Ask the Pharmacist

Q) What’s the best way to boost my immune system? If I catch this virus I really need to be able to fight it off.

A) This is a question we have been asked many times over the years and far more so in the last month. There are a few challenges with answering this query in a manner that empowers the questioner to better their immune while still being honest about what really does or doesn’t work.

The first challenge is that while a healthy immune system is certainly critical in getting through any infection relatively unscathed, it is far from the only factor that determines your ultimate result. For instance, another important factor that needs to be considered is the viral load (this is a term that indicates how much virus you have in your body). If a severely sick person coughed upon you, it would likely result in you having a much higher “load” than if you simply touched a door handle.

Another piece of this puzzle to help us determine the ultimate course of infections is your access to and willingness to seek health care. Another complication that comes with boosting your immune system is that you can make it too strong.

Think of your immune system as being the policeman of your body. You want it to seek out the bad guys and remove them when necessary. But an immune system that is overly stimulated is analogous to a police state environment where every infraction is treated like a major crime. In the body, this could lead to your system constantly attacking even benign foreign particles leading to a constant state of inflammation with all the destruction that this process can cause to your organs and circulatory system. Instead you want a BALANCED immune system that responds at an appropriate level to threats.

And lastly, there is no single supplement or food that you can eat that will take your ability to mount an immune response from a 4 to an 8 in a relatively short period of time. Whether it is echinacea, zinc lozenges, Cold-Fx or any of the other thousand or so remedies touted on the internet, none have been proven scientifically to make a clinically significant difference in disease outcomes. Note that this is not to say that there is nothing you can do to make your immune system more effective. It’s just that all of them take time to work and require more effort on the individual’s part than simply swallowing a pill.

So, what has been proven to benefit your immune system? Well, just about every expert agrees on the importance of getting adequate amounts of sleep. Just what the magic number of hours is a matter of some debate but it is at least 6 hours and many scientists would place that number at a minimum of 7 hours. Research shows a lack of sleep leads to a decrease in our Natural Killer Cells (yes, that’s their real name) which is the first line of defence in our immune system. A lack of sleep also causes your adrenal hormones to remain elevated which serve to dampen your immunity (along with a host of other issues such as an elevated blood pressure and sugars).

Clinical evidence seems to support this as well. One example was a study of 164 men & women exposed to the cold virus. Those who slept less than 6 hours a night were 4.2 times more likely to catch the cold. There also may be such a thing as too much sleep (10 or more hours) for your immune system although this is less clear as researchers aren’t sure if respondents actually sleep for that length of time or spend a portion just lying in bed which could be a sign of a different medical issue such as depression.

Managing stress is also important for your immune system. In times of stress our body shifts valuable resources away from our immune system to fuel our response. That’s great if you’re trying to escape from a lion but for ongoing stresses such as marital or job related ones, your body is incapable of distinguishing between real emergencies and everyday ones. This is illustrated by a series of studies over 20 years in which volunteers were exposed to the cold virus using nasal drops. Those who reported less stress in their lives were typically less likely to develop cold type symptoms.

Keys to reducing stress include engaging in practices such as mindfulness and meditation. Exercise also has a role to play. It’s a proven stress reliever, seems to boost our levels of T-cells (another important member of our immune system) and helps prevent obesity which is linked to chronic inflammation within our bodies. The challenge is that if you are already sick, exercise can divert resources away from your immune system slowing down your recovery. Hence the advice that “rest is what you really need” is definitely sound advice when you are already battling an illness.

Not surprisingly, what you eat or drink also is critical to your immune health. Excessive alcohol consumption (either through binge drinking or more than 1-2 drinks a day) alters the number of microbes in your gut which can impinge upon your immunity. Research supports this as it has shown that people who drink in excess are more susceptible to pneumonia and other respiratory illnesses and seem to take longer to recover as well.

While there is no single food that is a magic bullet (although small studies have indicated there may be some benefit to garlic, turmeric, oregano oil, ginger and bone broth), focussing on eating “natural” foods as opposed to processed foods provides the building blocks your body needs to replenish its immune fighters.

In regards to supplements, while more study is needed, promising research suggests that taking a vitamin D supplement (same as vitamin D3) can help your body fight off respiratory illnesses. A recent analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials of 11,000 patients showed an overall protective effect of vitamin D supplementation against acute respiratory infections. Another study of 107 seniors found that those on high-dose vitamin D had 40% fewer respiratory infections over the course of a year when compared to those on standard doses. The dose used in this study was about 3,000IU a day which is somewhat in line with current suggestions for its use in bone health and cancer prevention.

I hope these suggestions lead some of you to make changes in your lifestyle, not just for now as we face this devastating virus, but for the future as well. None of these are expensive to enact and will stand you well both now and down the road. For more information about this or any other health related questions, contact your pharmacist.