How to know if your immune system is compromised and what to do about it.

Author
Dr. Quinten D Fourie
Published:
May 25, 2020

A compromised immune system is an easy target for many viruses and not just COVID-19. President Ramaphosa recently announced that we will soon be heading for a further easing of lock-down restrictions which means that many of us will be returning to work & school. While we are all thankful for the slow return to normality or at least something that resembles it, we also need to be aware of what we can do to further protect ourselves as we go about it.

Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that our immune systems are strong so that re-entry into "life" doesn't immediately send us back to bed with a head cold, or worse.

What is Impaired immune system function?

When the immune function is under-active or there is a poorly performing immune system, it is regarded as an impaired immune system. When we say an immune function is compromised, it refers to either a problem within the immunity, or a chronic disease (like cancer, HIV and diabetes) that affects different or all aspects of immune function.  

The immune system’s prime function is to protect the body against pathological organisms (like viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites) that cause infection. 

The immune system also guards against the development of cancer. Therefore, it is important to support and enhance the immune system as this helps achieving resistance to disease and reducing susceptibility to infections and cancer.  

We support the immune system by living a health-promoting lifestyle, managing abnormal stress, regularly exercise, a healthy diet, and the appropriate use of quality nutritional supplements (nutraceuticals).

5 questions that may reveal the status of your immune system:

  • Do you catch colds easily?
  • Do you get more than two colds a year?
  • Do you have chronic infections like cold sores or glandular fever?
  • Are your lymph glands sore and swollen at times?
  • Do you currently have, or have you ever had cancer?

Answering yes to one or more of these questions could indicate a compromised immune system.

A weakened immune system is easily infected. If left untreated this can lead to recurrent or chronic infections. In a weakened immune system, infections further compromise the remaining strength of that system making it even  more difficult to overcome.

To break this cycle, we need to work on strengthening the immune system and not just treating the symptoms of infection. 

How does your immune system become impaired?

Your emotional state, stress levels, lifestyle, diet, and nutrition affect your immune system. A vast number of studies indicate that a deficiency in any single nutrient can profoundly impair the immune system which is why nutrient deficiency is the most common culprit. 

Overview of immune system

There are different ways to classify immunity, but a simple overview of the immune system is easier to understand. 

The three layers of the immune system include; physical and biochemical barriers; cellular immunity such as monocytes, granulocytes, lymphocytes, and B-and T-cells; and lastly the antibody system, better known as immunoglobulins. 

These layers are involved in the innate and adaptive immune systems and work together to protect the body against pathogens (organisms that cause disease). 

The innate immune system includes the anatomical and biochemical barriers and a non specific cellular response. This cellular immunity is mediated mainly by monocytes, neutrophils, natural killer cells and dendritic cells. These mechanisms work together to fight off pathogens before they can start an active infection. 

The adaptive immune system is an antigen-specific (antigen is a foreign component for the body) response which is mediated by T-and B-lymphocytes (white cells) that are activated by exposure to pathogens.

Thus, the adaptive immunity works with the innate immune system to reduce the severity of infection. 

Another layer of immunity is the complement system (like C3 and C4) that can work with both the innate and adaptive immune systems. This is called opsonization, which basically would attack pathogens’ mechanically. 


Which nutritional supplements help to repair  immune function?

An effective way to treat a compromised immune system is through the introduction of nutritional supplements. 

Micro-nutrients are important in immune mechanism

Deficiency in Vitamins A (and beta carotene), C, D3, E, B2, B6, folic acid (B9) and B12 can significantly impair immune function. Minerals like iron, zinc and selenium are also especially important in immunity.

These micronutrients have immunomodulatory and/or antioxidant effects. Their adequacy in the body can influence the susceptibility to infectious diseases, as well as the course and outcome of an infection. 

It is therefore important to have a good quality and high potency multivitamin and mineral supplementation. Essential oils like Omega 3 marine oils with the combination of EPA and DHA in it is as important as the vitamins and minerals.  

Vitamin D3

Vitamin D3 is especially important for immune health. Individuals who have a Impaired vitamin D3, may have twice as many upper respiratory tract infections as those with higher levels. Clinical studies have validated vitamin D3’s ability to reduce the risk of colds and flu. Vitamin D3 is a particularly important supplement in integrative medicine and optimal levels are always aimed for. 

Echinacea 

Echinacea has been shown to exert significant effects on the immune function in many scientific investigations

Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceous) 

Astragalus root (Astragalus membranaceous) is a traditional Chinese medicine used to treat different viral infections including the common cold. Clinical studies have shown it to be effective when used as a preventive measure against the common cold. It has also been shown to raise white blood cell counts in chronic leukopenia (i.e. Impaired white blood cell levels). 

Research has shown that Astragalus works by stimulating several factors of the immune system. It appears to stimulate white blood cells to engulf and destroy invading organisms and cellular debris. It shows to enhance the production of interferon (a key natural compound produced by the body to fight viruses). 

Beta-glucans

Beta-glucans have been shown to be effective in several double-blind studies in boosting immunity in preventing colds, flu and other viral infections. Studies showed less people missed work or school due to colds. 

There were no incidences of fever in these studies and there was an increase in quality of life, including physical energy and emotional well-being. Medicinal mushrooms like maitake, shitake, reishi and cordyceps possess significant immune enhancing effects. Much of this activity is due to the presence of beta-glucans. Clinical studies have shown that mushroom beta-glucans activate white blood cells and signalling by enhancing Natural Killer cells, Tumour Necrosis factor, T-helper cells and interleukins. 

Probiotic

Probiotics refer to health-promoting bacteria products containing species like Lactobacilli and Bifidobacterium. These combinations of probiotics can be valuable aids in boosting immunity

Vitamin C

Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant like Glutathione and helps convert vitamin E to its active state. It supports the integrity of the epithelial layer as it aids in production of collagen and therefore provides a protective barrier immunity.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A is important for the structure and function of the mucosa, thus barrier immunity. It aids in normal function of Natural killer cells, macrophages (specialised white cells) and the antibody response to the antigens. It supports inflammation (Th2) response. 

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an important fat-soluble antioxidant. It protects cell membranes from free radicals. It increases the signalling by Interleukin-2 and improves the cytotoxic effect of the natural killer cells. It enhances the T cell-mediated functions and lymphocytic proliferation. 

Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 regulates inflammation. It plays a role in the endogenous production of amino acids which is the building blocks for cytokines and antibodies. It assists with lymphocyte proliferation, differentiation and maturation.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 aids in the Natural Killer cell function. It is an immune modulator in cellular immunity especially effects of cytotoxic cells and CD8+ T-cells.

Vitamin B9 (Folate) 

Vitamin B9 (Folate) maintains the innate immunity, thus the Natural Killer cells. It plays an important role in cell mediated immunity. It facilitates good antibody response to antigens.

Zinc

Zinc is an antioxidant mineral especially against reactive nitrogen and oxygen species. It modulates the release and the proliferation of CD8+ T-cells. It maintains skin and mucosal membrane activity. It plays an important role in cellular growth and differentiation of immune cells and increases the differentiation and turnover time of cells. It is required for T-lymphocyte development and activation

Iron

Iron regulates the cytokine production and action. It kills bacteria by increasing toxic hydroxyl radicals. It also increases reactive oxygen species to kill pathogens. It is important in differentiation and production of T-cells. It is an important component in enzymes functioning in immune cells.

Copper

Copper is a mineral free radical scavenger that has antimicrobial properties. It accumulates at inflammatory sites to increase Interleukin-2 production and response which aids in T-cell proliferations. It plays a role in antibody and cellular immunity.

Selenium

Selenium is important for enzyme functions that act as redox regulators and cellular antioxidants. These seleno-proteins are important for antioxidant defence systems affecting leucocyte and natural killer cell function. Involved in T-lymphocyte proliferation. Plays an important role in the humoral (antibodies) system.

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Dr. Quinten D Fourie
About The Author

Dr. Quinten D Fourie

MBBCh (Wits) – General Practitioner | Aesthetic Medicine | Integrative Medicine | Regenerative medicine

Dr. Quinten D Fourie obtained his medical degree at University of Witwatersrand in 2005. He has worked in private, aesthetic and integrative practices since 2008.