is lost, the body may begin to attack its own cells.1 “Importantly, the immune system is also responsible for controlling inflammatory responses in the body. Inflammation is an important defense mechanism that is crucial to our survival. However, if the immune system’s response is disproportionate to requirements or misplaced, resulting chronic inflammation can contribute toward many health problems, such as cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disease and diabetes.”2
To build on Plaza’s thoughts, not having the body operate at its optimal level can also cause result in additional health issues, ranging from candida-related to parasites.
“The kinds of health issues affecting the immune system if not properly cared for are many—yeast/candida, parasites, virus, bacteria susceptibility to name a few,” said Jay Wilkins, ND, founder and chief formulator, Bionox (South Carolina), who offers M-Mune3 Super Immunity Blend. “Cancer is also an example of the immune system being challenged. When your immune function is running at a subpar level, these opportunistic microorganisms will take over. It’s all about maintaining the proper biological terrain. That is making sure your system is healthy enough to keep balanced and potential pathogens at bay.”
At times, one’s immune system can be compromised as a result of enduring physical or mental stress. Luckily, there are ways to treat this.
“It is well documented that, when the human body is under physical or mental stress, the immune system becomes depressed and can’t protect the host from invading virus and bacteria,” noted Duffy MacKay, ND, senior vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs, California-based CV Sciences. “Science has shown us underlying the physical and mental stress are biochemical reactions that result in nutrient depletions and other biochemical imbalances. Through providing the body extra nutrients or other bioactive compounds (e.g., flavonoids, adaptogens, CBD (cannabidiol), etc.), you can help the immune system return to homeostasis faster when it’s challenged by physical and mental stress.”
Besides those recommended by Dr. MacKay, we will dive into other potential solutions in the next section.
Of course, it should first be noted that there is no one way to help one’s immune system, but rather a sea of natural options at patients’ disposal. At the center of all, on a cellular level, students learn from an early age that the mitochondria is the “powerhouse” of the cell that needs to be running smoothly in order to function properly.
“We know that optimal mitochondrial health is key to the health of all of the systems of the body,” explained Mark Menolascino, MD MS, medical advisor for New Zealand-based MitoQ. “The cellular energy must be supported for the immune system’s warriors-the natural killer cells, the macrophages and the white blood cells-to have the ability to seek out and destroy infections. The immune system requires enormous energy to carry out these seek and destroy missions to protect the body against infection and to mount an appropriate response. The cellular energy ‘currency’ is co-enzyme Q10 (CoQ10), and we must be able to produce and regenerate cellular energy at a high rate to allow the immune system to respond. MitoQ supports cellular energy by providing the mitochondria with direct efficient supply of CoQ10, due to the high bioavailability of MitoQ with its tri layer design to concentrate inside the mitochondria.”
Vitamins D and C, echinacea and elderberry—products that have soared in popularity as of late—are also major players in the fight for immune health, although practitioners should conduct their own research into the long-term benefits of the latter two.
“Vitamin D, Dr. Menolascino added, “which is actually a steroid hormone and not a vitamin, is key to the immune system’s ability to mount an effective response. Clinical studies have shown low vitamin D levels are correlated with worse outcomes from many illnesses including infections. Vitamin C, the nutritional super antioxidant, has a role in supporting optimal immune response. Herbals, such as echinacea and elderberry, have shown benefit in modulating optimal immune responses, though long-term use may actually induce a suppression of the immune system.”
And being able to find what works for your patients could be made easier by narrowing down the items that do more harm than good.
“There are so many, I can’t begin to list the ‘best,’ but I can tell you what I do to keep myself and my family healthy,” said Jenn Dazey, ND, RH (AHG), chair of Bastyr University’s botanical medicine department in Washington. “First, I must acknowledge some of the things that work against me. Alcohol, processed and sugary foods will impair my immune system’s ability to adapt and respond to the herbs and natural remedies I use, so it doesn’t make sense to assign blame or credit without stating the obvious limitations when simultaneously supporting and impairing immune function. Some other factors to consider are managing stress and exhaustion (including over-exercising and inadequate sleep), eating plenty of healthy foods, and common-sense hat-and-coat sort of advice on a cold day. All of this may seem painfully obvious, but if you are left wondering why your echinacea didn’t work, then you might need to rule out some things.”
Dr. Dazey continued to say that, “I depend on a few medicinal mushrooms and a category of herbs called ‘adaptogens’ that help coordinate the efforts of the immune and nervous systems, such as ashwagandha or astragalus root. If I sense the first signs of illness, such as a vague sense of malaise, or throat soreness, then I stimulate immune cell activity using large and frequent doses of herbs such as echinacea root, elderflower and calendula flower. When comparing these strategies to conventional treatments, such as over-the-counter palliative support (decongestants and fever reducers), we can usually eliminate the added sugar, food coloring and flavor additives known to interfere with immune functioning. Something interesting to note is that the products used conventionally tend to work by masking or eliminating the unpleasant symptoms associated with being sick. All of these unpleasantries (fever, congestion, soreness) happen to originate from your immune system doing its job! By suppressing these symptoms, you are lengthening the duration of your illness and, in some cases, creating more work for your liver (as in acetaminophen). I’m certainly not against feeling better, but every individual must weigh the benefits and costs as it applies to their day-to-day needs.”
In a perfect world, eating a healthy diet and not getting stressed could be part of the solution to positively maintaining one’s immune system, but in modern-day civilization, that is simply not feasible.
“Bearing in mind 70 percent of our immune system is headquartered in our lower gut, supporting its health would seem to be as easy as eating a balanced diet and preventing—or eliminating—stress most days of the week,” said Matthew J. Roberts, product marketing director with Kibow Biotech, Inc. in Pennsylvania, who launched Kibow Biomunity for immune support. “Unfortunately, for many people living in modern societies, doing this every day is easier said than done. When we find ourselves unable to keep up this regime, we can turn to supplements that are relatively easy and inexpensive. Vitamins C, D and zinc are all readily available and they have all been found to deliver impressive and essential support.
“This is additive dietary supplementation, but there’s another aspect of immune system health that focuses on the unique population of the bacteria inhabiting the microbiome. For thousands of years, people have known a priori about the benefits of foods as medicine for the body, but it has been relatively recent that microbiologists have been able to quite literally shed light on the distinct differences of the numerous bacteria strains residing in our gut and their unique roles and behaviors … In short, we are seeing that replacing the bad bacteria with good bacteria—in supplement form—is a choice for a growing number of people seeking convenience and speed in changing their gut microbiome.”
Douglas Wyatt, president and CEO of Arizona-based Sovereign Laboratories, was in agreement with both Dr. Menolascino and Roberts concerning the importance of vitamins C and D, especially given the pandemic that the world is currently facing.
“While there are many supplements with purported anti-microbial activity, the three most effective—in the era of COVID-19—include vitamins C and D, and bovine colostrum,” Wyatt said. “Since the goal of avoiding, or surviving a COVID-19 infection, is to optimize the immune system, daily use of vitamins C and D is essential. Many people are surprisingly deficient in both, and so it’s essential to get the body’s levels to normal first, and then to ideal levels; this can only be achieved with supplementation, in most cases.
“ … Bovine colostrum is the most comprehensive whole-food supplement for immune support and should serve as the foundation of any dietary supplement regimen. The immune bioactives, such as immunoglobulins, lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase and lysozyme target microbial pathogens directly and by activating the immune system against such invaders. The proline-rich polypeptides turn up the inflammatory response against pathogens and when the infection is defeated, turn down the inflammatory response to prevent tissue damage. Bovine colostrum also helps maintain a healthy microbiome which in turn, produces vitamins, enzymes and neurotransmitters necessary for an optimally functioning gut-immune-brain axis (for physical and mental health). The good thing about these three natural supplements is that they can certainly be an adjunct to any physician-prescribed treatments. Always follow your physician’s advice, especially when it comes to something as serious as COVID-19. Aside from social distancing and mask-wearing, optimizing your own immune system is the best self-care practice you can engage in.”
Patients continue to conduct their own research when it comes to incorporating natural products into their diets, which has impacted their preferences. “Health is wealth! Americans are finally understanding that what you put into your body is what you will get out of it,” explained Brian Kaufman, RN, director of product and business Development, Entera Health (Iowa). “They no longer need to look for magic drugs to sustain health, but instead look to natural vitamins and minerals like zinc, vitamin D, probiotics and immunoglobulins.”
It also helps that natural solutions like the aforementioned vitamin D are becoming more mainstream.
“This year, we’ve seen a surge in interest for natural products to support one’s immune system,” said Katherine Cole, R&D manager, California-based ChildLife Clinicals. “The connection between the immune system and vitamin D has popped up in mainstream media, and more consumers are looking for ways to build their immune health, naturally.”
Predictions suggest that immune support supplement sales are expected to climb this year. However, as alluded to previously, patients will continue to search for the proper science that backs all of these claims.
“Nutrition Business Journal estimates that sales of immunity-related supplements will reach $5 billion this year, with annual growth over 50 percent—suggesting that 10 percent of all U.S. supplement sales in 2020 will be for immune support,” said Justin Green, PhD, director of scientific affairs with Cargill Health Technologies (Iowa), manufacturers of EpiCor whole food fermentate. “Those predictions track with broader consumer trends toward more proactive, personalized and holistic approaches to health. As a result, we expect that interest and demand for products that support immune health will continue to increase, but consumers will be looking for products supported by scientific research.”
ADM Protexin is intrigued by research that explains the connection between digestive heath and combatting infections.
“Research is highlighting observations made in gastrointestinal health and the microbiotic environment of those suffering with viral infections,” Plaza said. “One observation included the diversity of beneficial bacteria, namely a decrease in Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli genera, and increases in opportunistic bacteria Corynebacterium and/or Ruthenibacterium.3 It was noted that gastrointestinal disorders are frequent in respiratory viruses, and it has been hypothesized to impact upon gut inflammation.4 However, more research is needed in this area before any firm conclusions can be drawn.
“There is an increasing amount of research suggesting the role of beneficial bacteria in reducing the number of upper respiratory tract infections,” Plaza added. “In a review of 14 randomized controlled trials, including 3,451 patients, the number of infections were lower in those that consumed probiotics, as well as a reduced number of antibiotic prescriptions.5 Studies in this area however, are still sparse and a more studies are needed.”
Fascinatingly enough, Cargill is looking into studies that demonstrate a plethora of different results, starting with how the gut microbiome can affect digestive health and immunity, to even cognition and mood.
“ … As we learn even more about these connections,” Dr. Green said, “we believe it will become increasingly possible to use ingredients like postbiotics to influence the microbiome to facilitate those outcomes. It’s an exciting field of study, and one we are actively pursuing.” MitoQ is continuing to conduct research surrounding the mitochondria, a foundational part of the cell.
“MitoQ is the leader in clinical research in mitochondrial cellular energy with over 400 independent published peer-reviewed papers, including nine clinical trials, on MitoQ’s benefits to health, performance nutrition and lifestyle medicine,” noted Dr. Menolascino. “MitoQ has been studied by world-leading institutions including Harvard Medical School, UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles), the University of Oxford, the Mayo Clinic and the University of Cambridge. The mitochondria is a foundational key to many cellular functions to yield optimal clinical outcomes, for both high-end athletes as well as the everyday needs of all individuals.”
When it comes to endocannabinoid research, it ties hand-in-hand with immune support. In fact, the focus has evolved to now include both CBD and PEA (palmitoylethanolamide), which according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) “has been suggested to have useful analgesic properties and to be devoid of unwanted effects.”
“The latest evolution in immune support is the relatively new science that demonstrates how the endocannabinoid system (ECS) affects several key immune functions,” said Dr. MacKay. “This opens a whole new way to approach immune support. The ECS is made up of signaling molecules (endocannabinoids), receptors (CB1 and CB2 receptors), and the enzymes that make and degrade the endocannabinoids. Scientists are discovering how using compounds like CBD and PEA can support immune health through the ECS.”
Overall, as the segment is analyzed as a whole, society continues to learn new information about the immune system, as opposed to only the basics that were lectured in years past.
“The approach to immune support has evolved a great deal recently,” Cole concluded. “Today, we’re more aware of the multiplicity of factors that affect the immune system, and the broader the contributing factors, the more varied the approach becomes. Instead of focusing entirely on vitamin C for immune support, we are branching out. For example, we’re just beginning to discover the array of immune benefits probiotics offer, when not too long ago, digestive health was the only association. This approach has evolved alongside increased attention toward whole-body holistic health. Just as we’re seeing an increased awareness in gut-brain connection, we’re no longer isolating the immune system.”
1 Raje N, Dinakar C. Overview of Immunodeficiency Disorders. Immunol. Allergy Clin. North Am. 2015; 35: 599–623.
2 Furman D, Campisi J, Verdin E, et al. Chronic inflammation in the etiology of disease across the life span. Nat Med 2019; 25: 1822–32.
3 Monteagudo-Mera A, Rastall RA, Gibson GR, Charalampopoulos D, Chatzifragkou A. Adhesion mechanisms mediated by probiotics and prebiotics and their potential impact on human health. Appl. Microbiol. Biotechnol. 2019; 103: 6463–72.
4 d’Ettorre G, Ceccarelli G, Marazzato M, et al. Challenges in the Management of SARS-CoV2 Infection: The Role of Oral Bacteriotherapy as Complementary Therapeutic Strategy to Avoid the Progression of COVID-19. Front Med 2020; 7: 389.
5 Hao Q, Lu Z, Dong BR, Huang CQ, Wu T. Probiotics for preventing acute upper respiratory tract infections. In: Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2011. DOI:10.1002/14651858.cd006895.pub2.
Healthy Take Aways
• Adaptogens, such as ashwagandha or astragalus root, can help coordinate the efforts of the immune and nervous systems.
• Seventy percent of the immune system is headquartered in the lower gut.
• Nutrition Business Journal estimates that sales of immunity-related supplements will reach $5 billion this year, with annual growth over 50 percent—suggesting that 10 percent of all U.S. supplement sales in 2020 will be for immune support.
For More Information:
ADM Protexin, www.bio-kult.com
Bastyr University, https://bastyr.edu/
Cargill Health Technologies, https://epicorhealth.com/
ChildLife Clinicals, https://childlifeclinicals.com/
CV Sciences, www.cvsciences.com
Entera Health, www.enterahealth.com
Kibow Biotech, Inc., https://kibowbiotech.com/, https://kibowbiomunity.com/
Sovereign Laboratories, www.sovereignlaboratories.com