As cold weather arrives, we get more concerned about our health. Spending a lot of time indoors increases exposure to viruses and bacteria, which cause respiratory tract infections, from seasonal flu to the now-established COVID-19. To defend ourselves against illness, we need an efficient immune system, as well as a healthy lifestyle and a balanced diet to support our immune response.
The immune system is our body’s defense mechanism against external agents responsible for diseases. It is a complex surveillance network consisting of multiple organs and highly specialized cells located in various parts of the body, connected by the lymphatic system. Each link in this chain has a precise function to keep the body healthy.
A well-functioning immune system is always on the lookout: it monitors danger signals, recognizes external agents thanks to its ‘memory’, and gets into action when it encounters them again. It can also distinguish harmful from non-harmful molecules, for example, those introduced with food.
To function well, the immune system requires balance and harmony, but is it possible to ‘support’ the immune system? This is a debated idea: although there is certainly a connection between immune response, diet, exercise, age, and psychological stress, the cause-and-effect relationships are not entirely clear.
Everyone agrees on one thing: a healthy lifestyle is the best ally for keeping our bodies naturally healthy. Our routine should be built around a few simple rules:
A varied and balanced diet is necessary for the functioning of all cells, including those of the immune system. The presence of certain micronutrients is considered essential, particularly vitamins D, A, C, E, folate, B6, B12, and four minerals (zinc, iron, copper, and selenium); glutamine and arginine also play an important role.
Antioxidants, molecules that help defend against oxidative stress by counteracting the action of free radicals, are vital as well; they are present in foods such as fruits and vegetables, as explained in this article. Many plants are also rich in polyphenols, other molecules with this function.
A relationship between the immune system and the gut microbiota is also recognized, hence the importance placed on our gut health.
Getting regular exercise is another pillar of healthy living: it improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects against various diseases. Exercise even benefits the immune system: in fact, white blood cells, our body’s main line of defense, increase during exercise.
It has been observed that our capacity for immune response declines with age, leading to a greater risk of infection. Older people are more likely to contract infectious diseases and report the most severe consequences; the COVID-19 pandemic was a dramatic demonstration of this.
Several studies have confirmed that some plants could support immune defenses. One example is our Echinacea extract, EKINact®, produced entirely from an Italian cultivation chain. It is grown in the pristine alpine valleys of Trentino, which make the extract even richer in polyphenols, tannins, and flavonoids. Laboratory tests have shown that EKINact® has immunomodulatory and radical scavenger properties, to counteract the action of free radicals.
In addition, some plants traditionally used as adaptogens can have beneficial effects on the immune system: such is the case with Eleutherococcus, a shrub widespread in Siberia, China, Japan, and Korea, or Ginseng, whose valuable root also comes from the Far East, or Schisandra, a Chinese berry called Wu-Wei-Zi because its taste evokes the five natural elements.
To sum up, a well-functioning immune system guarantees our health, not only during the cold season but throughout the course of our lives. A healthy lifestyle helps us limit negative factors and boost our defenses so that we can live better and with greater tranquility.