Dr Ashfauq Farooq Aga
The Coronavirus pandemic has turned the world’s attention to the immune system, the body’s defence force against disease-causing bacteria, viruses and other organisms that we touch, ingest and inhale every day. A healthy lifestyle – not smoking, drinking little or no alcohol, sleeping well, eating a balanced diet, taking regular moderate exercise and reducing stress – helps our immune system be in the best shape possible to tackle pathogens.
What is the immune system?
Dr Jenna Macciochi, author of an excellent book on immunity, explains that the immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins working to build up defences when an infection enters our body. “The different cells of the immune system mask appropriate defensive responses, usually resulting in inflammation. Incredibly, the immune system has a capacity to remember what the best methods were to attack previous invaders so that a future exposure will be much less problematic. This is how immunity is built up and the basis of how vaccines work,” writes Dr Michael Barnish, specialist in infectious diseases. Unfortunately, as the Covid-19 strain of coronavirus is novel, it is not known whether or when our bodies will build up immunity to the virus. “We do not know enough about the interaction between the current coronavirus and our immune system to definitely say if we would develop a protective immune memory response,” explains Dr Macciochi. “And if we do, we don’t know if the memory response is long-lived. Nor do we know whether the virus will mutate and evade that protective memory.”
But there is some good news. As people are recovering from Covid-19, it suggests our bodies are capable of an immune response to the virus. “We know, with many people recovering from coronavirus, that the immune system can successfully fight off the Covid-19 virus. Evidence of the role each immune cell type plays is emerging. There are some similarities being observed to the flu virus response,” Dr Barnish adds. “Our bodies will have the capacity to build immunity to Covid-19, if exposed. However, like many viruses, this coronavirus can change easily and often. A new version of the virus may have the ability to hide from the immune memory cells. This is why influenza vaccines need to be given each year (rather than just a few times in a lifetime), to keep up with these changes.”
Bolstering the immune system
Protecting our immune system will help keep us healthy and help us recover from illness faster. “Now is not the time for drastic lifestyle changes but the small things matter. That includes taking care of your sleep, getting some daily movement even if self isolating, eating well and keeping up to date with the changing guidance,” Dr Macciochi advises.
Dr Barnish adds that looking after the immune system doesn’t have to be complicated. Eating of fruits and fresh vegetables is necessary to increase vitamin intake. “Vitamins C, D and B12 are critically important, so consider an oral supplement, especially if you have been compromised,” he explains. Also look for antioxidants such as Co-enzyme Q10 or Alpha Lipoic Acid (in broccoli, spinach, potatoes, yeast, tomatoes, carrots, beetroot and Brussels sprouts) and electrolytes like magnesium (sources include nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables and oily fish). “Avoid smoking and eating burnt food or anything that allows the toxic substance polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) to accumulate in cells and over-processed food – all deplete our immune systems,” Dr Barnish says. In a nutshell, eating healthily, unprocessed foods, staying active and getting enough sleep are the simplest way to ensure your immune system is healthy enough to fight off germs.
Immune system boosters
Feeding your body certain foods may help keep your immune system strong. Popular citrus fruits, which include grapefruit, ranges, tangerines, lemons and limes, contain Vitamin C which is thought to increase the production of white blood cells, which are key to fighting infections. Red bell peppers (Shimla Mirch) contain twice as much Vitamin C as citrus fruits. They’re also a rich source of beta carotene. Besides boosting your immune system, Vitamin C may help maintain healthy skin. Beta carotene helps keep your eyes and skin healthy. Garlic is recognized for its value in fighting infections. Garlic’s immune-boosting properties come from a heavy concentration of sulfur-containing compounds, such as allicin. Ginger may help decrease inflammation, which can help reduce a sore throat and other inflammatory illnesses. Ginger may also help decrease nausea.
Spinach made our list not just because it’s rich in vitamin C but because it’s also packed with numerous antioxidants and beta carotene. Similar to broccoli, spinach is healthiest when it’s cooked as little as possible so that it retains its nutrients. However, light cooking enhances its Vitamin A and allows other nutrients to be released from Oxalic acid. Almonds contain Vitamin E which is key to a healthy immune system. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it requires the presence of fat to be absorbed properly. Black seeds (Kalonji) and honey with warm water also boost our immune system. Similarly, apple cedar has a pronounced effect on boosting our immune system. Turmeric is anti-inflammatory in treating both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. High concentrations of curcumin, which gives turmeric its distinctive colour, can help decrease exercise-induced muscle damage. Green tea really excels is in its levels of epigallocatechin gallate, or EGCG, another powerful antioxidant. EGCG has been shown to enhance immune function. Green tea is also a good source of the amino acid L-theanine. L-theanine may aid in the production of germ-fighting compounds in your T-cells. Like papayas, kiwis are naturally full of a ton of essential nutrients, including folate, potassium, Vitamin K, and Vitamin C. Vitamin C boosts white blood cells to fight infection. Zinc doesn’t get as much attention but our bodies need it so that our immune cells can function as intended. Varieties of shellfish that are high in zinc include crab, clams, lobster, and mussels.
Boosting our immune system certainly produces many more lymphocytes than it can possibly use. The extra cells remove themselves through a natural process of cell death called apoptosis — some before they see any action, some after the battle is won.
Temperature and humidity
Coronaviruses can be affected by a number of factors, including climate conditions such as temperature and humidity. Therefore, understanding the relationship between weather and the transmission of Covid-19 is the key to forecasting the intensity and duration of this pandemic. Jingyuan Wang et al (2020) reported from Wuhan that high temperature and high humidity significantly reduce the transmission of Covd-19. One-degree Celsius increase in temperature and one percent increase in relative humidity lower daily effective reproductive number, R, by 0.0225and 0.0158, respectively. This result indicates that the arrival of summer and rainy season in the northern hemisphere can effectively reduce the transmission.
Impact of age
Individuals of any age can contract coronavirus infection, although adults of middle age and older are most commonly affected. In a report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention that included approximately 44,500 confirmed infections, 87 percent of patients were between 30 and 79 years of age. Symptomatic infection in children appears to be relatively uncommon; when it occurs, it is usually mild.
Home management of the infection is appropriate for patients with mild infection or asymptomatic infection. Management of such patients should focus on prevention of transmission to others and monitoring for clinical deterioration. Management of patients who warrant hospitalisation consists of ensuring appropriate infection control and supportive care (including oxygenation and potentially ventilator support for acute respiratory distress syndrome).
To help reduce the spread of coronavirus, environmental disinfection control procedures should be implemented The importance of environmental disinfection was illustrated in a study from Singapore, in which viral RNA was detected on nearly all surfaces tested (handles, light switches, bed and handrails, interior doors and windows, toilet bowl, sink basin) in the isolation room of a patient with symptomatic mild Covid-19 prior to routine cleaning. Viral RNA was not detected on similar surfaces in the rooms of two other symptomatic patients following routine cleaning (with sodium dichloro isocyanurate). However, in a systematic review of similar studies, various disinfectants (including ethanol at concentrations between 62 and 71 percent) inactivated a number of coronaviruses related to Covid-19 within one minute.
If community transmission of Covid-19 is present, residents should be encouraged to practice social distancing by staying home as much as possible and maintaining six feet distance from others when they have to leave home. In particular, individuals should avoid crowds and close contact with ill individuals.
The writer is Asst Professor at SKUAST Kashmir. [email protected]