In medicine, you’ve got to be wary of miracle cures. Nothing is one hundred per cent free from risk because there are so many factors that can’t be controlled. However, one universal thing that can help minimise any health risk is living a generally healthy life and adopting good habits.
So... is there anything I can do to make my body react better to an attack by a pathogen like the coronavirus? The answer to the big question of the day is yes. The reaction of your immune system (i.e. the set of cells that takes on a pathogen) depends on many factors. Genetics, sex, previous exposure to viruses and bacteria, hormonal status, vaccinations, smoking, alcohol consumption or obesity all play a part. In the case of Covid-19, age is proving to be one of the most important ones.
Although the army of cells able to recognise different antigens is greater in an elderly person (because his or her system has reacted to more situations throughout life), the capacity of the cells to react is less. In the young it’s the opposite: the cells have less experience with viruses, but more vigour to cope with them.
That aside, there’s one thing that’s still in our hands. We can choose to feed that army well; the army which, if necessary, will have to fight.
Dr Patricia Fanlo, coordinator of the Systemic Autoimmune Diseases group of the Spanish society of Internal Medicine (SEMI), has helped to draw up ten commandments aimed at getting our defences ready for battle.
The first line of defence: intestines
Get your microbiota in shape. The mucosal barrier of the intestine, a seven-metre-long organ, contains millions of bacteria that are beneficial to the body. It is known as microbiota. One of its functions is to stimulate the development and function of the immune system. Probiotics, administered in appropriate doses, help this first line of defence. The most common are lactic acids, lactobacillus and bifidus. They inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria, which can cause infections, because these microorganisms compete with bad bacteria for food and thus prevent them from growing. In addition, probiotics stimulate cytokines and strengthen T-lymphocytes. They are found in all dairy products and kefir.
Omegas, the kings of the healthy oils
Choose fatty fish. Unsaturated fatty acids, known as Omega 3, are another group of nutrients that are essential for strengthening the body. They have anti-allergic and anti-inflammatory properties and play an important role in auto-immune diseases. They also influence the reduction of infections. Although there are pharmaceutical supplements and some supermarket products are sold enriched with them, these essential oils are naturally found in foods such as olive oil, avocado (now so fashionable in new eating habits), all kinds of oily fish (sardines, anchovies, etc.), salmon and nuts.
Emotions on your side
Release emotional stress. Over the last decade, extensive scientific research has shown that emotional stress has an immunosuppressive effect. Dr. Fanlo points out that this is not quantitative, but qualitative.
The greater the number of negative emotions a person develops, the weaker the response of the cells responsible for fighting an infection.
“It has been shown that people who suffer from emotional stress are more likely to suffer from infections,“ she said.
The current confinement forces us to make an extra effort in this sense. Its importance for the state of physical health has made all specialists recommend exercises that help maintain mental well-being in these difficult times.
Three minerals on the front line
Consume iron, zinc and selenium. Taking in minerals through our diet is one of the basic pillars of nutrition. Three are the most important: iron, zinc and selenium. In the case of iron, having the correct amount in the blood leads to a better production of interleukins (crucial in the regulation of immune responses, inflammatory reactions, and hematopoiesis) in macrophages (a type of white blood cell).
Red meat, shellfish, parsley, raspberries and spinach are iron-rich foods that are important to have on your table during these times.
Alongside it, two other minerals are essential for increased antibody proliferation. These are selenium and zinc, both present in fish, seafood, dairy products, nuts and brown rice. Selenium also has an antioxidant effect and acts against some viral infections. Copper also helps to increase the proliferation of lymphocytes.
The power of the colour red in food
Get polyphenols on the menu. Strawberries, tomatoes, raspberries, pomegranates, blueberries, beets... Virtually all products in our shopping trolley that are bright red in colour are rich in polyphenols, an antioxidant substance known to contribute to the health of the cardiovascular system but now also praised for its ability to reduce chronic inflammation and regulate the interaction of macrophages (a type of defence cell) especially in adipose tissue. Lentils, beans, peas, tea, red wine, soy beans and other products such as chocolate, beer, olive oil and some nuts also contain them. Between 50 and 800 mg of polyphenols are ingested daily. Anything above this has a positive impact in terms of the antioxidants acquired.
A crucial alphabet
Take your vitamins. Vitamins are divided into two large groups: water-soluble (B6 and B12, C and folic acid) and fat-soluble (A, D and E). The former performs numerous functions that regulate the body’s immune response, and the latter helps stimulate the production of cells that are essential for the proper functioning of the immune system, such as leukocytes and antibodies. All of them are obtained from fruits and vegetables. Of all these, the most affected by the lockdown is vitamin D, which is obtained from the sun. It is of vital importance: any deficiency can lead to a greater susceptibility to infections as it inhibits the maturation of dendrites (another type of defence cell), among other effects.
Avoid eating more than necessary
Show self-control. In these critical moments for the health of the population, Dr Fanlo believes that it’s necessary to make nutrition the number one priority. “In times of confinement it becomes more difficult to keep anxiety at bay and therefore more food is almost inevitably eaten than is necessary. More calories and much more fat in general,” she warns. But we have to be aware that nutritional imbalance can affect the ability of the immune system. “This situation of confinement isn’t ideal;in fact it’s adverse. It’s good for keeping us from getting infected, but not ideal for strengthening the immune system. Hence, greater awareness and action is needed.”
Exercise, but don’t go over the top
Include sport in your routine. Moderate exercise is another of the immune system’s great allies. However, during these times it shouldn’t be excessively intense because it has been shown that people who are subjected to a great deal of exercise have a poorer response to infection. On the other hand, sport can help eliminate bacteria from the lungs and respiratory tract. This can reduce the chances of catching a cold, flu or other diseases. It also causes antibodies to circulate more quickly, so they can detect diseases more quickly. Rising body temperature during exercise also slows bacterial growth. Finally, it improves mood, which is also important.
Aminoacids are essential
Give yourself support. Essential amino acids such as arginine and citrulline have demonstrated their ability to stimulate the body’s defences. Both also promote anti-inflammatory function. Citrulline, for example, is very abundant in watermelon and melon. It is one of the preferred amino acids for athletes because it reduces the occurrence of fatigue and promotes energy production during intense exercise. Other amino acids such as tryptophan (a sleep regulator found in pumpkin, chicken or peanuts) also increase the rate of antibodies. Finally, methionine (in beef, lamb, soy, dairy) is anti-bacterial.
Fight against insomnia. Not sleeping well is also related to a weakening of our natural defence capacity. During the pandemic, insomnia is another enemy threatening people’s health, but without restful sleep there is no strong immune system. Sleeping well helps the production of serotonin, which prevents depression, moodiness and thus emotional instability, which is directly related to the body’s depletion of defensive agents. Restorative sleep also promotes the production of T-cells, a group of white blood cells. Several scientific articles published recently relate the loss of sleep hours with a proportional reduction in the production of these cells in the individuals analysed.