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Don't wait for disease. Strengthen your immune system now.
Prevention is always better than waiting .
- The focus on stopping the immediate spread of the coronavirus should remind us about the importance of always maintaining a healthy immune system.
- The most at-risk population are those with immunodeficiencies and respiratory problems.
- Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables, exercising regularly, and not smoking keep your immune system strong.
Wash your hands. Don't touch your face. Maintain a distance of at least six feet.
Wash your hands. Don't touch your face. Maintain a distance of at least six feet.
Wash your hands. Don't touch your face. Maintain a distance of at least six feet.
You might have seen these instructions here or there (or everywhere) lately. They're certainly important at this moment in time. Immediate actions must be taken; your best protection is prevention.
But there's a larger issue at play. Humans are reactionary animals. Americans seem particularly primed to react rather than foresee. We tend to respond only when necessary. As we're finding out, kicking the can down the road in regards to our health is not the wisest decision.
There is plenty of discussion about the dangers of COVID-19 on people with immunodeficiencies. The conversation also needs to focus on maintaining a healthy immune system so that when disasters strike, you're as prepared as possible to withstand the ravages of disease.
Your entire body is effectively your immune system. Specifically, the parts that play a role include your lymphatic vessels and lymph nodes, bone marrow, spleen, appendix, adenoid, thymus, and Peyer's patches (gut-associated lymphoid tissue). While geographically widespread, this team unites for a single purpose: to protect you against disease.
As you age, your immune system weakens. This is why cancers are more prevalent in older populations and infections that you shrugged off earlier in life can end up taking your life. Recovery periods from seemingly minor insults are extended. As it stands, respiratory infections, pneumonia, and influenza are among the top causes of death in seniors over age 65 around the world. This makes COVID-19 especially dangerous to older populations.
Maintaining a healthy immune system should be important to all of us at every age. At some point, you and I and everyone will experience the final insult that leads to death. Living a healthy lifestyle means you are not only increasing your chances for living longer, but you'll also live better at every step. Below are eight methods for keeping your immune system strong.
3 Immunity Boosters You Should Know About
You've heard it a million times, but let's repeat it again: regular movement is one of the most important factors for keeping your immune system in top shape. Exercise alleviates mental health issues, helps lift depression, and reduces the effects of anxiety disorder—all cognitive issues that add stress to our lives, and chronic stress destroys immune systems.
On the physical side, humans were born to move. Denying yourself this birthright proves detrimental to fighting disease. Load your body, engage in cardiovascular activity, stretch—just get moving. The most important aspect of exercise on your immune system appears to be increased circulation, so even regular walking is a boon. Ideally, you push your heart rate up regularly and load your body at least three times per week.
Eat well, especially fruits and vegetables
While movement is essential, nothing affects your immune system more than your diet. Those who live in poverty or are malnourished (or both) are more susceptible to infectious diseases than other populations. Regardless of economic status, your risk for immunodeficiencies increases if your diet is high in sugars and carbohydrates.
Those lacking vitamins such as zinc, iron, folic acid, copper, selenium, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E might also experience immune problems. The answer is simple: eat a lot of plants and fruits and lower your intake of processed and sugary foods. Make sure dessert is what it was intended to be: an occasional treat. Stop eating dessert for breakfast.
Watch your weight
In December, it was reported that half of Americans will be obese in 10 years if interventions are not put into place. Even more alarmingly, a quarter of Americans will be severely obese—over 100 pounds overweight. An animal that, for 350,000 years, has survived thanks to nutritional scarcity has fallen victim to caloric excess. The negative health effects of obesity cannot be overstated. Trouble fighting disease is only one of the many consequences of not maintaining a healthy body weight.
Anxiety levels are skyrocketing. Most people have not been infected by this coronavirus nor will fall seriously ill due to it, yet fear and panic are overriding our calmer instincts. Added stress increases the likelihood you'll experience more dire effects if you are infected; chronic stress is more detrimental to overall health than the occasional stressor.
Numerous anxiety reduction techniques exist—parasympathetic breathing techniques, meditation, listening to music, conversing with friends, and many others. We need a mass cognitive reframing right now. Though the worst is probably ahead of us, this epidemic too will pass. Keeping this in mind is important as you navigate this new terrain.
Greek Lentil and Spinach Soup With Lemon.
Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post via Getty Images; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post via Getty Images
Drink in moderation
Alcohol stunts the immune response. While a little bit might prove relaxing, moderation is key. Drinking daily or getting drunk to distract yourself from the virus (or anything else) increases the likelihood that your body will be incapable of fighting off the disease if you become infected. Be smart about your drinking and try not to use it as a coping mechanism.
Sleep deprivation reduces your body's ability to produce essential proteins that keep your body healthy. Still, the National Sleep Foundation estimates that 47 million Americans don't get enough shuteye. It is estimated that 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. Chronic lack of sleep leads to both mental and physical health problems, including a compromised immune system. In fact, the number one remedy for most illnesses is sleep (along with hydration). Basic, of course, but basics are essential.
The best way to not get sick is to avoid situations in which you can get sick. Wash your hands. Don't touch your face. Maintain a distance of at least six feet. This is always good advice, but critical now.
Throw out the cigarettes
Cigarette smokers are especially susceptible to COVID-19 given that it's a respiratory disease. We've known about the deadly consequences of smoking for a century, even though it took public health officials some time to catch on. In the long run, nothing good comes from it. Don't wait for another epidemic to kick this habit.
- The immune system and mental health - Big Think ›
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Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
In what is perhaps one of the weirdest experiments ever that comes from the category of "why did anyone need to know this?" scientists have proven that the Regimbartia attenuata beetle can climb out of a frog's butt after being eaten.
The research was carried out by Kobe University ecologist Shinji Sugiura. His team found that the majority of beetles swallowed by black-spotted pond frogs (Pelophylax nigromaculatus) used in their experiment managed to escape about 6 hours after and were perfectly fine.
"Here, I report active escape of the aquatic beetle R. attenuata from the vents of five frog species via the digestive tract," writes Sugiura in a new paper, adding "although adult beetles were easily eaten by frogs, 90 percent of swallowed beetles were excreted within six hours after being eaten and, surprisingly, were still alive."
One bug even got out in as little as 7 minutes.
Sugiura also tried putting wax on the legs of some of the beetles, preventing them from moving. These ones were not able to make it out alive, taking from 38 to 150 hours to be digested.
Naturally, as anyone would upon encountering such a story, you're wondering where's the video. Thankfully, the scientists recorded the proceedings:
The Regimbartia attenuata beetle can be found in the tropics, especially as pests in fish hatcheries. It's not the only kind of creature that can survive being swallowed. A recent study showed that snake eels are able to burrow out of the stomachs of fish using their sharp tails, only to become stuck, die, and be mummified in the gut cavity. Scientists are calling the beetle's ability the first documented "active prey escape." Usually, such travelers through the digestive tract have particular adaptations that make it possible for them to withstand extreme pH and lack of oxygen. The researchers think the beetle's trick is in inducing the frog to open a so-called "vent" controlled by the sphincter muscle.
"Individuals were always excreted head first from the frog vent, suggesting that R. attenuata stimulates the hind gut, urging the frog to defecate," explains Sugiura.
For more information, check out the study published in Current Biology.
Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
Satellite imagery can help better predict volcanic eruptions by monitoring changes in surface temperature near volcanoes.
- A recent study used data collected by NASA satellites to conduct a statistical analysis of surface temperatures near volcanoes that erupted from 2002 to 2019.
- The results showed that surface temperatures near volcanoes gradually increased in the months and years prior to eruptions.
- The method was able to detect potential eruptions that were not anticipated by other volcano monitoring methods, such as eruptions in Japan in 2014 and Chile in 2015.
How can modern technology help warn us of impending volcanic eruptions?
One promising answer may lie in satellite imagery. In a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, researchers used infrared data collected by NASA satellites to study the conditions near volcanoes in the months and years before they erupted.
The results revealed a pattern: Prior to eruptions, an unusually large amount of heat had been escaping through soil near volcanoes. This diffusion of subterranean heat — which is a byproduct of "large-scale thermal unrest" — could potentially represent a warning sign of future eruptions.
Conceptual model of large-scale thermal unrestCredit: Girona et al.
For the study, the researchers conducted a statistical analysis of changes in surface temperature near volcanoes, using data collected over 16.5 years by NASA's Terra and Aqua satellites. The results showed that eruptions tended to occur around the time when surface temperatures near the volcanoes peaked.
Eruptions were preceded by "subtle but significant long-term (years), large-scale (tens of square kilometres) increases in their radiant heat flux (up to ~1 °C in median radiant temperature)," the researchers wrote. After eruptions, surface temperatures reliably decreased, though the cool-down period took longer for bigger eruptions.
"Volcanoes can experience thermal unrest for several years before eruption," the researchers wrote. "This thermal unrest is dominated by a large-scale phenomenon operating over extensive areas of volcanic edifices, can be an early indicator of volcanic reactivation, can increase prior to different types of eruption and can be tracked through a statistical analysis of little-processed (that is, radiance or radiant temperature) satellite-based remote sensing data with high temporal resolution."
Temporal variations of target volcanoesCredit: Girona et al.
Although using satellites to monitor thermal unrest wouldn't enable scientists to make hyper-specific eruption predictions (like predicting the exact day), it could significantly improve prediction efforts. Seismologists and volcanologists currently use a range of techniques to forecast eruptions, including monitoring for gas emissions, ground deformation, and changes to nearby water channels, to name a few.
Still, none of these techniques have proven completely reliable, both because of the science and the practical barriers (e.g. funding) standing in the way of large-scale monitoring. In 2014, for example, Japan's Mount Ontake suddenly erupted, killing 63 people. It was the nation's deadliest eruption in nearly a century.
In the study, the researchers found that surface temperatures near Mount Ontake had been increasing in the two years prior to the eruption. To date, no other monitoring method has detected "well-defined" warning signs for the 2014 disaster, the researchers noted.
The researchers hope satellite-based infrared monitoring techniques, combined with existing methods, can improve prediction efforts for volcanic eruptions. Volcanic eruptions have killed about 2,000 people since 2000.
"Our findings can open new horizons to better constrain magma–hydrothermal interaction processes, especially when integrated with other datasets, allowing us to explore the thermal budget of volcanoes and anticipate eruptions that are very difficult to forecast through other geophysical/geochemical methods."