The Diabetes Clinic is committed to supporting your health and immunity at this time. In this article, our Diabetes Clinic Medical Director, Dr. Matt Shelton shares his knowledge and strategies for the Coronavirus challenge we face, along with building a strong immune system to counter the vulnerability that arises with Type 2 Diabetes.

In the midst of the health challenges facing us right now, it’s a good time to look at prevention strategies for avoiding infections such as coronavirus, and many other viruses in general, as we head back out into the world. It comes down to supporting our immunity.

As more and more information surfaces about the characteristics of this unusual new virus, one thing seems clear – most data confirms that people who are elderly or unhealthy already with lowered immunity, seem to be particularly likely to get more serious symptoms. There will be various reasons for this but they include:

  • chronic inflammation (which means a constant switched-on immune attack) caused by poor diet and other lifestyle choices that deplete and damage the body
  • nutrient deficiencies caused by long term medications and food choices
  • and perhaps just the ageing of the immune system, since we are told that the elderly are especially at risk

 

Vitamin D and Immunity

Another emerging risk factor is having darker skin. This is almost certainly due – in part at least – to lower vitamin D levels affecting immunity, but little has been mentioned about this in the mainstream; instead the issue seems to have become politicised, with discussion about deprivation and poor access to health care.

Vitamin D is essential for adequate immune balance, tolerance and defence, especially against viral respiratory infections. The evidence is actually rock solid and reliable for the importance of Vitamin D and immunity, and darker skin simply takes longer to make the same amounts of vitamin D in the sunshine. Conversely, those with fair skin who should be hiding in a northern European bog somewhere will burn quickly under our ozone-depleted skies down under. But light-skinned people are frequently deficient too. I’ve lost count of the number of vitamin D studies I’ve read where the researchers were surprised at how many people were already deficient at entry into the clinical trial.

Low vitamin D levels are also associated with increased risk of most cancers studied, and also of other diseases that make people more at risk of severe Covid-19 outcomes: namely hypertension and diabetes. These conditions, along with overweight and obesity, and lipid imbalances, together comprise the Metabolic Syndrome, or ‘Syndrome X’  as it is also known.

So, ensuring optimal levels of vitamin D is a ‘no-brainer’ if ever there was one, but it is not quite that simple. It turns out that low vitamin D is a good surrogate marker for other things the sun-deprived skin also misses out on that are vital for good health. This includes nitric oxide and infra-red radiation – the part of the electromagnetic spectrum below visible light that gives warmth and heat as photons of very specific energy, which allow very particular chemical reactions to occur. (Ultra-violet is just above visible light and has some beneficial effects too, including producing vitamin D in the skin, but also burns our skin when we have too much).

 

Epigenetics for healing and resistance

These metabolic disorders, often thought of – and treated – as separate entities, are all a reflection of a body that is in overwhelm – from too much of the wrong foods for too long. Given the resulting nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, poor gut and liver health and deranged levels of critical hormones that regulate our energy storage and supply, it is surely useful to learn a little about how our bodies work to strengthen our immunity.

Most of how we are supposed to function can be gleaned from knowing a little about our ancient heritage. Most of human history is in fact prehistory, and for many hundreds of thousands of years our primitive ancestors lived the same unchanging way, with a physical body that was optimised by, and for these conditions.  Thankfully, no-one’s asking to go back to living in caves, but a diet of local, seasonal, chemical free, varied plant foods and healthy wild animals, eaten irregularly (which allowed long periods of rest from the ‘fires of digestion’) was the prevailing lifestyle for millennia.

Our genetics still needs to think we are living this way for optimal healing, resistance to illness and all round good cellular health. By this I mean that our own DNA is constantly watching how we live and is making hard decisions on whether we should be kept around, or whether we represent a threat to our species by our lazy and greedy behaviour. This is the science of epigenetics, which is about altering how our inherited genes behave, often on a dime.

We can think about it this way – if we over-consume our fair share of resources but under-contribute in the effort to gain them, our genes will take us out. Or rather we will develop chronic degenerative diseases. Happily, the converse is true, which is why statistical risks can plummet quickly when we up our lifestyle game with significant improvements.

 

Getting the nutrients we need for immunity

Over our lifetimes, most of the wear and tear on our systems comes from the remarkable digestive processes that turn our food into building blocks and energy. This is why the benefits of eating appropriate amounts of natural digestible foods, along with practising intermittent fasting, is shown to be beneficial in so many ways other than just weight loss.

When we’re not eating, we are giving ourselves regular breaks and allowing healing and repair to occur. Digestion uses up a lot of precious nutrients, especially vitamins and minerals like potassium, magnesium and zinc, that are then gone forever. If they are not replaced by eating wholesome foods, the body will start to triage – that is, it is forced to selectively deprive itself to preserve the most essential systems. We can do this fine for short periods of time – we have evolved to expect many periods of food scarcity – but when these mechanisms are forced to operate over the long term, the wheels will start to fall off.

Any symptom you can think of may in fact be the result of one or multiple nutrient deficiencies. Some examples include the sore, smooth and shiny tongue of vitamin B12 and/or iron deficiency; the white nail spots of zinc shortage;  and the muscle cramps, unrefreshed sleep, fatigue and depression of magnesium deficiency.

Since the immune system comprises roughly a third of our cells, it is no surprise how often poor or imbalanced immunity can be fixed by better nutrition. For instance, good evidence exists for the antiviral benefits of zinc and vitamins A and C, and these are recommended in the context of coronavirus infection.

Along with vitamin D, the above three nutrients just mentioned seem particularly important to target in our diet during the pandemic to support our immunity – and hopefully for long after!

Zinc reduces binding and replication of viruses and stimulates antibody production; vitamin A beefs up mucosal barriers and the structural integrity of cells; and vitamin C optimises many arms of the immune system. As always, food is the very best place to get these ingredients – for billions of years, life has only had nature from which to source its nourishment  – but quality supplements can certainly cover some gaps, and allow us to concentrate useful food components in a therapeutic ‘neutraceutical’.  Useful examples might included sulforaphane from broccoli sprouts, or glisodin from melons.

 

Food as medicine for immunity

Talking of foods, some specific ones were found to have distinct benefits against dangerous coronaviruses after the SARS outbreak in 2004, as researched in S.E.Asia, which had the most cases. These included coconut oil, turmeric and oregano oil, and evidence is good for black elderberry against common cold coronaviruses. Echinacea may have some useful preventative effects but should be avoided by people with immune hyperstimulation, like autoimmmune disease.

Finally a quick word about our wondrous gut microbiome, that colony of literally trillions of bacteria, of hundreds of different species, that is so connected to all our processes, especially optimal immune function. Ideally we want a diverse range of species of gut flora, and that means eating a diverse diet first and foremost.

Remember, we are feeding our gut bugs too and they love plant foods. Herbs also count as plants and the medicinal ones were simply edible plants that became treasured for their seemingly particular health benefits, based on observations over millennia in the best lab on the planet – the natural world.

There are also reports of traditional Chinese medicine being used in some Chinese hospitals to fight Covid-19, taking Ancient knowledge to a brand new disease.

Now, more than ever, is the time to create your best health, through knowledge of food, nutrition and lifestyle. Taking care of yourself, eating well, sleeping well and reducing risks of infection will put us all in a stronger, more resilient position to tackle an ever changing world. If you’re ready to reduce your risks and reverse Type 2 diabetes, please book a call to discuss the Diabetes Clinic online programme here.

 

Dr Matt Shelton MB ChB, Dip Obs, Dip Anaes, FRNZCGP, FACNEM.  Matt has over three decades of medical practice in the United Kingdom and 25 years in his adopted home, New Zealand. Studies in anthropology and a fellowship in clinical nutrition confirmed for him that our ability to thrive requires awareness of a few obligatory and non-negotiable behaviours, in order to be physically and emotionally healthy. Matt has years of valuable experience as a full-time general practitioner, working increasingly with diabetes, obesity and other metabolic diseases.