The complexity of our individual immune systems has never been so transparently conveyed as by the spread of COVID-19. The variation in severity of cases was, and still is, immense; there was no telling how an individual would fare against the virus.
This begs the question of ‘what impacts my immune health and am I at risk?’.
Our immune system is affected by both nature (our genes) and nurture (our environment and lifestyle), with several other factors having an important impact on how well our immune system functions.
A fully functioning immune system should detect pathogens such as viruses like influenza, rhinovirus, coronavirus and adenovirus. Our immune system consists of two types of cells, namely: “innate”, which is our body’s first line of defence against infection, bacteria or a virus and “adaptive”, which are T and B cells that are called into action if our first line of defence is broken. B-cells create antibodies to help fight and kill any bacteria and or viruses. There are two types of T-cells: “helpers” and “killers”. The helper T-cells will stimulate B-cells into making antibodies, which will help to fight off any bacteria or viruses and help killer cells develop.
There are many factors which need to be considered in relation to those more at risk from contracting a virus and having a severe reaction. The highest proportion of people who have been affected by the virus had a weakened immune system. This can be for a variety of reasons such as old age and underlying health issues, but there is also a strong genetic component.
The data shows that there are 4 groups which will be more at risk:
- The elderly
- Ethnic minorities with darker skin tone
- Those who are obese, or clinically obese on the BMI index
Here is a collection of factors that influence immune function:
Age. As we age most of our biological processes start to slow down, this includes our immune system.
Inflammation. Ideally, when you get sick or injured, you want a fast and strong inflammatory response. This will ensure you deal with an infection with a short, sharp response. Certain genetic traits are linked to inflammatory response and as a result, people will respond differently to physical stressors such as intense exercise, physical labour, illness and injury.
Gender. According to the latest figures, around 70% of all critically ill patients in ICU from COVID-19 have been male. One possible reason stems from our genetic code as females have two X chromosomes. The ACE2 gene is located on the X chromosome, so women have more receptors/copies than men. When the virus infects the cell and starts to reduce the expression of ACE2, then the more copies and receptors that women have will be extremely beneficial.
Vitamin deficiencies. Vitamin D in particular, is required for the regulation of the innate immune response. It has also been shown in various studies to have a protective effect against respiratory tract infections.
Ethnicity. There are several possible explanations for trends that link certain ethnic groups with increased risk of illness. These include sociological issues that require attention; ethnic minorities are more likely to have poorer living and working conditions that negatively impact their health. Vitamin D deficiencies are more likely to affect people with darker skin living in the northern hemisphere where they get less sun. Genetic differences between ethnicity groups have also been found to impact immune response.
Obesity. Having a higher body fat percentage makes it a lot harder to be healthy. More fat cells mean higher levels of inflammation and lower levels of Vitamin D, as it is fat soluble and therefore makes it harder to be released into the blood stream.
Genetics. Some people are born with extremely strong “immune genes”, whereas others are born with a weaker response and will be more at risk of getting ill. Yet, genes are not decisive, we can largely compensate for their effect by eating key foods, vitamins and minerals to improve how your genes express themselves and function; nature and nurture are both at play here.
The team at Me & My Health presents “Immune Health”: our list of genetic health insights, covering various factors that contribute towards a healthy immune response.
- Immune function
- Vitamin D and the immune system
- B vitamins and the immune system
- Selenium and immunity
- The gene PTPN22 and immunity
The Me & My Health Immunity Health Insight includes crucial information about how our genetics affects our immune system, while also providing real-life, actionable recommendations to boost your immunity. Understanding your genetic predispositions, traits or frailties in specific areas such as your immune system allows you to be proactive instead of reactive with your health.