COVID-19 is on our minds and for many, it is a source of a huge amount of stress. While the nations search for perceived cures or optimal prevention strategies, focusing on vaccines, truth be told, the true source of prevention and management of COVID or any other infectious disease lies within your own body. You are your own source of health prevention and recovery! The source of the internal strength within your body is your immune system, for its overall health is the key to warding off all invaders, from bacteria to viruses and even cancer. Pay attention to your immune health and your concerns can be reduced dramatically. It’s all about your immunities, baby!
Almost every disease known to man and animal kind revolves around the immune response, whether this response is under-reactive or in some cases, over-reactive. The list of diseases includes most infectious causes, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi, but does not exclude conditions such as arthritis and cancer. They all revolve around your immune response and given it is your immune response, you, as the driver of your vehicle, have most of the control. You can decide to enhance and strengthen that response through your choices. On the same side of the coin, your choices can impair your immune response, opening the door for a list of health concerns. Ultimately, you and I are 100% responsible through our choices, like it or not.
As the year 2020 continues to progress, honestly, I thought the COVID concern would have waned after a few months, but in fact, the concern has only risen. We are now at the point of almost where masks are mandatory, despite their lack of efficacy, and people are living in fear of what might come and what could happen. Death rates associated with COVID are climbing, not just in our country, but in others additionally. The fear is there, in our society, and is palpable, being detected on every face you encounter in public, hidden behind a mask.
While COVID is a real concern for some, it is not our only concern, and I believe it is just a sign of what is to come. The creation of COVID and associated health problems is of our own creation, either through environmental changes or lack of paying attention to our own health. We have opened the door for the problem, and as this door may close in the future, another will soon open up. We do not want to take responsibility for our own health and well-being, but instead prefer to place it upon another to solve the problem. We desire solutions and remedies, but likely they will not pan out to be what we desire. Our society can develop medications or even vaccines to ‘enhance’ or support our immune system and health, but truth be told, they are not the end-all-be-all that we desire. The weight of the burden falls upon us, as individuals, as those therapies can only go so far.
Your Immune Response and COVID
Viruses gain access to our bodies via several mechanisms such as through your mouth, nose, broken skin lesions, or other body openings such as your rectum or genitourinary system. The virus has to be allowed into your body, it cannot just invade. Given this, most of these common areas of invasion have local defenses in place, including immune cells or other barriers, which prevent or minimize invasion in normal circumstances. However, for many, these local defenses are broken down from the health of the immune response to the health of the local tissue, such as your skin which acts as a natural barrier to invasion.
COVID-19 is a coronavirus, which contains spikes of protein on the outer layer, enabling it to attach and bind to specific cells once inside your body. Viruses desire to replicate or increase in number and spread, which they cannot do alone and given this, they require our bodies to assist in this goal. Once the virus gains access to your body, it circulates and attaches to desired cells, then literally incorporates itself into the genetic material within that cell. This is like a computer virus invading the internal hard drive of your computer. Once this fusion is complete, the coded material placed into the cell is then read like a book, and the cell replicates the virus as it goes about other normal cellular business.
Now, when a virus first enters your body, it is free and circulating. If there was a prior infection, cross-reactivity or vaccination, antibodies would be recruited to recognize and bind to the virus, disabling it. In the case of COVID, given that the vast majority have not been exposed, there is little antibody response, however, in more recent news it is interesting to note that there may be some cross-reactivity between COVID and prior common cold infections, which would be good news. Given the general lack of antibody response, the virus is able to bind to and infect cells within your body. This altered or infected cell then puts out cellular chemical signals, recruiting another aspect of your immune response, which is the T-cell or more specific, the cytotoxic T-cell. This T-cell then recognizes the infected cell and targets it for destruction, eliminating the virus within it.
Point One: Two aspects to your immune health; humoral (antibody) and cellular (T-cell mediated)
Given the above scenario, for most individuals that contract COVID, the events are not too dissimilar than the common cold with a low grade fever, aches and pains, and other minor clinical problems. The individual’s immune response reacts appropriately and the clinical signs that are experienced are a direct result of the natural inflammatory events which unfold within the body. The individual recovers usually uneventfully and in most cases, they now have a ‘memory’ response to their immune system which is protective moving into the future. However, right now, researchers are unsure of how long this ‘memory’ response lasts. It could be a few months or it could be a few years.
The above scenario is the general rule, not the exception. The exceptions are the individuals that become very ill or sick, often requiring hospitalization and intensive care. In those scenarios, the situation is a little different and despite our best efforts with medications and ventilators, the truth here again, is that the ability to recover is up to the individual.
Why are some so susceptible to COVID or other viruses? Why do some people become so sick and even die from COVID while others do not?
COVID: You Open the Door
The reason there is such a high variability between whether if COVID even impacts you or could kill you is almost completely dictated by your immune response. The course of events involving your immune response were generically outlined above in a simple scenario and it should be evident that if there is any weakness in your immune response, then susceptibility rises accordingly. This is true of any infectious disease, whether we are talking COVID, influenza, the common cold, a gastrointestinal virus, or even ear infections in children.
You have to let these bugs into your system in order for them to cause a clinical problem. This gets back to basic hygiene but also supporting your immune response and overall health. Taking precautionary measures such as washing your hands, proper bathing and hygiene, and even covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough are basic measures taught to us as children. Somehow, we have forgotten what we have learned. We don’t do these things just because of COVID, but just out of normal common sense, regard for our health, and respect for others.
If you do not utilize these basic, common sense measures, then you are opening door number one for COVID or any other infectious organism to gain access to your body. This is your first line of defense! Now, with that being said, if this first line of defense is ignored for some reason, the second line of defense comes into play, which is your immune response and natural barriers against infection.
If you step back and think about it, before all of the hype in past years over hand sanitizers, we were exposed to many organisms in our daily lives. Our kids played in sandboxes or in dirt lots, putting all sorts of things into their mouths, often at no harm and potentially, some benefit. We shook hands with people, kissed others, hugged others and shared drinks at times, again usually at no harm to our body or health. Why? It is quite possible our bodies were much healthier in years past than they are right now. Is it possible that our pursuit for overall body sterilization has created more harm than good? Keep in mind that your body is a vat for microorganisms from your mouth to your genitals. That is the way the Good Lord created it and how our body maintains a sense of balance and health. Alter that microbiome in any organ system and disease will follow, whether that is bad breath and gingivitis, digestive concerns, or a vaginal yeast infection.
The second arm of your body’s defense is the immune response, whether it is a local response such as on the skin or in your nose, or a systemic response throughout your entire body. This immune response entails many different types of cells, including T and B cells and plasma cells, to protein responses including antibodies. So, if you happen to become exposed to some bug which doesn’t respond and it gains access to your body, it is the job of your immune system to recognize the invasion and eliminate it. You should be protected, unless, you have opened another door which equates to immunocompromise on some level, which means an improper immune response.
Point Two: Barriers of defense and protection include basic hygiene and your immune response.
COVID- Why are Some Sick and Others Not?
This is a big question on many people’s minds and the answer is not always straight forward, or at least as clear as you would like it to be. The bottom line is that susceptibility to COVID or any infectious condition lies heavily upon your immune system. As mentioned above, you have to allow that bug into your body and then once it is in, your immune system either allows it to replicate and further invade, or it blocks the effort. As mentioned before, most individuals exposed to COVID survive usually with no or minimal clinical symptoms. Many do not even know they were infected or exposed. However, there is a group of people that become severely sick and some even die.
The lethal form of COVID that impacts many and often leads to death is referred to as SARS-CoV-2, which is ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2‘. As the virus replicated uncontrolled within the body, due to a dysfunctional immune response, there is a massive release of inflammatory proteins, referred to as cytokines. These inflammatory proteins impact the function of many cells, not just those of the immune system, but can additionally impact airways, circulation and organ function. This is referred to as the ‘cytokine storm’ and is an event which unfortunately kills many not just impacted by COVID but other diseases.
There are generally 3 groups of people that are susceptible to COVID or any other infectious type of disease, which include:
- The very young
- The immunocompromised (due to health reasons or medications)
- The elderly
The very young group of people often have a naive or immature immune response, given that they have not been vaccinated or exposed to everyday organisms. This is becoming an increasing concern, at least from my viewpoint as a doctor, due to over-sterilization of toys, tables, and use of disinfectants including sanitizers. This concern is also mounting with a decreased frequency of contact between children and lack of playing outdoors with natural exposures.
The immunocompromised group can be a person of any age from young to old. In this group, the individual’s immune response is compromised and not as strong as desired. This may be evident and known to the individual or it may not be. Those individuals with a prior or existing health problem from diabetes to cardiovascular disease or cancer fall into this group. Then there are those with other immune associated conditions from allergies to Crohn’s disease. Additionally, you have the fact that a large percentage of our population is on some sort of medication from an anti-depressant to a cholesterol lowering agent, which can impact the immune response. Finally, you have the highly stressed individual, due to work or family matters, which often goes unrecognized but is a true and serious contributor to reduction of adequate immune defenses.
The elderly group of individuals often goes without saying. They are at an increased risk due to a multitude of reasons including a natural decline in immune strength with age, ongoing health problems and a list of medications which most are on daily.
These are our three ‘at risk’ groups. Are you in one of them? Truth be told, each of us in one of them, either by age or by the presence of sheer and honest stress in our lives. From my perspective, just the ongoing presence of fear with our current epidemic is enough to put a person into the second ‘at risk’ group. Do you believe that? More importantly, do you recognize that?
The one huge variable that can impact all three groups is diet. This is a major variable and from my research perspective, it is a huge player, but often ignored. To be honest, given all of the talk and fear regarding COVID recently, it seems we have ignored the elephant in the room in regards to prevention and protection, which is your personal health, diet and lifestyle choices. There is nothing that can replace these two items, being diet and lifestyle. No vaccine, no medication, no therapy. You are in 100% control of these two things and these two things could possibly decide your fate.
Do you live in a state of fear regarding your health, COVID and any other infectious condition which might pop up? Is this your only choice or are there proactive things that you can do which might give you peace of mind in your health and well-being?
I will look at these options in more detail in our second article on this topic.
Author: Tom Schell, D.V.M, CVCH, CHN