In a few weeks, I’ll be lining up, along with about 35% of the Canadian population, to receive the flu shot. In doing so, I’ll be ignoring the bad press, the less than 50% prevention rate, and the physical discomfort to do this. Why? Because, as I grow older, I’m discovering that I can’t rely on my immune system to do the splendid job it did in the past to protect me from the millions of pathogens that come my way all fall and winter.
Up until 2 years ago, I never gave the flu a thought. Ominous suggestions that the ‘elderly’ were susceptible to illness and disease seemed at best, ageist, and at worst, insulting. I was in excellent health, I looked after myself—a weakened immune system couldn’t happen to me.
A few bouts of the cold and flu later, I’ve changed my mind, and now give in to the shot, which I know may or may not protect me. Half a loaf is better than none, I tell myself.
Science is confirming what we have always suspected, yet are reluctant to admit: Age does make you more likely to become ill, and that’s because of something called immunosenescence.
Difficult to spell, but very specific in its meaning, immunosenescence refers to the changes that occur in the immune system with age—this means an increased risk of infections, malignancy, and autoimmune disorders.
This is an emerging field, made urgent now, due to the increasing number of people entering their senior years.
Some facts about your immune system
Our body’s defense system, what we’ve always referred to as our immune system, is a complex network of cells, tissues, and organs, which include the tonsils, the thymus, the spleen, bone marrow, and gut.
When working well, this system defends our body against the invasion of pathogens, like bacteria and viruses.
However, research indicates that for some of us, this defense system weakens with age. It simply does not work as well as it used to.
The medical community agrees that you are likely to get sick more often as you age, that you recover from injuries, infections and illnesses more slowly, and that you may not respond as well to vaccines.
This is how it works
Your body’s T cells, which attack other, illness-causing cells, are normally able to “remember” an invader from a previous illness, and defend against it. Evidently, as we age, we make fewer T cells, and the ones we have don’t communicate with each other or relate to vaccines as well.
An article in a Harvard Health Publication elaborates:
“No one knows for sure why this happens, but some scientists observe that this increased risk correlates with a decrease in T cells, possibly from the thymus atrophying with age and producing fewer T cells to fight off infection. Thymus function declines beginning at age one; whether this decrease in thymus function explains the drop in T cells or whether other changes play a role is not fully understood. Others are interested in whether the bone marrow becomes less efficient at producing the stem cells that give rise to the cells of the immune system.”
If you are concerned that you might not be able to fight the invasion of pathogens this coming flu season you, like many others, might be drawn to alternate ways of strengthening your immune system.
Vitamin manufacturers are aware of this trend, and have responded with claims that certain vitamins and supplements can enhance your immune system. There is little scientific support for these claims, since it has proven difficult to test vitamin effectiveness through controlled experiments.
Conventional medicine has been harsh in their judgement of the use of vitamins and herbal treatments. But experience does count for something. There is a reason that millions of people, and especially older people, are drawn to their use—given the right set of circumstances, they do work.
Other things you can do
1. Eat well
There’s no special diet for the immune system. But researchers do know that a varied diet full of vitamin and mineral-rich foods contribute to better health. Eat vegetables of various colors. The darker the greens, the more anti-oxidant rich they are Vegetables that are red, yellow, and orange in color will give you much needed bio-flavinoids and vitamin C.
2. Try some Superfoods
Foods like kale, broccoli, avocados, certain mushrooms, berries and others have shown to improve older peoples’ immune system performance.
3. Go a step further:
Dietitian and author, Desiree Nielsen, has further specific suggestions (see her list below), which you might wish to add to your immune-system boosting repertoire:
This concentrated source of protein supports growth of immunoglobulin A, T cells, and macrophages, and is invaluable if you don’t eat meat.
Garlic has demonstrated antibacterial and antiviral activity in the lab. The key is to eat garlic faithfully: at least a clove a day, preferably in raw form. You can nibble on a clove of garlic in the evening, (so as not to alienate your friends!)
This vegetable contains beta-carotene, which the body converts into immune-builder vitamin A, which, in turn, influences levels of immune B cells and T cells.
These seeds are rich in the mineral zinc, which influences the activity of immune T cells. You only need about a quarter of a cup a day.
Ginger is thought to support the immune system in two ways: one, it brings heat to the body and causes healthy sweating. Secondly, ginger is a potent anti-inflammatory and, helps support the normal functioning of the immune system.
4. And now for an immune boosting life-style summary:
- Get vaccinated.
- Eat a healthy, nutrient-rich diet
- Keep an open mind about multivitamin or herbal supplements—do your research and be willing to experiment
- Exercise every day
- Stay hydrated (8-9 glasses of fluid a day)
- Reduce stress and address isolation
- Get at least six hours of sleep each night—add a nap during the day.
- Consider a cleanse to remove toxins and give your immune system a better chance to fight disease. (Do lots of research first!)
Take charge of your health, especially if you think your immune system is changing. Do your own research into what your body needs. Be pro-active and avoid the damaging cycle of being sick, taking antibiotics and weakening your immune system!