“Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional.”
Being in your golden years carries several advantages. There’s the senior discounts. And unlike the anxiety-riddled generations Y and Z, seniors have accumulated a lifetime of wisdom that brings a sense of peace about one’s place in the world.
But one thing seniors are at a clear disadvantage is having a weakened immune system in comparison to young people.
And no other time in recent history has this disparity in immune function been so evident as the coronavirus pandemic.
But it’s not the virus itself that usually kills. Rather, it’s a person’s own immune system that attacks itself in response to the virus.
One of the biggest reasons why elderly people have weaker immune systems, and are therefore more susceptible to developing severe coronavirus symptoms, is because as we age, we lose naive T-cell function.
What is Naive T-Cell Function?
To understand naive t-cell function, let’s take a step back and take a quick crash course in the immune system.
There are two main branches of the immune system: innate and adaptive.
Innate immunity refers to your body’s first line of defense against harmful bacteria, fungus and viruses.
While components of your innate immune system–the skin, the lining of your tissues, mucous membranes, mucous, and cells called phagocytes (neutrophils, monocytes, macrophages)–are hard at work, your adaptive immune system kicks into gear.
The adaptive immune system carries out targeted attacks against pathogens. Components of the adaptive immune system include T cells and B cells. T cells are produced in the thymus gland while b cells are produced in the bone marrow (hence the name “T” and “B”).
The thymus gland is perhaps the most unsung organ in the body. Having an optimally-functioning thymus gland is crucial for fighting disease-causing organisms. By the time you reach senior age, your T-cell production has greatly diminished. In fact, by young adulthood, the thymus gland shrinks. And this is what brings us back to naive T-cell function….
When It’s Good To Be Very Naive: Naive T-Cell Immune Function
One of the reasons kids don’t develop serious COVID-19 symptoms is because young people have strong naive t-cell function. The first time a pathogen is introduced in a person, naive T-cells destroy the potentially-lethal threat. And once that virus, bacteria or fungus invades again, so-called “memory T-cells” recognize the foreign invader and mount the defense.
Unfortunately, with the aging process, the amount of naive T-cells declines. This means that new threats such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 infection, are more easily able to enter the cells.
The innate and adaptive immune systems, in a healthy individual, work in unison to combat disease-causing organisms. However, when one system is compromised, the other will be overloaded in trying to fight an infection. If there’s a new flu strain and you’re a senior with fewer naive T-cells, your adaptive immune system can go haywire trying to fight a new threat. This is the reason why inflammation levels go out of control.
T-cells are like the immune system’s brain or operating command center. But when there’s an excess of inflammation, a cytokine storm can occur. Cytokines are the messaging operations of T-cells. They help suppress or regulate immune responses. But with no naive T-cells to recognize a new threat, cytokines tell T-cells to bomb and shoot everything in sight. That’s why damage to organs such as the lungs and heart occur with new diseases such as COVID-19.
Supplements To Boost Naive T-Cell Function In Seniors
These days, the focus seems to be on boosting the immune system. But when a cytokine storm occurs, which is an immune system gone haywire, the last thing you want is a boosted immune system. The key to a healthy immune response is to have a balanced immune response. Think Goldilocks: not too weak, not too strong, but just right.
But for seniors, can anything be done about the inevitable effects of the aging process on the immune system?
The good news is that, yes, there are certain supplements that may help improve innate immune function. And by improving innate immune function, the adaptive immune function isn’t overwhelmed.
One supplement is probably something you’ve never heard of. It’s called “cistanche.”
In a study published in Frontiers of Pharmacology, the cistanche plant has been called “one of the best pharmaceutical gifts of Traditional Chinese Medicine.”
If you’re thinking, “Chinese medicine…no thanks, not interested,” please allow for a brief rebuttal.
Yes, Chinese medicine is a double-edged sword. On one hand, there’s an unethical, troubling aspect to traditional Chinese medicine, namely, the use of animal parts from endangered species. There’s also the issue of remedies tainted with heavy metals, and a lack of transparency with quality control.
But there’s also the time-tested wisdom that comes from a few thousand years or so of using plants as medicine. And you don’t have to get Chinese medicine directly from China these days. There are American-based companies that sell pure traditional Chinese herbs that have been tested by third-party verified sources.
Cistanche for Immunity: The “Ginseng of The Desert”
So let’s get back to the traditional Chinese herb, cistanche (or as it’s known in China, Rou Cong Rong). Remember, as you age, the amount of naive T-cells you have plummets. But you still have some remaining. Cistanche prevents the conversion of naive T-cells into memory T-cells. In other words, cistanche may help you reverse the chronological age of your immune system.
Cistanche has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for 2,000 years. But because of the novel coronavirus, it’s now becoming more widely known. It may not have the same recognition as ginseng, perhaps the most famous Chinese herb in the West. However, because it is such a valued medicinal plant with many therapeutic uses, cistanche is known in China as “Ginseng of the Desert.”
Reishi Mushroom: Another Storied Chinese Herb That Supports Immune Function
If your idea of edible mushrooms involves only a pizza topping, there’s a whole world of culinary mushrooms to explore. Edible mushrooms are one of the healthiest things on the planet you can consume. And one of the best fungi for supporting your immune system in your senior years is reishi (say it like ‘Ray-She’).
While cistanche helps strengthen your adaptive immune system, reishi boosts your innate immunity. Remember, the innate immune system is your body’s first responders. If your innate immune system is sleeping on the job, pathogens will quickly attack and overwhelm the adaptive immune response.
One way in which reishi mushroom works is by finding malignant cells that try to hide in healthy human tissue. The beneficial fungus also helps the immune system by acting as an anti-viral agent and controlling the inflammatory response. Remember what a cytokine storm is, the overreaction of the inflammatory response? Well, good news because reishi suppresses pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Vitamin D3: Levels Low In COVID-19 Patients
There have been some reports that coronavirus patients by and large all share one common factor: low levels of vitamin D3 in the blood. However, you can take a cross-section of any society and chances are that most people will have low levels of vitamin D3. Most people are deficient in vitamin D.
Unfortunately, the only way to know for sure whether or not you have adequate levels of D is by getting a blood test. If it’s been a while since you received a full blood panel, pick up the phone and call your doctor to schedule one. If you’re computer savvy, you can also order a test kit online.
There are very few foods that have adequate levels of vitamin D. You also can get vitamin D from the sun. But you need to live in a warm, sunny area and expose about 75% of your skin to mid-day rays for about 15 minutes to synthesize enough D.
That’s why for most people, a vitamin D3 supplement is necessary. (Take about 2,000 IU – 5,000 IU per day.)
Having optimal Vitamin D levels is vital to having a healthy immune system. Vitamin D influences both the innate and adaptive immune systems, and also helps prevent overactive immune response.
Supporting The Immune System For Seniors: Conclusion
There’s no guarantee that having optimal levels of vitamin D3 in the blood along with supplementing with cistanche and reishi will prevent coronavirus infection. However, these three supplements may be the reboot your immune system needs to fight things it’s never encountered before.