We’re all acutely more aware of the importance of good health these days, so what’s your new normal to help you achieve this, and why should you focus consistently on your immune system?
The global pandemic has dramatically altered the patterns of life as we know it for people around the world and has highlighted the importance of public health and having a strong immune system. Many of us may not give a second thought to our immunity on a daily basis, but the pandemic has brought our vulnerability into a much clearer focus. As we begin to comprehend our new normal, it’s time to start seriously considering how our lifestyles impact our immunity and how we can support our resilience.
What is the immune system?
Immunity is the body’s control mechanism to protect against infection and to recover from injury, and the immune system is the structure of organs, tissues and microorganisms that performs this important function. The immune system is one of the major components of the body, and it acts as our natural defense mechanism, by protecting us from outside aggressors. It’s helpful to think of the immune system as a fortress, designed to protect against attack. When the walls of the fortress are strong, it reduces the impact of invading forces and keeps those inside safe. People with strong immune cells can be considered to have strong fortress walls. However, sometimes the fortress comes under attack. When this happens, the walls may become damaged and weaken, eventually allowing in the invaders. To help it stay strong, the immune system consists of many different components, including white blood cells, T cells, antibodies, the lymphatic system, spleen, bone marrow and thymus, and it is also aided by “good” bacteria inside our bodies called probiotics.
What factors influence the strength of our immune system?
Our immune systems are influenced by many different factors, most of which are outside of our control; these include our age, gender, genetics, and infection history. However, some factors, including the health of our mitochondria and the balance of antioxidants and free radicals in our bodies, can be influenced by our lifestyle choices. According to immunologists, oxidative stress and mitochondrial health can play significant roles in the strength of our immunity and the efficiency of our immune systems.
What are mitochondrial health and oxidative stress?
During normal cellular and metabolic processes, the cells of the body produce both free radicals and antioxidants. Free radicals are waste products that are unstable because they have an unpaired electron in their outer shell, which causes them to try and “steal” electrons from nearby molecules. This process can create cellular damage which can led to adverse effects on the body. Antioxidants are the “superheroes” of the body that balance out the free radicals, binding to them and stabilizing them to help stop them causing damage. Oxidative stress occurs when the levels of antioxidants and free radicals in our bodies are not balanced, and antioxidants are therefore unable to counteract the damaging effects caused by free radicals. Results can include fatigue, brain fog, compromised immunity, impacts to physical performance and ill health.
Mitochondrial health describes the ability of our mitochondria (our cell powerhouses) to work at their maximum capacity to produce the energy that we need to exercise, fight infection, recover, and carry out all of the major life functions each day. Although mitochondria are a small part of the cell, their health is closely linked to our overall physical wellbeing.
How is immunity influenced by oxidative stress and mitochondrial health?
People experiencing oxidative stress can have reduced immunity because oxidative stress triggers an immune response. You likely heard in high school biology that mitochondria are the “powerhouses of the cell”. Mitochondria convert carbon in our bodies into a substance called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, during the process of cellular respiration, which provides our bodies with energy. As if providing our bodies with the energy we need to survive wasn’t enough, mitochondria also serve as the powerhouses of cellular immunity; the strength of the immune system is linked to the health of the body’s mitochondria. We need our mitochondria to be healthy because they help regulate the body’s immune response and help power the white blood cells, which require a reliable mitochondrial network in order to do their jobs effectively and fight infection.
Who gets oxidative stress and poor mitochondrial health?
Unfortunately, oxidative stress can increase as we age because mitochondrial health is known to decline as we get older. However, it is possible to “turn back the clock” to some extent by boosting the body’s supply of CoQ10, a naturally occurring defensive antioxidant. CoQ10 is naturally produced by the mitochondria, but the quantity produced can diminish as the mitochondria age, which can increase the number of excess free radicals. As well as age, lifestyle factors can also play a major role here. Eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and exercise can all help your mitochondrial health. Factors that are known to increase a person’s risk of experiencing long-term oxidative stress include obesity, diets high in fat, sugar and processed foods, smoking, excess alcohol consumption, some medications and exposure to environmental toxins. Many people first experience oxidative stress as an increased feeling of sluggishness, slower recovery and visible signs of aging.
What can you do about oxidative stress?
The concept of oxidative stress can be intimidating, but while we can’t stop the aging process, we can take control of many of the lifestyle factors that can increase our likelihood of experiencing it. Here are some ways to help reduce the likelihood of oxidative stress in the body, including:
- Limiting the intake of foods that are high in fat or sugar, as well as limiting the intake of processed foods
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and protein
- Reducing or eliminating exposure to environmental toxins
- Exercising regularly
- Quitting the use of cigarettes and other tobacco products and moderating alcohol consumption
- Reducing stress
- Maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding obesity
In addition to living a healthy, balanced lifestyle with plenty of exercise, we are able to support our immunity and help reduce oxidative stress by supplementing the levels of CoQ10 in our bodies. As previously established, CoQ10 is a defensive antioxidant that helps support the mitochondria from damage by free radicals. CoQ10 is notoriously difficult to supplement because of the difficulty in permeating the mitochondrial membrane and the comparatively large particle size of regular CoQ10 supplements; however, scientists in New Zealand studied the drawbacks of CoQ10 and created a new advanced form of it that is highly absorbable by the mitochondria, at much lower doses. Their formula, called MitoQ, can help stave off the effects of oxidative stress and improve mitochondrial health, in turn helping to support a healthy immune system.