All about immunity and ways to boost it
Ever since Covid-19 halted lives across the world, the word ‘immunity’ has gathered steam. With so much being written about this magic quotient, t2 reached out to Luke Coutinho, holistic lifestyle coach, integrative and lifestyle medicine and founder, YouCare — All about YOU, for the A,B, C’s.
What has the word ‘immunity’ come to mean to you in the last two years?
Immunity has become a buzzword now, but it has always been fundamental to our practice. It’s the basics of what we do and a part of the five fundamental intelligent systems within the human body involved in prevention, recovery, and rebuilding. In fact, every programme and protocol for our clients and patients is built around angiogenesis, DNA repair, immunity and inflammation, the gut microbiome, and stem-cell regeneration after a thorough diagnosis and prognosis. Whether it is a common cold, diabetes, or cancer, it is connected to our immune system considerably, and the very fact that a disease has made its way into a body means that the immune system was compromised at some point.
What new things have you stumbled upon while reading more and more about immunity?
A couple of learnings and reminders:
a) It is not just about boosting immunity, but training your immune system is equally important. All of us can add superfoods and supplements to our diet, but if our immune system isn’t trained to identify the pathogen and act accordingly, all of our efforts are futile.
b) T-lymphocytes: With the viruses and pathogens getting smarter and smarter and coming in so many new forms, T-lymphocytes play an essential role in helping you keep up with it by developing an immunological memory to prevent recurrent infections. Today, the ongoing research and medical experts say that activating your T-cells can be a game changer in how people are dealing with Covid and its variants. So, what are these T-cell lymphocytes? They are part of your immune army. Your T-cells activate certain immune functions to help you directly kill viruses and infected cells. These are your soldiers.
c) The relationship between sleep and immunity: A study established even one night of less sleep can affect our natural killer cells by 30 per cent, an important component of our immunity. So, it doesn’t matter how much you exercise, and eat well, if you are missing out on your daily night rest, you are crippling your immunity in a huge way.
d) Most importantly, the role of Vitamin D3. There is enough medical science that links your vitamin D levels to almost everything right from your T-cells, immune system, hormonal health, and brain health. Whether you have PCOS, cancer, Alzheimer’s, weak bones, or any autoimmune condition, or are on a heavy treatment, you need vitamin D. So, spend that money and get your vitamin D test done.
What are the gross misconceptions about the buzzword of our times?
a) Fasting weakens immunity: Whereas the truth is that smart and safe fasting is therapeutic for our immune system.
b) We need to exercise a lot to boost immunity: Less is more when it comes to exercise for boosting immunity. Intense exercise or overtraining can actually cause a dip in immunity, which makes it important for individuals to train heavily to also focus on proper rest and recovery.
c) People with solid immunity do not fall sick: It is actually healthy to catch cold or seasonal flu at least once a year because that too is a great trigger to boost immunity. Also, with the changing environment and pathogens around us, the true measure of immunity is not about not falling sick, but how soon can you recover from sickness with minimum or no dependency on medication.
Do you inherit immunity?
Immunity is dependent on your internal and external environment. This is what shapes your immunity. The external environment covers the quality of air, surroundings, people around us, the energies we are exposed to, and the internal environment consists of the food we eat, water intake, products we use, thoughts that cross our mind, our breathing patterns, and so on. The effect of the environment on our genes is also significant (epigenetic), and certain environmental factors can turn on or turn off the right genes or vice versa. This is precisely why it is important to live a balanced lifestyle because there is a possibility of turning on a bad gene through a fault habit. For example, inflammation. While inflammation is a necessary part of our immune function, and we need it as a protective mechanism, chronic inflammation can serve as a trigger to turn on faulty gene expression. So, it all comes down to lifestyle.
Is immunity also about discipline as much as what’s on your plate?
We need discipline for everything, even for making the right food choices. We cannot wake up one day and decide to start eating healthy and expect it to work for us the right away. One needs to be consistent with whatever efforts one takes to boost immunity. You cannot practise pranayama just for a day and expect it to boost your respiratory function. Immunity is built over time. We see how people who once overdid antibiotics during childhood have actually weak immunity today. So, consistency has a compounding effect, and it plays a massive role in boosting our immune systems.
How much mental hygiene contributes to overall immunity?
A huge contributor. Stress is the most significant contributor to a low immune system. We are not talking about day-to-day stressors that are good for us. What we are referring to is chronic emotional stress... where you allow resentment, guilt, anger, and other negative emotions to control your life and affect the way you eat, sleep, think and live...
How do you overcome this?
By practising meditation, silent reflection, learning to accept, let go, forgive, and the power of tolerance. Deep prayer and laughter are powerful medicines. Get those few minutes of laughter every single day. Watch some comedy, perhaps a video on YouTube, or a hilarious show. Even if you have to fake laughter, do it because laughter is scientifically proven to be effective for your immune system.
Spend time in nature. If you live in the city, try to grow plants or flowers on your balcony. But, even if it is your little slice of green heaven, be close to nature as far as possible. Try to watch a sunset or sunrise, very important for you.
Personally, what have you done to strengthen your immunity in the last two years?
The focus has always been on my immunity, but it’s been even more deliberate with the pandemic. Firstly, practising social distancing and hygiene protocols. Sleep is important for my immunity, so I make sure I get enough of it daily. Eating clean is another one, with a complete drop in the intake of refined sugar, junk, and processed foods. I also exercise regularly and work on my emotional state of mind. Even though there is stress, I have learned how to look at it differently and change my relationship with it. I also meditate regularly, engage in hobbies, and immerse myself in work to keep myself busy to help me be in a happy state of mind, which ultimately reflects on my immunity. As for nutrition, I have increased my intake of spices like turmeric, ginger, black pepper, garlic, clove in various forms and continued to take the immunity-boosting powder throughout the pandemic and before that too.
What’s your key to good mental health?
The key is connecting back to your spirit and inner being, so you do not give away your power and peace to what happens in the outer world, whether it’s events, people, or their opinions. While stress will continue to be there in everyone’s lives, what matters is the way we relate and perceive it. For anyone looking to improve their mental health, it’s essential to change the way they look at stress. It is also important to stay grounded, stop trying to control things that are not in our control, and learn acceptance, mindfulness, forgiveness, and letting go. Know that there is going to be struggle in our lives and learn that it is okay to have them. There are good and bad days in everyone’s lives, and no one is entitled only to have good days. Entitlement to only happy days leads to misery because our lives and happiness can start to crumble when faced with struggles.
What new practices have you taken up in these two years?
The last two years have been a lot of visualisation, reflection, and changing my exercise regimen. I am slowly including a balance of weight, flexibility, mobility, aerobic, anaerobic, and yoga to make my workouts more holistic. A huge focus is also on rest and recovery, or instant relaxation between the days. I have also taken up more reading, writing, and spending more time in nature.
What are you telling your daughter about healthy living?
I lead by example, and that is how I think it should be. Lecturing or instructing kids doesn’t work. They follow what parents do. When my daughter sees me doing the right things, she follows it. We also have daddy schooling sessions daily for about 30-45 minutes, which is over and above her regular schooling. We discuss the human body, how it works, anatomy, different foods, and experimentation with other recipes.
Luke suggests items that a layman can incorporate in their diet to boost immunity, things that are readily available in the kitchen...
The thing is, our immune system doesn’t need much to function well. The basics include whole grains, lentils, legumes, pulses, millets, nuts, seeds, cold-pressed oils, prebiotics, probiotics, fruits, and vegetables. Of course, every country, state, religion, region has its own set of powerful foods known to improve immunity, and we must because these are gifts of nature.
My favourite immunity-boosting foods are:
• Garam masala
• Rasam/ sambhar
• Khichri (rice and lentil mix)
• Amla (Indian gooseberry)
• Loose black tea leaves and good quality coffee
• Local and seasonal fruits
• Cruciferous vegetables and leafy greens
• Chickpeas and sattu (one can make a drink out of it too)
• Nuts and seeds
• Cold-pressed, good quality oils
• Basic Indian spices like turmeric, black pepper, cinnamon, jeera, ajwain, fennel
• Herbs like thyme, oregano, rosemary
• A2 Gir cow ghee