What is a virus?
A virus is a microscopic organism, much smaller and simpler than a bacterium, which can infect animals, humans, plants, fungi and even bacteria. Despite being living organisms, they cannot replicate on their own, so they will inhabit a host’s cell and then force them to produce thousands of identical copies of the virus. Some of the reasons they are so difficult to control is:
- They do not have a metabolism or many structures of their own, so they hide inside their host’s cells
- They are able to mutate - viruses can cause changes in the genetic makeup of the cells, thereby evolving constantly and rapidly to avoid the defense mechanisms of the host.
The flu virus in particular has been found to depend on cellular glucose, and it has been found that reducing glucose metabolism dials down influenza viral infection in laboratory cell cultures.
So what can we do to strengthen our immune system and protect ourselves from potential viral infections?
- Reduce our sugar consumption and increase the amount of antioxidant rich vegetables.
- Increase your consumption of vitamin C rich foods such as broccoli, peppers, citrus fruits and kiwi.
- Foods high in zinc are also important for immunity and the integrity of the gut lining, such as seafood, pumpkin and sunflower seeds.
- Vitamin D is important for immune health, so ensuring adequate sun exposure in the warmer months or eating vitamin D rich foods such as oily fish or liver (or fortified foods and/or D3 supplements for vegetarians and vegans) is recommended.
- Include probiotic rich foods into your diet to optimise the gut microbiome (the centre of our immune system): organic fermented dairy products such as yogurt and kefir, raw sauerkraut, kimchi, low sugar kombucha and organic fermented soy products such as tempeh and miso.
- Reduce your stress levels. Stress will put our bodies into fight or flight mode, which weakens our immune system and makes us more susceptible to viruses and infections.
- Practice good hygiene: wash your hands frequently and thoroughly or use sanitiser if in public spaces.
- Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Sneeze into your elbow or tissue and discard immediately.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth if your hands have not been washed.
- If you are unwell, avoid contact with other people until you feel better, especially immunocompromised individuals such as the elderly or people undergoing cancer treatment.
Finally, Let's put the coronavirus risk into perspective:
- There have been 3390 deaths worldwide so far from coronavirus, an average of 1130 a month.
- The World Health Organisation estimates that worldwide, annual influenza epidemics result in about 3-5 million cases of severe illness and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths.
- A 2019 study estimated an average of 389,000 respiratory deaths were associated with influenza globally each year.
- In the US, obesity is the second leading cause of death behind tobacco smoking, averaged at around 300,000 deaths a year.
- There are 174,000 deaths a year in the UK from heart or circulatory diseases, an average of 460 people a day or one death every 3 minutes.
- There were 5,843 alcohol-specific deaths in 2017 in the UK alone, and 1784 deaths due to traffic accidents.
With some attention to our diet and lifestyle, managing our stress levels and practising good hygiene, we should be able to strengthen our immune system enough to feel less anxious about coming in contact with flu viruses in the future.