For a while now we’ve been in the throes of the coronavirus. Most of us have never experienced empty grocery store shelves, social distancing, and unemployment due to a virus. Because COVID-19 is novel, one we’ve never seen before, we don’t have a vaccine or other solution. What we do have though is something that has contributed to mankind’s survival throughout history—the immune system.
The immune system is our internal battalion. However, while it can protect us from a myriad of foes, it can also become an enemy. Autoimmune conditions are an example of an immune system gone rogue. We need an immune system that is vigilant and decisive without overreacting.
One of the dangers of the coronavirus is, reportedly, the resulting ‘cytokine storm.’ Cytokines are the hormones of the immune system. They are the chemical messengers that elicit action and response. There are cytokines that promote inflammation and cell death, which may sound like an odd function for a healthy immune system but it has its place. Out of place, however, pro-inflammatory cytokines play a role in diagnoses such as arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and dementia.
“Everyone’s talking about cytokine storm as if it were a well-recognized phenomenon, but you could have asked medics two weeks ago and they wouldn’t have heard of it.”
Our immune system also produces anti-inflammatory cytokines, which balance out the cytokine family. A cytokine storm occurs when “the body releases too many cytokines into the blood too quickly. Cytokines play an important role in normal immune responses, but having a large amount of them released in the body all at once can be harmful. A cytokine storm can occur as a result of an infection… Signs and symptoms include high fever, inflammation… severe fatigue and nausea. Sometimes, a cytokine storm may be severe or life threatening and lead to multiple organ failure.”1 A cytokine storm is a dangerous overreaction of the immune system.
Dr. Jessica Manson, an immunologist at University College London Hospital says, “Everyone’s talking about cytokine storm as if it were a well-recognized phenomenon, but you could have asked medics two weeks ago and they wouldn’t have heard of it.” In some situations “the immune system keeps raging long after the virus is no longer a threat. It continues to release cytokines that keep the body on an exhausting full alert. In their misguided bid to keep the body safe, these cytokines attack multiple organs including the lungs and liver, and may eventually lead to death… In these people, it’s their body’s response, rather than the virus, that ultimately causes harm.
“Cytokine storms can overtake people of any age, but some scientists believe that they may explain why healthy young people died during the 1918 pandemic and more recently during the SARS, MERS and H1N1 epidemics.”2 The immune system launches its attack against the virus but in some cases goes overboard. Acute lung injury can result. This is thought to be behind the most severe cases of COVID-19.
Making sure the immune system doesn’t overreact is vital to health. One company of the T cell division of our internal military is the regulatory T cells, T regs for short. These cells regulate our immunity, preventing a hyper-immune response and inhibiting cytokine production. They provide balance between disease-causing microbes and the risk of developing autoimmunity or overwhelming inflammation. They play a crucial role in balancing two arms of the immune system. When one overreacts we tend to see autoimmune conditions, whereas when the other overreacts we might see allergies. T regs can calm down both arms. They’re also protective in viral infections.
So, how we can support healthy T reg function?
Maintaining a healthy weight is important as excess abdominal adiposity impacts immunity and circulating T regs.3
When one overreacts we tend to see autoimmune conditions, whereas when the other overreacts we might see allergies.
Sufficient levels of vitamin D from adequate sunshine exposure or supplementation are crucial to optimal T reg status. Higher levels of vitamin D are thought to play a role in promoting anti-inflammatory functions, including increasing the number and/or function of T regs.4
Studies have also found vitamin A deficiency to factor in to imbalanced immune responses. A positive correlation has been observed between vitamin A and T regs: meaning the more serum vitamin A, the more T reg population.5
Polyphenols are micronutrients that have been shown to dampen the inflammatory response and promote T reg cells. They’re found in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices. Increasing our intake of these foods supports healthy immunity in multiple ways.
Our gut flora, aka microbiota, has a profound effect on the immune system and T regs. Intimate communication goes on between the gut flora and the immune system. Experimentation with various strains of supplemental probiotics has resulted in modulating numbers and activity of T regs.6 Short chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are by-products of the gut bacteria. A healthy, diverse gut flora produces these beneficial substances. SCFAs enhance the expression of T reg cells. In contrast, antibiotics can result in a reduction of T regs.7
We have not been left helpless. God’s promises are more powerful than life or death or any virus. “It is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22, 23).
1. NCI Dictionary of Cancer Terms, NIH, https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/797584.
2. Apoorva Mandavill, “The Corona virus patients betrayed by their own immune system,” The New York Times, April 1, 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/01/health/coronavirus-cytokine-storm-immune-system.html.
3. N. Wagner, “Circulating regulatory T cells are reduced in obesity and may identify subjects at increased metabolic and cardiovascular risk,” Obesity, March 2013 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23592653.
4. Sheila Fisher et al., “The role of vitamin D in increasing circulating T regulatory cell numbers and modulating T regulatory cell phenotypes in patients with inflammatory disease or in healthy volunteers: A systematic review,” PloS one, September 24, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6759203/.
5. Dina Fettouh et al., “Study the relationship between vitamin A deficiency, T helper 17, regulatory T cells, and disease activity in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus,” Egy Rheum & Rehab, October 1, 2019, http://err.eg.net/article.asp?issn=1110-161X;year=2019;volume=46;issue=4;spage=244;epage=250;aulast=Fettouh;type=3.
6. Shohreh Issazadeh-Navikas, Roman Teimer, and Robert Bockermann, “Influence of Dietary Components on Regulatory T Cells,” Mol Med, November 16, 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3276397/.
Rebecca Arroyo Hornero et al., “The Impact of Dietary Components on Regulatory T Cells and Disease,” Immunol, February 21, 2020, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fimmu.2020.00253/full.
7. Bhaskaran, Natarajan et al., “Role of Short Chain Fatty Acids in Controlling Tregs and Immunopathology During Mucosal Infection,” Frontiers in microbiology, August 24, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6117408/.
Risë Rafferty, RDN
Risë is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and has been writing and teaching about health for many years. She loves the health message and takes great pleasure in seeing people thrive by the application of its principles. Her research and down-to-earth manner allow her to offer up the health message in both an intelligent and accessible manner. She and her husband, James Rafferty, have two children.