By: James B. LaValle, R.Ph., CCN
Recent world events have caused a healthy immune system to be on everyone’s mind. One of the big revelations to most people over the last few months is just how important our overall health and lifestyle are for our immune system. It’s especially important for people who are overweight or have an existing medical condition, because these conditions can significantly compromise immune responses.
One of the biggest things that can work against us when it comes to mounting a strong immune defense is increased inflammation. When your immune system is working to kill a bacteria or a virus – the immune cells themselves creates inflammatory substances. That’s part of how they fight the bugs. If your body is already inflamed (due to unhealthy diet, being overweight or having a condition like heart disease or diabetes), the additional inflammation from the immune cells can create problems. Anything that causes inflammation hurts our immune response and anything that prevents or fights inflammation helps it.
This is why things like managing our weight, eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity and adequate sleep are so important. Good stress management is also important for a good immune response to cold and flu bugs, and it is an often-overlooked factor. Many of us struggle to accomplish healthier diets and overall lifestyles, and this is where supplemental support can help. There are also some precautions to be aware of not only with supplementation, but with lifestyle as well.
Nutrients to Support Immunity
There are nutrients that are safe to take on an ongoing basis to support your immune system function. Vitamin C helps the body make white blood cells as needed. Quercetin is a polyphenol derived from plants that has good anti-inflammatory activity. So, it supports healthy immunity by helping to control silent internal inflammation. Zinc is a trace mineral that is needed to make all immune cells: antibodies, T cells and natural killer cells. Daily recommended intake of zinc is 8 mg for women, and 11 mg/day for men, but we can take dramatically increased dosages when we are fighting a cold or flu (up to 200 mg per day.) However, it is important to go back to the daily-recommended intake once you are better because over-intake of zinc can cause micronutrient imbalances and very high dosages can actually have an inhibitory effect on the immune system. So this is one of the cautions.
Vitamin D is another key nutrient to make sure you are getting enough of for a healthy and balanced immune system. I’ll discuss more on its role in immunity later. Vitamin D levels in the range of 30 – 50 ng/mL is considered an adequate level.
There are some ingredients that directly stimulate increased immune cell production. A well-known one is the herb echinacea. Echinacea has long been used to help people get over colds and flu bugs. It is most helpful when taken at the first sign of a cold or flu. However, you should only use echinacea when you are actively fighting a bug, because over stimulating an immune response by taking immune boosters daily can end up fighting against the immune system over time. Also, echinacea is part of the daisy family, so anyone with hay fever or ragweed allergies should not use echinacea.
This brings me to an often-overlooked but very important topic for a vigilant immune response to cold and flu bugs – immune modulation. Many people have conditions that create an imbalanced immune system, which is made up of two main sides: TH1 and TH2 immunity. TH1, also known as innate immunity, is the side that fights bacteria, viruses, damaged cells and cancer cells. You need to be able to upregulate TH1 immunity quickly when you are exposed to a cold or flu bug. TH2, also known as acquired immunity, is the side that makes antibodies and causes allergic responses to food and environmental allergens like dust and pollen. This side gets upregulated in people who have allergies and some autoimmune conditions. It can also get upregulated in response to chronic stress, even ongoing physical stress such as occurs in overtraining. Overtraining is most common in professional or amateur athletes, but can occur in anyone who exercises too much, i.e. 2 – 4 hours a day. So this is my lifestyle caution. Be careful not to over-exercise. Signs of overtraining are noticing you take longer to recover from exercise, difficulty sleeping at night and getting sick more often. While it is important to get regular physical activity – moderate activity is best. Try to get at least 30 minutes of activity five days a week and work your way up to an hour, five days a week.
One of the most important supplements I teach about and recommend in my practice is Moducare. Studies show it helps restore balance to between TH2 and TH1 immunity, and by helping to down regulate overactive TH2 immunity, the TH1 side improves so you are ready for colds and flu when you are exposed. So it is one of the best supplements for people to take when they have allergies or autoimmunity. I also recommend it for people who have chronic stress, because chronic stress elevates cortisol, and cortisol suppresses immunity. This is why it is common to come down with a cold or flu when you have been under a lot of stress. It is also why people who have been under stress for years are at increased risk for getting cancer.
Moducare is a blend of plant-based compounds known as plant sterols and sterolins, combined in a very specific 100:1 ratio. Research has shown that the blend of sterols and sterolins in this specific ratio exhibit the best immune balancing activity. One study showed that marathon runners who took Moducare did not get the same immune deficits or cortisol spikes as people who did not take it, resulting in less post event upper respiratory infections for those runners taking Moducare. Because Moducare controls overactive TH2 immunity, this also results in decreased inflammation. Vitamin D is also an immune modulator and this is why it is also a great nutrient for immune support.
One final note – because chronic stress has such a profound impact on immune function, anyone dealing with high stress levels should consider using supplements like rhodiola extract, which is known to help reduce elevated cortisol, as well as Moducare for more direct immune support.
Immune support is probably more involved than you realized, but there is a lot we can do to be smarter in the steps we take. Not only do we need daily good health practices, we can supplement with nutrients and specialized ingredients to support the maintenance of immune cells and immune system balance, and it may well be the single most important thing you can do for your healthy longevity. In turn, when your immune system gets out of balance, it can affect inflammation, mood, and your overall energy, so knowing how to take of our immune system truly can have a positive impact on your daily life. It truly pays to be smart about taking care of ourselves with an eye on our immune system.
Bio: James B. LaValle, R.Ph., CCN, is an internationally recognized clinical pharmacist, author, board certified clinical nutritionist and naturopathic doctorate with more than 35 years of clinical experience. In addition to his LaValle Metabolix Practice he works with players and teams from the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL and is the Clinical Director of the Hall of Fame Health and Performance Program. He is best known for his expertise in metabolic and integrative medicine, with an extensive background in natural products, lifestyle drug/nutrient depletion and uncovering the underlying metabolic issues that keep people from feeling healthy and vital. LaValle is an appointed faculty member and course educator for the Integrative Medicine postgraduate program at George Washington University School of health sciences. He is author of more than 20 books including, “Cracking the Metabolic Code,” and serves as a scientific adviser for Probiotics.com.