Since the spread of the COVID-19 last year, many people have become more health aware and have invested in vitamin supplements with the hope of boosting their immune system to reduce their chances of getting sick. This ‘quick-fix’ has become so widespread that many ‘hyper-immunity’ solutions are being marketed, blurring the line between evidence-based medicine and hearsay.
According to this year’s Global Wellness Trend Report: The Future of Wellness 2021, the supplement trend is losing its popularity because people are now looking for firm scientific evidence before they start popping any pills. The report also shines a light on how the pandemic exposed the overlooked connection between metabolic syndrome and a compromised immune system that causes the body to be more prone to the virus. People with metabolic syndrome (characterized by any three out of the following five: high blood cholesterol, high triglyceride, high fasting blood sugar level, high blood pressure, and increased waist circumference) are more likely to get ill from COVID-19 due to the suppression of the immune system and high level of inflammation. The culprit is not just poor diet, lack of exercise and stress. Recently more attention has been given to the microbiome or our friendly neighbor ‘the gut bacteria’.
With our modern fast-paced lifestyle, people are now consuming more processed food which means the body is getting less fiber. Fiber from food is a prebiotic that assists good gut health by feeding healthy gut bacteria. In addition, the microbiome makes up as much as 70% of our immune system. Therefore, maintaining a healthy gut is the key to protecting our immune system from the virus. A new study also reveals that the guts of COVID-19 patient’s lack the good bacteria found in healthy individuals and that the disruption of the microbiome lasts for a long period of time even though the patients are disease-free.
So how can we enhance our gut immune system? There are the options of probiotics that are present in fermented food such as yogurt, tempeh, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, kimchi and sour pickles. Prebiotics in food such as whole grains, bananas, garlic, asparagus, onions, leeks, artichoke, and chicory roots serves as food for the probiotics. The two – prebiotics and probiotics – are often combined to form ‘synbiotics’ and prescribed as supplements in the form of freeze dried powder or capsules. The Global Wellness Trend Report 2021 also emphasizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is calling urgently for personalized nutrition. Evidence-based lab tests nowadays are able to help detect gut dysbiosis or imbalances of the gut bacteria and help doctors personalize the treatment of each patient. Research scientists have also reached a consensus that each person has different nutritional needs because of their unique genetic makeup. Therefore, instead of prescribing a handful of vitamin and minerals, the focus is now switched to finding out how each person responds to different types of food and determining risks of vitamin deficiency by performing nutritional genetic tests. With the new personal data, doctors will be able to address the patient’s weaknesses and help tailor lifestyle changes and vitamin supplements that is compatible with their genes and overall condition. It is clear that the microbiome and personalized nutrition is the future of gut health.
Rarely reported but also of importance to our immunity and overall health is how social we are. Research indicates there is a link between inflammation, isolation and depression and could be a reason why two people with the same chronic condition react differently to certain stressors. Those with solid support from friends and family are far less likely to succumb to viruses for instance than those who are lonely or lack of support group.
This cycle is explained by some fascinating science, summarised in the journal of Neuropsychoparacology In Sickness and in Health: The Co-Regulation of Inflammation and Social Behavior (nih.gov) Chemicals called cytokines, which function as messengers in the immune system and cause inflammation, also change our behaviour, encouraging us to withdraw from general social contact. This, the paper argues, is because sickness, during the more dangerous times in which our ancestral species evolved, made us vulnerable to attack. People who are depressed also tend to have higher cytokine levels. While separating us from society as a whole, inflammation also causes us to huddle closer to those we love. Which is fine unless you have no such person. People without strong social connections are more prone to inflammation. In the evolutionary past, social isolation exposed us to a higher risk of predation and sickness. So the immune system appears to have evolved to listen to the social environment, ramping up inflammation when we become isolated, in the hope of protecting us against wounding and disease. In other words, isolation causes inflammation, and inflammation can cause further isolation and depression.
All of this informs us that to keep a healthy immune system we need to take care of our microbiome by eating the right foods and supplements and that we should stay socially connected.
If you are not sure how to embark on this new self-care journey, feel free to come and have a chat with our health experts at Body Conscious at Y Wellness. With our state -of- the -art facilities and stress-free environment, we will help you rediscover your immune power through personalized treatments and therapies.
Written by: Dr.Pavinee Maneepairoj