It’s that time of year again.

Colds and flu are rampant.  The sounds of coughs and sneezes fill offices, schools and public places.  Soon, the emergency wards of hospitals will be overfilled and medications will be flying off the shelves at pharmacies in the Northern Hemisphere.

Winter illnesses are almost as routine as the Christmas shopping season and New Year’s resolutions.  Unless one takes on the role of a hermit, exposure to infected individuals is simply a part of life and being infected is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’.

Most people accept this as just another hardship in our reality and wait until they are sick to start finding ways that they can cope.  But there are ways to increase the chances of preventing an infection by sparking the immune system into action.  What’s even more fascinating is that these methods are not dependent on pharmacological agents, rather, they are based on age-old natural ingredients that have been harnessed and made readily available to anyone.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is one of those molecules that almost everyone knows is good for the body but few actually know why.  Thanks to some great research over the last few years, (reviewed in Scientific American), the mechanism behind Vitamin D’s activity in the body has been better understood.

Essentially, the active version of the Vitamin D molecule, known as D3 (right), ‘stimulates’ the immune system by increasing the rate of maturity and activation of a particular set of cells, known as a T-cells, which are important in fighting off infections.  If T-cells are working well, they may even be able to clear an infection before any symptoms, such as coughs and sneezes, can occur.  The mechanism is rather complicated (you can read the abstract at the Nature Immunology site) however, what can be said is that with enough Vitamin D3 in the system (whether it be through nutrition, supplementation or sunlight), T-cells are activated and put on ‘alert’.

To put it a little more succinctly, if you remember the old-fashioned Homeland Security Advisory System (to the Right), Vitamin D3 helps to raise the level of awareness from Low and Guarded to Elevated (Yellow).

For those who remember the years between 2002 and 2008 and the regular reminders on the news of the ‘color of the day’, you know that while there was the belief that a threat was present, there was really no worry that anything bad would happen.  What’s great is that if Vitamin D3 is doing it’s job, even when the presence of an infection is detected, the immune system does its job without the body (i.e. you) knowing any different.

As for how much to take to be enough?  That’s still up for debate but the number has risen from 400 IU to 600 to as high as 1,000 IU (International Units).   I tend to take 1,000 IU a day along with a multivitamin.

LACTIC ACID BACTERIA

There’s no doubt that I’m a proponent for probiotics (and based on Rick Perry’s latest gaffe on the voting age, it’s obvious that he still hasn’t contacted me) however, I have to take a step back here and say that probiotics, which great for the body and the immune system, are in general not specific enough to help boost the immune system.

Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB), which can be found in many fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and pickles, as well as probiotic supplements, are the real heroes when it comes to stimulating the immune system.

These bacteria are covered in a plethora of molecules that are just perfect for a certain kind of immune cell called the dendritic cell (DC).

DCs “surveillance sentry”  of the gut.  These cells normally sit back and relax, awaiting any signs of danger from neighboring cells.  If they are not particularly active, it may take time for these cells to become stimulated, react and call for the cavalry.  However, much like anyone who has tried to bug a sentry guard like the one to the right, they get stimulated and even a little annoyed, but they don’t act unless there is a threat.

Put it this way, say what you will at their face but touch them and you’ll be in a whole hurt of trouble in microseconds.

There is no real limit to the number of LABs you can ingest, in fact on some depressing days, I’ve found myself putting back an entire tub of yogurt (vanilla, not cookie dough, just for the record) without any gastrointestinal regret.  And as for the probiotic pills, make sure there’s at least a Lactobacillus strain and you know you’ll be getting a good dose of those great LABs.

GARLIC

Okay, this one is pretty easy.  After all, garlic has been regarded as a traditional cure for millenia.  What’s really cool is that science agrees!  The main component of garlic, Allicin (right), has been tested for all sorts of possible benefits including antimicrobial activity, anti-cancer activity and higher energetics.

But for me, the most amazing positive effect is one that has been around for decades but never really studied in depth until recently.

Garlic Reduces Stress-Related Immunosuppression!!! 

Okay, so maybe that’s cool for me but maybe I can make it a little bit cooler for you.

Imagine this.  You’re in the mall, there are hundreds, no thousands of people around.  You’re shopping for that one great gift for your loved one but there’s not one store that has it on the shelf.  You ask and are greeted by shouts, yells and even a curse or two.  You find that everyone is on edge and it’s getting to you.

You decide to head out to another mall (they don’t deserve your money anyway) but find the same situation and the same empty shelf.  You try another, and another, gaining nothing but frustration, anger, depression and that smell of the food court that somehow penetrates and stays in your clothing.  At some point, you realize that there is no chance.  You’re going to have to concede defeat and try to imagine another less interesting and perhaps less rewarding gift.

As you back to the mall, you feel the tightness in your neck and the burning in your eyes.  You just want to get that gift and get out.  You approach the mall yet again and with a deep breath, move in the first set of doors.  As you approach the second, a kind gentleman opens the door in front of you to let you in.  It’s a brief but welcome kindness.  With a “Thank You”, you pass by just as the kind stranger…well…

You get the idea.

If you were calm and relaxed, there is a good likelihood that your body would react to this sudden infectious offence in such a way to do its best to prevent the virus from taking hold and causing symptoms.

But, because of the accumulation of stress, the immune system becomes depressed and sluggish.  It may not react in time and even worse, may simply not do anything while the virus takes hold.  This stress related immunosuppression is one of the worst problems humans encounter because quite honestly, we are all exposed to stress.  It’s a shame that we end up getting infected as a result.

Here’s where it gets fun.  Due to papers, such as this one on aged garlic extract, supplementation of garlic appears to reverse and block these immunosuppressive effects of stress and allow the body to react to infections as it it were normal.  In this case, if you were taking garlic supplementation, you may not have to worry as much about that kind stranger’s sneeze or any other of the sources of infections.  Granted, you’d still be better off following proper hand hygiene and social distancing, but having a body that’s prepared and at the ready is far more advantageous.

#HACKINGHEALTH

Over the next while, I’ll be focusing on alternative routes to improve health that are based on evidence from the literature and in some cases on my own experimentation.  I believe that we are reaching a new age of awareness of health and that we need to start thinking about how we can improve ourselves through routes that may not be mainstream, but still effective.  A colleague explained that this is essentially health hacking, and I’ve decided to give it a little twist, #hackinghealth.  I hope that I can start the trend, as I did with #handhygiene to bring all those interested in novel and alternate ways to improve health together and starting a new conversation that is based in solid and strong evidence, but incorporates the innovative thinking that continues to define this generation.

As always, thoughts, questions, comments and ideas are welcome.

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