Updated September 12, 2020
It has long been accepted that as people age, their immune systems declines (termed immunosenescence). Your thymus gland, the small organ behind your breast bone, plays an important role in the immune and endocrine system. According to medical science the thymus gland starts to atrophy during puberty, and also sometimes due to extreme stress. In spite of the atrophy, it generally continues to play an immune roll in a healthy individual; still training T lymphocytes to fight infection and cancer for your lifetime. As you age you have fewer immune cells, and the ones you do have, don’t communicate with each other as well as they did when you were younger. That means they take longer to react to harmful germs, viruses and to heal from injury. Research reports that this deficiency also impacts whether or not a vaccine will be effective; “B lymphocyte deficiencies have been found which contribute to lower vaccine response in the elderly as well as in some younger individuals”.
From the New England Journal of Medicine article titled Covid-19 and Immunity in Aging Populations — A New Research Agenda –“As we age, health conditions associated with aging, particularly noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, cancers, and metabolic and autoimmune diseases, combined with treatments for these diseases and with immune senescence, substantially affect responses to vaccines and infectious diseases.”
What’s stress got to do with your immune system health? According to Maier, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. “In a real, true sense, stress makes you physically sick”. You can read more about his research below in the section on stress.
Watching the daily news reports highlight the vulnerability of seniors and the immune compromised to viruses, in particular to the current ‘pandemic’. Despite being a healthy senior, I like many older people, feel vulnerable. If I contracted the virus and suffered respiratory complications; my life, as I had it planned out, might take an unscheduled turn. I will continue to heed scientifically researched based information on protecting and maintaining a healthy immune system as I continue to age, as well as, follow government recommendations for health protection.
Our Canadian government and healthcare system have implemented recent measures to protect the senior and immune compromised population, and with everyone’s cooperation, these measures should be enough to keep everyone safe. Please follow the World Health Organization and your country and county’s public health department recommendations for coronavirus protection, your important first step to immune protection.
WHAT CAN YOU DO TO BETTER UNDERSTAND & FIGHT AGE & STRESS RELATED IMMUNE DECLINE?
Modifications and supports:
The thymus is the small organ where T-cells mature. According to the LIVESCIENCE article Immune System: Diseases, Disorders & Function; “This often-overlooked part of the immune system, which is situated beneath the breastbone (and is shaped like a thyme leaf, hence the name), can trigger or maintain the production of antibodies that can result in muscle weakness”, the Mayo Clinic said. How can you determine what factors weaken you? What is on your weak list?
According to research, you can reverse thymic atrophy, rejuvenating immune system responses. A Springer Link research article titled Reversing the immune ageing clock: lifestyle modifications and pharmacological interventions, indicates that you can fight your ‘forcasted’ immune decline. Below are a few summarized points from the research. Visit the link to read the research – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10522-018-9771-7
• high levels of physical activity in adulthood have a beneficial effect on thymic output
• optimal nutrition is an important determinant of healthy ageing and plays a significant role in maintaining healthy immune function
• zinc found in shellfish, meat, nuts, seeds, beans, nutritional yeast and wheat germ is a trace element required for multiple immune cell tasks
• reservatol found in red grapes, peanuts and berries, has immune modulating (enhancing) effects
• a wide range of pharmacological agents with anti-immunesenescence (anti-immune decline) properties have been identified
Taken from a BMC (part of Springer Nature) Immunity & Aging research article titled CMV and Immunosenescence: from basics to clinics – “Alone among herpesviruses, persistent Cytomegalovirus (CMV) markedly alters the numbers and proportions of peripheral immune cells in infected-vs-uninfected people. Because the rate of CMV infection increases with age in most countries, it has been suggested that it drives or at least exacerbates “immunosenescence”. This prompts the question ‘would adding in natural antivirals regularly offset this contributing factor’?
“Growing evidence” reported in the Frontiers of Immunology, Nutritional Immunology article “It is increasingly recognized that nutrient intake, above what is currently recommended, may beneficially affect immune function, modulate chronic inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, and decrease infection risk. This includes both macronutrients (lipids such as n-3 PUFA) and micronutrients (zinc, vitamin D and vitamin E), in addition to phytochemicals and functional foods (probiotics and green tea). Many of these nutritive and non-nutritive food components are related in their functions to maintain or improve immune function including inhibition of pro-inflammatory mediators, promotion of anti-inflammatory functions, modulation of cell-mediated immunity, alteration of APC function, and communication between the innate and adaptive immune systems.”
Your Internal Pharmacy:
Your complex body was created by God (your Creator) with many amazing abilities. Every moment of every day, without any action on your part there are hundreds of processes taking place and abilities available to you, even while you are asleep. The healthy human organism, with its complex high-tech operating system; is continually self-detecting, self-diagnosing, self-renewing, self-healing, self-repairing, self-cleaning and self-protecting. The human body has an exceptional internal pharmacy, including your immune system, which when functioning properly produces necessary threat responders, natural analgesic, anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, anti-stress, sleep-inducing, immune system strengthening and gastrointestinal normalizing chemicals. Many of the body’s processes and abilities are automatic and are often taken for granted. Your body’s pre-programmed amazing abilities and God’s ‘farmacy’, (no not pharmacy); nature’s bounty, can naturally provide you with what your body needs to have good physical, mental emotional and spiritual health. Learn more about your internal pharmacy and how to care for it to maximize health, including a healthy immune response.
The immune system has many protective and signalling functions which require an adequate availability of micronutrients to maintain a healthy immune response. Diet deficiencies of many of these necessary micronutrients are often found in the elderly and immune compromised. The Nutri-Facts article titled Micronutrients and the immune system states “The nutrients collaborate and complement each other in the diverse processes of the immune system”. It is crucial that we ingest an adequate supply of healthy foods with diverse micronutrients to maintain a healthy immune response. Many drugs are associated with the depletion of nutrients that are necessary for a health immune system. Corticosteroids like cortisone and prednisone cause increased zinc excretion. Speak with your doctor and a nutritional consultant to help you maintain a healthy nutrient rich diet. Homemade soups with a large variety of quality ingredients are an excellent way to get a diverse array of immune supporting micronutrients.
According to the Frontiers in Immunology article Immunosenescence (immune decline) and Its Hallmarks: How to Oppose Aging Strategically, “The close connection between nutrition, intake of bioactive nutrients and supplements, immune function, and inflammation demonstrate the key role of dietary strategies as regulators of immune response and inflammatory status, hence as possible modulators of the rate of immunosenescence. The link between aging and disease is in part a reflection of the functional changes in the immune system of older people”. You can read more at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2019.02247/full
The Blue Zones research article, Boost Your Energy and Immunity with These 13 Super “Blue” Foods, reports that you can improve your immunity by making changes in your diet. A diet focused on beans, greens, sweet potatoes, nuts, olive oil, oats, barley, fruits, green or herb teas, turmeric, garlic, shitake mushrooms and goats milk; can boost your immunity. The Blue Zones Solution lays out a proven plan to maximize your health based on the practices of the world’s healthiest people. Dan Buettner reveals how to transform your health using smart eating and lifestyle habits gleaned from new research on the diets, eating habits, and lifestyle practices of the communities he’s identified as blue zones—those places with the world’s longest-lived, and thus healthiest, people. Visit the Blue Zones website to read more at https://www.bluezones.com/2020/03/boost-your-energy-and-immunity-with-these-13-super-blue-foods/.
Are you negatively affected by certain foods or other triggers? Determining the root cause of these can provide you with useful information, allowing you to avoid them and preventing risky immune system distractions and other health challenges. THE WEAK LIST: A Necessary Well-being & Protection Tool . Learn how to use your body responses to identify health challenges in my blog post Health Protection.
Immunotoxicity is an ongoing challenge for all ages. Immunotoxicity is defined as adverse effects on the functioning of both local and systemic immune systems that result from exposure to toxic substances including chemical warfare agents. The personal care, home and garden products that we use daily come with potential immunotoxic challenges, disrupting the body’s natural and necessary immunosurveillance, immunoassessment and immunoresponses. Check out your personal health care products for their potential immunotoxicity ratings at the Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Database – https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/#.
Fragrance in personal care, laundry and household products also contain immunotoxic risks. Check out the Less Toxic Guide for recommendations for less toxic options for other products you regularly use – http://www.lesstoxicguide.ca/.
Workplace exposure to toxins can result in immunotoxicity. Environmental immunology has provided highly tangible benefits in the study of the immune system. The Research Gate article Occupational Immunotoxicology, states that “Occupational immune diseases are some of the most common illnesses that affect workers including inflammation, allergy, respiratory disease, autoimmunity, or other immune modulation resulting in suppression following exposure in the work environment”. Workplace protection for employees from toxins is an employer responsibility.
Stress, Stress Idling and Stress Sensitivity:
According to the Health Psychology Open article titled Psychological intervention based on psychoneuroimmunology; “Beliefs, attitudes, spirituality, and psychological perspectives can dramatically affect our health, disease course, and overall well-being. Psychological and social disorders are also capable of altering the immune system, which may influence vulnerability to the disease and its evolution.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6444782/
In an American Psychological Association article title A new take on psychoneuroimmunology, research is pointing to a circuit linking the immune system and brain connects illness, stress, mood and thought in a whole new way:
“For more than a decade, researchers have known that behavioral and psychological events can influence the immune system. But now new research shows that the immune system sends signals to the brain “that potently alter neural activity and thereby alter everything that flows from neural activity, mainly behavior, thought and mood,” said Maier, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado. In a real, true sense, stress makes you physically sick,” explained Maier. “In addition, many of the changes over time in mood and cognition from day to day are driven by events in the immune system of which we are unaware.”
Do you feel like you are stress idling? Are you sensitive to stress? According to research reported by the American Psychological Association article Stress Weakens the Immune System, “Managing stress, especially chronic or long-term stress (even if it’s not intense), may help people to fight germs”. Germs include bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa. The best action you can take to keep your immune system strong and able to handle ‘germs’, providing virus protection, is to manage your stress.
According to research “individuals who are sensitized to stress become so over time through repeated exposure to external, as well as endogenous, stressors. As such, increasingly minor stressors maintain the disorder than were required to trigger its initial onset”. Being chronically stressed out and stress idling indicate that the body’s stress response is flawed. This can interfere with normal body functions including the necessary communication for accurate immunosurveillance, immunoassessment and immunoresponse.
Managing stress is a necessary ‘must do’ to ensure a healthy immune response. Ensuring a healthy life balance through a more ‘health promoting’ priority list with stress management strategies is an important immune support for all ages, especially those who are elderly, immune compromised, stress idling or stress sensitive. From the American Institute of Stress article by Jim Porter, Are You Stress Sensitive, “My recommendation for stress sensitive people is to take up meditation. Meditation may actually help you rewire your nervous system. One study of mindfulness meditators (at the University of Wisconsin) showed that people who meditated for 30 minutes every day for 8 weeks were actually able to increase the size of their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for happiness and contentment.” Learn more at STRESS: A Modern Day Challenge -. http://mybodycanhealitself.ca/wordpress/?p=1115.
Mindfulness and meditation:
Mindfulness is the psychological process of purposely bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment without judgment. Meditation is an effective tool in this process. Mindfulness practices can reduce rumination and worry which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression; all detrimental to a healthy immune system. Mindfulness comes with many physical and mental health benefits. Consider creating and repeating a personal mantra, another mindfulness practice, which can help calm the mind. “Neuroscientists, equipped with advanced brain-imaging tools, are beginning to quantify and confirm some of the health benefits of this ancient practice, such as its ability to help free your mind of background chatter and calm your nervous system”. Check out my Survival Mantra mantra which helps me get through the hard times when self doubt and stress mounts.
Mindfulness and meditation have been researched for their immune system supporting benefits. According to a Research Gate article titled Meditation and Immune Function: “Practicing meditation has several benefits, including reducing the severity of psychological disorders and stress-related ailments, increasing immune function, and delaying the progression of various diseases. Researchers have found that Mindfulness Meditation, Transcendental Meditation, and Qigong interventions have positive effects on individuals’ NK (natural killer) cell activity and proportions, B-lymphocyte numbers, and telomerase activity, while also keeping CD8+ T-cell numbers stable during times of high stress. In addition, meditation has also been shown to increase antibody response in people injected with the influenza vaccine. Similarly, HIV positive individuals practicing meditation showed increased T-cell and NK cell counts and NK cell activity, slowing the progression of the virus.”
https://www.researchgate.net/…/329479535_Meditation_and_Imm… I listen to the Ultimate Zen Meditation playlist on Spotify for my meditation ‘time outs’ as well as silent meditation on breathing, ‘peace’ and family. The research based ‘ways to’ and ‘how to’ meditate suggestions on this Science of People post are helpful to get started.
Mindfulness is an interesting word.
According to a Harvard Health Publishing article titled Tai chi gives immune system a boost, “Tai chi might have a strong effect on the immune system because it manages to bring exercise, relaxation, and meditation together in “one behavioral intervention,” the researchers said. They theorized that tai chi enhances T cell activity by quieting the nervous system’s ‘fight or flight’ response, which can, in certain circumstances, interfere with the immune system.” https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/In_Brief_Tai_chi_gives_immune_system_a_boost
New research published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine shows that yoga can boost your immune system, helping you fight off viruses and protect you from the damaging health consequences of chronic inflammation. https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/urban-survival/201802/new-research-how-yoga-boosts-your-immune-system
Herbs have long been used to support immune system health. Immune stimulating herbs are recommended to be used short term to help you to resist infection and provide support when exposed to contagious illnesses. Immunomodulating herbs are slower acting, with a more prolonged, deep immune balancing, toning effect.
o Allium sativum – Garlic bulb
o Baptisia tinctoria – Wild Indigo, root
o Commiphora mol-mol – Myrrh, resin
o Echinacea spp. – Purple coneflower, root and seed
o Eupatorium perfoliatum – Boneset, leaves and flowers
o Sambucus canadensis and S. nigra – Elderberry, flowers and fruit
o Spilanthes acmella – Toothache plant, leaves and flowers
o Usnea spp. – Usnea lichen or old man’s beard, whole lichen body
o Zanthoxylum clava-herculis and Z. americanum – Toothache tree, bark
o Panax ginseng – root
o Siberian ginseng, Eleutherococcus senticosus – root
o Astragalus membranaceus – root
o Licorice root, Glycyrrhiza glabra L. – root
o Cat’s claw, Uncaria guianesis and U. tomentosa – root and stalk bark
o Ashwagandha, Withania somnifera – root
https://www.chestnutherbs.com, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1534735403256419, https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/biochemistry-genetics-and-molecular-biology/astragalus-membranaceus, https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/70/3/491s/4714940, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3252722/
Many essential oils support the immune system by either fortifying the immune response or eradicating bacteria and viruses that can make you sick. Essential oils have specific immune-strengthening properties: antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antiseptic and anti-inflammatory. https://fullscript.com/blog/essential-oils-for-immune-health
• Eucalyptus – Immune-modifying and antimicrobial effects of Eucalyptus oil and simple inhalation devices. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20359267
• Frankincense – Modulation of the immune system by Boswellia serrata extracts and boswellic acids. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20696559
• Oregano – Antiviral efficacy and mechanisms of action of oregano essential oil and its primary component carvacrol against murine norovirus. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24779581
• Thyme – Antibacterial and immunity enhancement properties of anaesthetic doses of thyme. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1018364713000918
The preceding information is just a small collection of strategies to get you started on fighting your ‘forcasted’ age related immune decline and immune vulnerability. Check with your regular healthcare provider before implementing changes in your healthcare supports, there may be contraindications due to age, medications or other factors. Do not stop taking your prescribed medication without consultation with your doctor.
For an in depth immune system review to discuss your body’s immunosurveillance, immunoassessment and immunoresponse and how to ensure they are working for you at maximum capacity, book a consultation.
For more health promoting strategies:
Follow my road map: http://mybodycanhealitself.ca/wordpress/?p=2774
My Green Medicine Cabinet: http://mybodycanhealitself.ca/wordpress/?page_id=2914
Elisabeth Hines, C.N.C., C.B.C., Holistic Wellness Practitioner, Health by Design, www.mybodycanhealitself.ca, firstname.lastname@example.org