An overview of some of the many factors affecting immune response including, but certainly not limited to, DNA and Epigenetics.
In the past couple of years, most of us learned more about immunity than we ever have before. But what many may still not know, is the extent that our genes can play in our immune response and virus susceptibility.
It’s important to understand how both our genes and our lifestyle choices work together to ensure our immune system is in optimal working order to keep us safe. First, we’ll take a look at our immune function and how we can improve it.
On a genetic level, we all share variants that can affect our immune response. The TNF gene, for example, is one of significance as its primary role is the regulation of our immune cells.
How well we take care of ourselves plays a large role in how well one’s immune system functions. One way to help the immune system is through diet and nutrition. Vitamins, including but not limited to vitamin C, are important to help maintain good general health and to help fight infections. Sadly, the majority of us are likely deficient in Vitamin D, which can also hurt our immune function. However, there are ways to combat this along with many other reasons to love the sunshine vitamin; you can read more about it here.
Those looking to build up their immune response will also often turn to exercise. While this is a good thing, we must remember to be careful and take it easy at first. Excessive training, or overdoing it too fast, too soon, can increase the expression of our TNF alpha.
This means that we can actually weaken our immune system rather than strengthen it which is counterproductive to what we are trying to achieve. Instead, ease into it with walking or other light exercises to build up over time.
Another way that we can hurt our immune system is by having chronic stress which is a feeling of constant stress over a long period of time. This can cause long-term effects from reducing our immune response to causing increased production of pro-inflammatory genes such as the IL-6 gene. Just as we can weaken our immune system when we increase the expression of our TNF alpha gene, the same can be said of IL-6.
Additionally, chronic stress can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, damage to muscle tissue, and can damage our mental health. For those who suffer from high blood pressure, check out these great tips on how to naturally lower your blood pressure. Short-term stress can be a good thing as it can enhance our performance, but try to avoid overdoing the stress.
When we are injured, we need inflammation to promote tissue repair. Inflammatory responses can also be the result of things like infections or chronic diseases. There are steps we can take that will help in building up our inflammatory response. These include eating a well-balanced diet that includes fruits and vegetables and limiting alcohol and sugary drinks. Healthy fats, such as olive oil, have anti-inflammatory properties and help fight off harmful bacteria and viruses.
Reducing our excess body fat through exercise can help our immune cells regenerate regularly. It’s also important to avoid polluted areas, as they can lead to disease, such as respiratory disease. And lastly, be sure to get a good night’s sleep.
Here’s the tricky part though; some individuals can be in a constant state of inflammation, known as chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can mean that your body may start damaging healthy cells and organs. This can lead to increased risk of heart disease, arthritis, and all sorts of other health problems, even cancer. While it can be hard to tell if we have chronic inflammation on the inside, outside clues include red or swollen joints, heat, and pain.
But is this inflammatory response enough to ensure that we are not vulnerable to the viruses that are out in the world including COVID-19? Unfortunately, no. We have to take into account our genes and the specifics of each virus. We also have to recognize a couple of other factors we will discuss below.
Although studies are still ongoing when it comes to our virus susceptibility, there are a few factors that may influence how vulnerable we are. They include our genes (also considered host genes), the environment we live in, and the interactions we have.
Let’s first look at our DNA and how that may lead us to be more susceptible. Our genes can make us more vulnerable to developing a lot of viral ailments, from hepatitis to COVID-19. According to a paper released by nature.com, a region on chromosome 3 can drastically alter the intensity of the disease, and lead to an increased risk of respiratory failure and even death.
When we are hit with COVID-19, it’s largely due to ACE2, a protein that enters our cells. The genes that are in this chromosome 3 region, including SLC6A20, produce a protein that interacts with this COVID protein, ACE2.
These genes also interact with the genes for chemokine receptors, which relate directly to inflammation. What makes COVID-19 more deadly to some is the inflammation that happens within the body. If this inflammation is increased due to a prominent gene found in some people, it could explain why they are hit harder with this type of virus than others.
Now, let’s take a look at environmental factors. According to one study, exposure to indoor air pollution, to name one example, gives us a higher risk of developing cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and we are more at risk of dying from a virus such as the coronavirus.
If we want to stay healthy, we need to limit our contact with hazardous agents that are found in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we consume through the soil in which it grows. While changes in our environment can make a difference, our susceptibility to the coronavirus among others ultimately comes down to our daily exposures through interactions with others. This is why we need to make our health our top priority.
There are many ways we can help build up our immunity. Leading a healthy lifestyle is the simplest and most effective way to do this.
While genetics do play a role in immunity, they are only one piece of the puzzle. Knowing where you need to focus your energy can directly impact the role your genes play in your susceptibility to viruses and other ailments. This is where epigenetics can make a difference. Epigenetic testing allows us to see what sorts of ailments we are more vulnerable to and how we can make changes to limit our weaknesses. To learn more about epigenetics and the health benefits of epigenetic testing, you can read about it here.
My Toolbox Genomics empowers individuals in their healthcare journey by creating reports focused on genetic predispositions derived from published research. Test results and suggestions are intended to lead to consultation with one’s healthcare practitioner. MyTBG reports do not diagnose disease or medical conditions. Any lifestyle changes should result from consultation with qualified healthcare practitioners.