We take a lot of things for granted in our everyday lives. We flip a switch to light a room; we press a button to cool the air; and we turn a key to travel to a new location. These simple, mundane activities are done without a second thought about why or how they are able to occur. We don’t analyze electricity or focus on the engine of our car or the innerworkings of our air conditioning until something goes wrong. Most of these activities work quietly in the background to keep us happy, safe and content. The same can be said about our immune system. Except it is undoubtedly more important, and much more damaging when something goes wrong.
The immune system is a complex system of cells and proteins that protect and defend the body from infection. While you cannot see your immune system at work, it is like a strong and silent warrior, fighting relentlessly in the background to ward off unwanted invaders that can make us sick. While your immune system may come to mind once or twice per year when you develop a cold or the flu, it has stepped more significantly into the spotlight since COVID-19 hit the scene.
Immune System “Boosting” Isn’t The Answer
The keys to staying healthy and living well include eating a diet rich in whole foods, staying hydrated, minimizing stress, exercising, sleeping 8 hours a night (or more!) and steering clear of toxic chemicals and pollutants. We all know this. But what many people may NOT know is that eating your daily allowance of green veggies and exercising regularly may not prevent you from getting sick. While leading a healthy lifestyle will certainly help create a strong body and, in turn, a strong immune system, it’s not the full picture.
The complex immune system is still somewhat of a mystery to researchers. And while “boosting” something in your body sounds enticing, the idea that you can ramp up the cells in your immune system to prevent illness is somewhat flawed, not to mention scary for those with autoimmune disorders who want anything but a boosted immune system. When someone has an autoimmune disorder, the body cannot distinguish healthy cells from foreign invaders (such as germs or bacteria) and it creates antibodies that can destroy healthy tissue. Making certain elements of immunity more active would be unpleasant and quite frankly, dangerous for this group of people.
The key is to support the regular mechanics of your existing immune system.
The immune system is like a finely tuned machine. It is composed of different cells and processes designed to identify foreign, potentially harmful agents in the body and destroy them. Identifying the right cells to support is complicated and likely not possible by consuming certain foods, for example, or through physical exercise (or any other “healthy habit”). Additionally, the body is always producing and generating immune cells. The development of new cells, their death and subsequent removal from the body are natural processes that the body is specifically trained to do on its own.
So, is it possible to help the immune system function more effectively?
Supporting the Immune System Through our Cells
Inside the majority of our body’s trillions of cells are tiny organelles called mitochondria. The mitochondria are commonly referenced as the “powerhouses” of the cell because they are responsible for converting the air that we breathe and the food that we eat into energy that the body needs to stay alive and well – some of these processes include organ function, physical activity, recovery processes, digestion, hormones, sleep and brainpower (to name a few). What may be news to most is that there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that the mitochondria – in addition to powering our bodies so we can thrive each day – may also be linked to our immunity.
The mitochondria are involved with many essential processes that support the immune system, including: the activation, differentiation and survival of immune cells – such as Natural Killer Cells (a type of white blood cell that is tasked with fighting aggressors), Macrophages (defensive cells within white blood cells that attack and destroy invaders) and T-Cells (immune response cells that fight infection).
When we’re young, our mitochondria are highly efficient – we have a lot of energy, we recover more quickly from illness and we’re able to bounce back from a strenuous workout in a more timely fashion. This is why it seems like younger people recover more quickly from the common cold than those of us who are 40+ who can spend weeks suffering.
Much like everything else in our bodies, the mitochondria can become less efficient as we age. After we reach the age of 30, our mitochondrial function can decline by about 10% with each passing decade!
A key function of the mitochondria is to produce an enzyme called CoQ10, which is an antioxidant that helps create cellular energy and neutralize excess free radicals. As we age and if the mitochondria start to slow down, the production of CoQ10 can also start to decline, resulting in increased fatigue and more free radicals.
CoQ10 supplements are widely available and recommended by many doctors. As a result of the mitochondrial slow down, supplementing with CoQ10 is an important way to support overall health and the immune system as we age up. However, most CoQ10 supplements on the market are too large to penetrate the mitochondrial membrane efficiently; this means that most of the important ‘stuff’ gets absorbed into the bloodstream (as opposed to the mitochondria, where it is needed most).
One exception is a relatively new supplement that’s an enhanced form of CoQ10, called MitoQ. This uniquely formulated CoQ10 supplement is designed to pass through the mitochondria’s strong double membrane to act directly in the mitochondria. Studies show that it is actually absorbed into the mitochondria hundreds of times more effectively than any other form of CoQ10.
Supporting mitochondrial health is an important component of overall health and wellness. And while taking a supplement – even CoQ10 – will not make anyone completely immune to getting sick or prevent you from aging, there is evidence that links certain immune system processes to the health of the mitochondria.
Time to Focus on our Health and Wellness
As we navigate the current pandemic together as a nation — with our friends across the globe – it is important to realize that there is no one-size-fits-all method to support our immune system. And while it is challenging to live in a world where some of our everyday, usual activities are now temporarily limited or suspended, there is a silver lining to this new normal. Many of us have started to focus more on developing healthy habits – whether that means taking more time to cook nutritious meals, getting more sleep at night or simply getting more physical activity each day – health and wellness have become a priority for millions of people who want to ensure their bodies are in top shape to fight off potential infection. Taking care of the body at a cellular level by nurturing the mitochondria is another effective way to keep the body functioning in top form.