Recurrent Colds and Flu?

In the this blog Rick from Health Generation in Coffs Harbour will discuss some of the possible reasons for recurrent colds and flu or other infections?

According to the Australian Lung Foundation, upper (URI) and lower respiratory tract infections (LRI) account for about 6 to 7 million GP visits per year (>10%) and costs Australian taxpayers millions of dollars annually.

For those who suffer from bad colds and flu, winter can be a pretty miserable time. If you lead a healthy life and still get bad colds and flu every year you might be scratching your head as to why. From my own observations, it appears that there’s more to colds and flu susceptibility than just adopting a healthy lifestyle. I’m not saying that healthy choices aren’t a factor because they definitely are, but maybe there’s more to it. In my own family there is an increased susceptibility to colds and flu and this trait occurs across at least three generations. None of us have any other major health concerns. This has lead me to believe that susceptibility may have something to do with genetics, either directly or indirectly? The World Health Organization thinks genetics may play a role in susceptibility to infections and has called for more studies to asses genetic risks towards severe influenza. Animal studies have confirmed a genetic susceptibility to influenza in micebut this has not been confirmed in humans yet, mainly due to the ethical limitations with human studies.

IgA Deficiency

Our bodies produce several classes of antibodies, known as immunoglobulins, with each designed to fight different pathogens in different parts of the body. The second most abundant immunoglobulin in the body is called immunoglobulin A (IgA). IgA can be found in the blood and in the mucus secretions, where it is known as secretory  IgA (sIgA). sIgA is the most abundant immunoglobulin found in mucus secretions, such as in the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. sIgA prevents the adherance of pathogenic bacteria to the mucus membranes, amongst other roles. It is therefore extremely important for fighting infections that enter the body, such as those involved in colds and flu. Selective IgA deficiency is the most common immunodeficiency and is defined as low serum IgA levels with normal levels of the other immunoglobulin classes. Although selective IgA deficiency is not diagnosed from low sIgA, recurrent respiratory tract infections are the most common findings in those with IgA deficiency. IgA deficiency also increases the risk of gastrointestinal infections/disorders, allergies, autoimmunity and malignancy. Therefore, measuring IgA levels in the blood is worthwhile in any of the above conditions.

As well as genetics, low levels of IgA can also be due to poor nutrition and lifestyle factors, such as a vitamin A deficiency and stress. A healthy gastrointestinal system is also really important for IgA production, as it is with many many conditions.

Allergies

The immune system has a full time job defending the body against infections at the best of times. However, if it has to deal with added distractions, such as allergies, the immune system can become overwhelmed and struggles to keep up with demand. It could be a food allergy or an environmental allergy, but frequent exposure is the key factor. Allergies are already a sign of a dysfunctional immune system and could be the root cause of any recurrent health condition, such as recurrent colds and flu. People often think of runny nose and puffy eyes when they think of allergies, but symptoms vary depending on the type of allergy and the part of the immune system that is dysfunctional.

People often don’t make the connection between their allergies and recurrent infections, but it is well worth exploring. Unless it’s a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis), an Elimination Diet (eliminate foods and rechallenge) is an effective tool to assess for food allergies.

Stress

There is a plethora of studies outlining the association between stress and the immune system. The association appears to be bi-directional, in that the immune system can effect the brain and vice versa, likely via numerous pathways. Furthermore, stress can also negatively impact the composition of our microbiome and we know that the microbiome has a big influence on the immune system. Stress can also lower IgA, as previously discussed.

Addressing the underlying causes of stress, developing strategies to minimise stress and improving stress resilience are really important for overall health, including immune function.

It is also possible that genetic susceptibility to stress also increases susceptibility to infections?

Poor Nutrition

The whole body, including the immune system, relies on a constant supply of nutrients to be able to function properly. We know that undernourished people are at a much greater risk of infection than those who are nutritionally replete. Therefore, it makes sense that those who have marginal deficiencies in vitamins or minerals are also likely more likely to get infections. Furthermore, vitamin and mineral deficiencies have been shown to increase the risk of infection, including vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc and iron. Nutritional status includes diet, but also the absorption and metabolism of nutrients, which can be affected by many factors. For example, genetic polymorphisms can affect the conversion of certain nutrients to their active form.

With many people not eating a healthy diet, marginal nutrient deficiencies are likely to be widespread even before taking other factors into account. It is imperative that the diet provides all the necessary essential nutrients that the body requires to function properly, including the maintenance of a healthy immune system.

Genetic Polymorphisms

The Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) gene complex has been shown to play a critical role in killing the influenza (flu) virus. Therefore, the HLA gene can influence genetic susceptibility to infectious disease, however no polymorphisms have yet been identified in this gene complex. What it does prove though is that genetic susceptibility is at least possible and that HLA mutations could be the reason why some families are more susceptible to infectious diseases.

Strenuous Exercise

Studies have shown that the physiological stress associated with strenuous exercise can temporarily suppress the immune system, therefore increasing susceptibility to infections, particularly upper respiratory tract infections. The mechanisms responsible for this are not conclusive, but it is thought that increased cortisol levels may be a contributing factor, as it is with psychological stress. The immune system uses the inflammatory response to combat infections, but cortisol has an anti-inflammatory effect in the body. Consuming sufficient carbohydrates during and after exercise can reduce cortisol levels and therefore reduce the associated immune suppression. This is one reason why sports nutrition for athletes is really important.

Conclusion

So, there are many factors, including genetics, that could contribute to an increased susceptibility to colds and flu as well as other infectious diseases. Therefore, if you do have any of these genetic traits, you have to be extra vigilant to maintain health and avoid infections, including:

  • Washing hands frequently
  • Avoiding crowded places
  • Avoiding close contact with people who have contagious infections
  • Avoid cross contamination of meats with other foods
  • Cooking meats thoroughly
  • Don’t eat food that is old or looks/smells spoilt
  • Don’t leave food out of the fridge for too long
  • Treat any underlying digestive issues
  • Develop a nutrition plan if you’re an endurance athlete
  • Moderate exercise regularly
  • Assess for potential allergies
  • Eat a healthy diet that is right for you
  • Minimise stress & build stress resilience
  • Get enough sleep
  • Alcohol in moderation
  • Minimise the use of drugs (prescription or otherwise)
  • Supplements for nutritional and immune support, where indicated

There are a lot of products on the market that claim to help boost your immune system. Some treatments do have good evidence, but the immune system is broad and complex so investigating why the immune system isn’t functioning properly is important. Treatments can then be much better targeted to the part of the immune system that is dysfunctional. If you do suffer from recurrent infections it’s worthwhile digging down a little deeper to identify the root cause.

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Author

Rick Hallion is a nutritionist located in Coffs Harbour, NSW. Rick is passionate about finding the root cause of ill health and not just providing symptom relief, which is why he treats based on naturopathic principles

 

recurrent colds and flu coffs harbour

 

“Your genetics load the gun, your lifestyle pulls the trigger.” – Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., MD

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