As the world scrambles to find a cure for Covid-19, the population around the world started talking about immunity and its importance in tackling this problem. The curiosity about the foods, herbal and non-herbal products, and medicines that boost immunity rose during this pandemic. Health experts from various medical schools of thought around the world emphasised on having a good immune system which might help to minimise the effects and hasten the recovery from the illness.
The ministry of AYUSH has issued more than one advisory on herbal and non-herbal preparations that help to boost immunity.
From time immemorial Ayurveda has been talking about immunity in a language of its own and has rich concepts to offer towards the same. I think it is the right time to speak about the Ayurvedic perspective of immunity.
The word Vyadhikshamatva has been used in Ayurveda to denote immunity. Immunity is the capacity of the people to resist harmful micro-organisms from entering their body and thus resisting the manifestation of the disease (Vyadhi Utpadaka Pratibandhakatvam) and at the same time having adequate capacity to fight against the already manifested disease (Vyadhi Bala Virodhitvam).
The immune system has three important components – Sahaja Bala (innate or native immunity), Yuktija Bala (adaptive or acquired immunity) and Kalaja Bala (time, age and season-specific immunity).
Sahaja Bala (innate or native immunity) – The innate immunity is defined by the body’s original genetic make-up which helps to fight against the disease. As a result, some races, families, and people living in certain geographies do not suffer from certain infectious diseases. This type of innate immunity can be specific in nature where an individual or community has specific resistance against a particular micro-organism. Non-specific innate immunity provides immunity to all infections in general.
Yuktija Bala (adaptive or acquired immunity) – is acquired by means of a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and following an ideal lifestyle. This type of adaptive immunity can be further sub-divided into naturally acquired immunity through chance contact with a disease-causing agent or artificially acquired through deliberate actions such as vaccines.
KalajaBala (time, age, and season-specific immunity) – is gained at a favourable or specific age, time and season. The children below 5 years of age and people above 60 years are more prone to infectious diseases as their immune responses to disease-causing agents is low. That’s why the special emphasis on safety and care for children below 5 years, people above 60 years and people who have diabetes, hypertension, kidney and heart disease, and all immune-compromised people were given during this Covid-19 pandemic.
Let us now review some common causes of a lowered immune system.
Atyalpa Nidra (Lack of sleep) – During sleep, the immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help to promote sleep. Certain cytokines not just promote sleep but they also help the body to fight against infection-causing agents. Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during the sleep-deprived period. Ayurveda considers a good amount of sleep as one of the three important pillars of health.
Ati-madhura Aahara (Excess of refined sugar) – The presence of a higher amount of refined sugar in food has an impact on the health and immune system. Excess sugar reduces the performance of white blood cells which play an important role in the defense mechanism of the body.
Ati-madhyapana (consumption of alcohol) – Clinicians around the world have observed an association between alcohol consumption and adverse immunity-related health effects such as susceptibility to pneumonia, acute respiratory stress syndrome, alcoholic liver disease, slower and less complete recovery from infectious disease. There has been a lot of evidence to show that alcohol disrupts immunity pathways in complex ways. These impair body’s ability to defend against infection.
Dhoomapana (cigarette smoking) – It is associated with numerous diseases and impacts both innate and adaptive immunity. Cigarette smoking reduces the functional capacity of WBCs and thereby reducing the body’s ability to fight against infectious diseases.
Ativyayama (Excessive exercise) – There is a lot of evidence to show that too much intense exercise can reduce immunity. Cortisol and adrenaline known as the stress hormones raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels and suppress the immune system. Therefore, it is advised to all people and athletes who are undergoing high-intensity endurance tests to include enough ‘rest days’ to allow the body’s immune system to recover.
Manodvega (stress) – When we are stressed, the immune system’s ability to fight the antigens is reduced. The stress hormone corticosteroid suppresses the effective mechanism of immunity by lowering the number of lymphocytes.
Vyadhi-Sankara (presence of co-morbid factors): Co-morbidity is the presence of one or more additional conditions/diseases often co-occurring with a primary condition and this can be physiological or psychological. These include heart disease, hypertension, chronic lung diseases, diabetes, severe kidney disease, mild to moderate liver disease, AIDS, cancer, etc. With the increasing presence of comorbidity in older adults, there is a proportional decrease in immune responses.
Anya Karana (other factors) – People suffering from malnutrition, those regularly exposed to chemicals and heavy metals, and those deprived of basic health facilities are susceptible to various infectious diseases since their immunity levels are usually down and so are the socio-economically downtrodden people.
The author is an Ayurvedic doctor based in Bangalore. Views are personal.