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Your immune system primer

Your immune system is a funny thing. When it’s working really well, you don’t even notice it protecting you, as it does, from every germ, virus and external threat that comes along. You sail through the day with tons of energy, in a good mood and feeling like a million bucks.

At the same time, though, your immune system is working over-time when you do get sick. While a sore throat, a runny nose, muscle aches or fever can make you feel miserable, these symptoms are evidence that your immune system is actively working to remove whatever unwelcome guest decided that your body would make a nice home.

When pathogens barge in

We can think of a pathogen such as a germ or virus as an unwelcome guest, and your innate immune system as the bouncer at the door of your very desirable establishment. Most of the time, pathogens enter the body when you breathe, eat or rub your eyes – but your immune system is right there protecting you. And it does so through both physical and chemical means.

Tiny hairs called cilia line the upper respiratory tract (ex. mouth, nose, throat) create physical barriers that trap and expel debris and potential trouble-markers. These cilia often rely on mucous to help take out the trash. Mucous contains anti-microbicidal chemicals that can thwart pathogens and is the perfect mechanism for flushing – which is why you get a runny nose, watery eyes and have to cough into a tissue when you’re under the weather.

Next level support

When pathogens sneak past the first line of defense, they often get trapped by the tonsils and adenoids. Immune system cells (for example: leukocytes, phagocytes, and some aptly called natural killer or NK cells) rush in to do their work. Pro-inflammatory hormones like prostaglandins and bradykinin cause small blood vessels in the area to dilate, which allows more immune system cells to enter. This causes redness and heat. Fever sets off alarm bells that activate more leukocytes and potentially de-activates heat-sensitive pathogens.

Then you start to feel sick

Bradykinin and friends allow in more fluid to flow into the area than normal, which causes swelling. These chemicals also irritate nerves and send pain signals to the brain. Although unpleasant for you, this is a protective function that tells you to take care of the affected – or  infected – area. All of this explains why a scratchy throat is often the first sign that you’re about to get sick.

Once your immune system has protected you from a threat, the pathogen is logged into the adaptive immunity response system, which means it will be recognized and thwarted if it dares to show up again. Antibodies are a vital part of your adaptive immunity.

System overwhelm

Like anything else, your immune system can get overwhelmed when too much is going on, and that’s when cracks appear. For example, many recent studies have shown the impact of your metabolic health on your ability to weather an encounter with a virus.

In other words, there is a strong connection between overweight and obesity – especially abdominal obesity – on immune function.[1] People with excess belly fat may experience worse health outcomes against viruses.1 To optimize your health, aim to keep your waist measurement below 94 cm (37 inches) for men and 80 cm (31.5 inches) for women.[2]

Distraction and disease

Your cells reproduce constantly. Most of the time, the replication is accurate. Sometimes, mistakes occur, however, and imperfect cells reproduce uncontrollably. Usually this happens because a carcinogen (cancer-causing trigger) has activated a change in the cell.

Immune system cells – particularly NK cells – patrol your body looking for these errant cells, and are often able to eliminate them. For a variety of reasons, however, the immune system can become unable to manage tumour development.[3]

Emotional stress, injury and auto-immune conditions like allergies and arthritis also keep your immune system busy and may become a distraction. Address these underlying conditions, avoid carcinogens and support your immune system with health-supporting diet and lifestyle choices.

Empower your immunity

Your immune system relies on you to provide the raw materials it needs to work efficiently. Be sure you include a multi-coloured variety of fruits and vegetables daily for a good supply of antioxidant vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. Immune system factors including antibodies also require protein, so aim for a minimum of .8 grams of protein per kilogram (or .36 grams of protein per pound) of body weight. Note that age and activity level impact this minimum and you may require more.

Canadians and Americans who live at latitudes above 37o north must also supplement with vitamin D during the winter to off-set the lack of sunlight. Low vitamin D status is linked with poorer outcomes from viral infections. 

The functional mushroom factor

For added insurance, look to the immune-boosting power of mushrooms. Used traditionally for centuries for their healing properties, research now shows that mushrooms support both the innate and adaptive immune systems,[4],[5] and specifically energize NK cells, T cells, and macrophages. T-cells are the go-between for the innate and adaptive immune systems.

Chaga

Traditionally used to boost immunity and support overall health, mushrooms like chaga are a rich source of unique polysaccharides that can modulate immune function, and the most well-known of these carbohydrates are beta glucans.[6] Beta glucans are abundant in the cell walls of the mushroom’s fruiting body (the part of the mushroom you see above ground). Beta glucans have been shown to prime the immune system and activate white blood cells to increase resistance to invading pathogens.[7] Significantly, recent lab studies show that beta glucans are triggered when immunity is weakened by stress.[8] Chaga is antioxidant-rich mushroom that helps your body manage inflammation and defends against stress-induced free radicals.[9]

Turkey tail

Polysaccharide krestin (PSK) and polysaccharopeptide (PSP) are the most studied bioactive compounds in turkey tail.[10] PSK is made up of beta-glucans and peptide, and it’s known to stimulate the promotion of T-cells. We also know that PSK activates white blood cells that protect you from bacteria and viruses both inside and outside of cells.[11] Both PSP[12] and PSK stimulate cells that manage the immune response to infection, inflammation and injury.

The polysaccharides are associated with increased activity of superoxide dismutase (SOD), which is a powerful antioxidant that plays an important role in protecting cells against free radicals.[13] SOD also serves as an anti-inflammatory agent and can prevent precancerous changes in cells. Researchers continue to explore the potential role of functional mushrooms on cancer prevention and therapy. 

Don’t wait for your immune system to tell you somethings amiss. Give it what it needs to keep you healthy!

Lisa Petty, PhD is Education Manager at Optimi. Learn more about her interests and background here.

REFERENCES: 

 [1] Foldi M, Farkas N, Kiss S, et al. Visceral adiposity elevates the risk of critical condition in COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2021 Mar;29(3):521–528.

[2] https://www.heartandstroke.ca/healthy-living/healthy-weight/healthy-weight-and-waist

[3] https://news.cancerresearchuk.org/2019/02/28/science-surgery-why-doesnt-the-immune-system-attack-cancer-cells/

[4] Geller, A., & Yan, J. (2020). Could the Induction of Trained Immunity by β-Glucan Serve as a Defense Against COVID-19?. Frontiers in immunology, 11, 1782. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2020.01782

[5] Netea, M. G., Domínguez-Andrés, J., Barreiro, L. B., Chavakis, T., Divangahi, M., Fuchs, E., Joosten, L., van der Meer, J., Mhlanga, M. M., Mulder, W., Riksen, N. P., Schlitzer, A., Schultze, J. L., Stabell Benn, C., Sun, J. C., Xavier, R. J., & Latz, E. (2020). Defining trained immunity and its role in health and disease. Nature reviews. Immunology, 20(6), 375–388. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41577-020-0285-6

[6] Linnakoski, R., Reshamwala, D., Veteli, P., Cortina-Escribano, M., Vanhanen, H., & Marjomäki, V. (2018). Antiviral Agents From Fungi: Diversity, Mechanisms and Potential Applications. Frontiers in microbiology, 9, 2325. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2018.02325

[7] Volman, J. J., Ramakers, J. D., & Plat, J. (2007). Dietary modulation of immune function by β-glucans. Physiology & Behavior94(2), 276–284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.11.045

[8] Vetvicka V, Vancikova Z. Anti-stress action of several orally-given β-glucans. Biomed Pap Med Fac Univ Palacky Olomouc Czech Repub. 2010 Sep;154(3):235-8. doi: 10.5507/bp.2010.035. PMID: 21048809.

[9] Patel, Seema. “Chaga (Inonotus Obliquus) Mushroom: Nutraceutical Assesement Based on Latest Findings.” Emerging Bioresources with Nutraceutical and Pharmaceutical Prospects. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2015. 115–126.

[10] Janjušević, L., Karaman, M., Šibul, F., Tommonaro, G., Iodice, C., Jakovljević, D., & Pejin, B. (2017). The lignicolous fungus Trametes versicolor (L.) Lloyd (1920): a promising natural source of antiradical and AChE inhibitory agents. Journal of enzyme inhibition and medicinal chemistry32(1), 355–362. https://doi.org/10.1080/14756366.2016.1252759 

[11] Moradali, M.-F., Mostafavi, H., Ghods, S., & Hedjaroude, G.-A. (2007). Immunomodulating and anticancer agents in the realm of macromycetes fungi (macrofungi). International Immunopharmacology, 7(6), 701–724. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intimp.2007.01.008

[12]   Saleh, M. H., Rashedi, I., & Keating, A. (2017). Immunomodulatory Properties of Coriolus versicolor : The Role of Polysaccharopeptide. Frontiers in Immunology, 8, 1087–1087. https://doi.org/10.3389/fimmu.2017.01087

[13] Wei, W.S.; Tan, J.Q.; Guo, F.; Ghen, H.S.; Zhou, Z.Y.; Zhang, Z.H.; Gui, L. E_ects of Coriolus versicolor polysaccharides on superoxide dismutase activities in mice. Zhongguo Yao Li Xue Bao 1996, 17, 174–178.