Immuno-Rejuvenation: We’ve Been Thinking About Our Immunity All Wrong
Having gone through more than two years of a global pandemic, we’ve all had to think seriously about what it means to be healthy and to have a level of immunity that prevents us from getting sick. And now, as the seasons change and we move into winter here in the southern hemisphere, supporting our immune systems remains top of mind.
We’re all familiar with the idea of boosting our immunity. We've heard it time and time again - the need to have a "strong" immune system in order to keep infections and diseases away.
But here's the problem with only boosting our immune systems: if we have unhealthy and damaged immune cells, boosting our immunity poses the risk of exaggerating the defects of an imbalanced or dysfunctional immune system.
This is where immuno-rejuvenation comes in - a far more sustainable, holistic and long-term perspective on how we should be supporting our immunity.
Pioneering this idea is Dr. Jeffrey Bland, the founder of the Institute for Functional Medicine. He explains that instead of thinking of the immune system as something to be boosted, we should be looking at rejuvenating and resetting our immune systems – at a cellular level.
How does immuno-rejuvenation work?
Let's start with a little biology.
There is a natural process called autophagy that happens inside our cells. This is the process in which our cells break down and clean out any old, damaged or abnormal components in its cytoplasm (the fluid within the cell).
Our cells do this by first creating a membrane that engulfs the unwanted components. This debris-containing membrane then fuses with a lysosome (which contains enzymes for the destruction of molecules) to break down the unwanted components.
In simple terms, think of this as a deep cleaning process where a cell separates damaged components for removal before becoming a “rejuvenated” cell.
A similar cleansing process called mitophagy occurs in the mitochondria, the energy centres of our cells. Our energy-producing and -storing mitochondria’s can easily become worn down are a very important part to balancing the immune system.
Another form of rejuvenation, being the most complex of them all, is performed in the tissues of high-functioning organs such as in the liver, intestinal lining, kidney and heart.
All of these processes, together, is what we refer to as immuno-rejuvenation.
How does this benefit our health?
Without these "rejuvenating" processes efficiently finding and clearing toxins, pathogens and problematic components from the body, the junk accumulated in our cells can dampen the immune response, causing frequent and longer periods of illness, as well as wreak havoc in our genetic expression which increases the risk of chronic diseases and speeds up cellular ageing (and ageing as a whole).
So, the question is, if our cells and immune systems naturally have the ability to regenerate every few months, don’t we all have the opportunity to rebuild our immune systems to become stronger and more resilient?
Yes, we absolutely do! The key? Creating optimal conditions for cellular regeneration to occur.
How do we turn on immuno-rejuvenation?
1. Prioritise good, quality sleep
We should never underestimate the importance of getting a good night’s rest to optimise autophagy. Maintaining the body’s circadian rhythm plays an essential role in regulating cell regeneration. This is due to the antioxidant properties in the hormone, melatonin, which is created in the body to promote restful sleep.
We can support melatonin production by practising good sleep hygiene which include consistent sleeping and waking times, avoiding blue light exposure in the evenings, keeping your bedroom dark and only for sleeping (and sex)!
2. Eat a whole food, plant-rich diet, only until 80% full
The trick is not too much, not too little. We want to eat just the right amount of food that leaves us feeling satisfied and nourished – not curling up in fullness.
We can usually achieve this by consuming a healthy balance of macronutrients (proteins, fats and carbohydrates) in each meal. We also want to ensure we are hitting 10 different fruits and vegetables daily, including the all-important leafy greens to give your body the phytonutrients it requires to perform at its peak.
But if getting the recommended servings of greens is difficult between long hours at work and school runs, an easy way to get additional support is with a high-quality greens powder which you can just mix in water or a smoothie before you start your day.
Dr. Bland also recommends ensuring that foods rich in prebiotics, probiotics, polyphenols and omega-3 fats are included in our diets, as these nutrients in particular encourage the cell renewal process.
3. Encourage healthy stress (not unhealthy stress)
The stress response is an essential mechanism to activate autophagy and regulate homeostasis in the body. Healthy stresses like intermittent fasting, exercise, ice baths and high-temperature saunas can increase microcirculation and stimulate autophagy.
30 minutes of moderate exercise daily can also be enough to induce autophagy in multiple organs involved in metabolic regulation, including the liver, pancreases, brain, and adipose tissue.
However, it's important to understand the difference between healthy stress and unhealthy stress. Excessive and prolonged periods of unhealthy stress can conversely create a threat to autophagy and the creation of balance and homeostasis in the body.
What’s the role of immunity herbs then?
While immuno-rejuvenation is a long-term, sustainable way to prevent illness and disease, the reality is there will definitely be periods in our lives that require us to be prepared with extra support for our immune systems.
Maybe we're travelling more than usual and can't readily get a healthy, home cooked meals. Or maybe we're going through a particularly stressful period caring for a sick family member.
In times like these, we want to work with immune-modulating herbs to support the healing stages of illness.
Astragalus has long been used by TCM practitioners in their remedies to strengthen the body’s defences. The herb works by increasing the body’s white cells to fight infection, and research also shows that it contains flavonoids, antioxidants and polysaccharides, all of which are well known for their immune-supporting benefits. Antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and possibly antiviral as well, astragalus virtually ticks all the immunity boxes!
Siberian ginseng, as Eleuthero, is rumoured to be one of the first herbs to be classified as an adaptogen – a class of herbs that help the body adapt to stress. Extracts of the root produce a non-specific increase in the body’s defense against exogenous stress, stimulate the immune system and promote an overall improvement in physical and mental performance, restore vigour and increase stamina.
Schisandra has been a primary medicinal ingredient of Chinese Herbal Medicine since ancient times. Schisandra’s Mandarin [pin yin] name, wu wei zi, means “five-flavoured fruit” because it is said to possess each of the five classically recognised tastes of Chinese herbalism, namely bitter, sweet, salty, sour, and pungent.
Reishi has historically been described as a superior medicinal tonic and often used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for many uses including to strengthen the body and tonify Qi, to relieve cough due to cold and cough with profuse sputum. In Western Herbal Medicine, Reishi is used for its tonic properties and especially as an immunomodulator to support healthy immune system function.
Quercetin is a natural pigment belonging to a group of plant compounds called flavonoids that give many fruits, vegetables and grains their colour. It is one of the most abundant antioxidants and plays an important role in neutralising free radicals as well as reducing damage from free radicals. Quercetin can also support a healthy cardiovascular system and support healthy blood circulation.
Vitamin D has been shown to play an important role in regulating the body’s immune response to virus and bacteria by stimulating the activity of specific immune cells which identify and eliminate pathogens that can cause infection.
Ora Immune Tonic+ contains all six of the above ingredients at therapeutic doses, giving the body additional support when defences are low and as winter comes around. It’s a great one to take as a preventative during unexpected (or expected) periods of excessive or unhealthy stress, and can also be a staple for the recovery phase of illness when help is needed to fight the lingering cough, fatigue, and nasal symptoms.
Deretic V, Levine B. Autophagy balances inflammation in innate immunity. Autophagy 2018;14(2):243-251.
Xu Y, Shen J, Ran Z. Emerging views of mitophagy in immunity and autoimmune diseases. Autophagy 2020;16(1):3-17.
Gkikas I, Palikaras K, Tavernarakis N. The Role of Mitophagy in Innate Immunity. Front Immunol 2018;9:1283.
Li Z, Zhang Z, Ren Y, et al. Aging and age-related diseases: from mechanisms to therapeutic strategies. Biogerontology 2021;22(2):165-187.
Germic, N., Frangez, Z., Yousefi, S. et al. Regulation of the innate immune system by autophagy: monocytes, macrophages, dendritic cells and antigen presentation. Cell Death Differ 26, 715–727 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41418-019-0297-6
Kuballa P, Nolte WM, Castoreno AB, Xavier RJ. Autophagy and the immune system. Annu Rev Immunol. 2012;30:611-46. doi: 10.1146/annurev-immunol-020711-074948. PMID: 22449030
Martinelli, S., Anderzhanova, E.A., Bajaj, T. et al. Stress-primed secretory autophagy promotes extracellular BDNF maturation by enhancing MMP9 secretion. Nat Commun 12, 4643 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-021-24810-5