Insides of steel
Immunity or the body's defence mechanism is suddenly under extreme focus. Here's all you thought you knew about your immune system, and what you should actually know
A very recent addition to the menu of a city restaurant has been the Immunity laddoo, a vegan, gluten-free item made of turmeric, jaggery, ginger and black pepper. We haven't asked, but it seems likely that in a post-Coronavirus world, laddoos, smoothies and green juices that pack a punch and promise better defence against a deadly virus are being ordered.
And yet, what do we really know about our immune system?
Simply explained as the body's defence mechanism, this is a complex system comprising biological structures that protect the body against disease. Former director of the Advanced Centre for Treatment, Research and Education in Cancer at the Tata Memorial Centre, Dr Shubhada Chiplunkar, says the immune system comprises two arms. The first, the innate line of defence, is made up of cells that are present in the mucus linings, oral and the gastrointestinal pathways. "When a pathogen—virus, bacteria or parasite—comes into the body through these routes, the innate cells e.g.Natural Killer cells and Gamma delta T cells directly see the pathogen and attack it." The second arm of the immune system, the adaptive arm, says Dr Chiplunkar, breaks down the pathogen into tiny pieces, the peptides and these are presented to CD4 and CD8 T cells protecting the body by preventing their growth by mounting an attack on infected cells.
Dr Om Srivastava, head of Jaslok Hospital's Infectious Diseases Department, says a strong immune system doesn't mean that an infection won't be present in that body. "If you take a random cross section of 100 people, you will find that 70-80 are carrying the tuberculosis bacillus, but not all are infected because their immune system is functioning. However, if that function falls even by 20 per cent, they will contract the disease."
And why is one person's immune system weaker than another's? There are some factors that determine this. Genetics is one. The other is lifestyle and state of mind. "Certain basic factors affect the system, like if the body is dehydrated, or if it's not getting adequate sleep. Tobacco usage and stress also affect it. Every cell takes orders from the brain/mind and if the mind is unsettled or the brain is cluttered, the signalling too will be muddled."
What is a sign of weak immunity? Catching a cold? Not really, says Dr Srivastava. The test is if your body is able to do what it needs to do. If you need to work eight hours a day and can do that, you have peak immunity. Ask yourself: are you fit for what you want to do?
How do you know if your immunity is good enough? One of the first steps, says Dr Srivastava, is to get an annual test after you hit the age of 40, to measure your white blood cells. It will give an indication of the number of T cells in your body. "A good count doesn't mean you won't get a disease, but it will tell you where you stand in terms of numbers."
So, can one boost immunity?
He says lifestyle choices such as smoking, alcoholism, tobacco usage and if an organ is already affected are other factors that could compromise the immune system. Exercise, yoga and a nutritious diet will help. While the benefits of turmeric are well known, how much should you have remains a question. While half teaspoon will work for someone, another may require more. "If I see someone's test results and know that say, they walk for 45 minutes, twice a day; depending on the results, I can prescribe whether they need to increase the walks... But that's the extent of it."
And yet, yoga is no pill for immunity. Rajvi Mehta, reproductive biologist, a student of Iyengar yoga and editor of the magazine Yoga Rahasya, says various studies have proven the efficacy of yoga in helping the body heal. For instance, she points to a May 2014 report, available on PubMed, which found that over a 12-week period, breast cancer patients who practiced Iyengar yoga showed a decline in inflammatory activity in the body. "We have seen that yoga decreases the way people perceive stress and therefore, help practitioners overcome depression and anxiety."
But senior Iyengar Yoga teacher Firooza Razvi points out that while certain asanas will help with immunity, they can't be prescribed as one would a medicine. "You would have to practice daily, and depending on your condition, we will guide you to a practice that suits you. Even so, it will take six months to start showing effect."
Amrita Kaur, an Ayurveda chef, says while the word immunity doesn't appear in Ayurveda, the word that describes it closest is ojas, i.e. vitality. "And, the focus of good health is to get the body's digestion right. It is believed that if the ama, i.e. toxins, are removed from the body, it will be disease free." Some basic steps include not eating processed food, packing in only local, fresh and seasonal vegetables and including bitter foods like neem and karela that help detox, in your diet. "You can have haldi to give yourself a boost. But haldi is fat soluble so it needs to be had at night with milk. If you are vegan, go with almond milk or soy milk instead of water and add some pepper which helps the body absorb the turmeric."
Even following Ayurvedic practices—eating mindfully, without talking to anyone or being glued to a screen—will start showing results only after two weeks or so. "I started feeling lighter when I switched," says Kaur.
So, no the random turmeric latte or a laddoo won't do the trick. Your system needs a long term plan, and what time better than now to chart it and stick to it?
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