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Revolutionising actor training through indigenous corporeal arts



By Sajitha Prematunge

The various thuds, groans and gasps begged the question, were the participants insured? Apparently not, according to the AHEAD project team, lead by University of Visual and Performing Arts, Faculty of Dance and Drama, Professor in Theatre and Drama, Dr. Saumya Liyanage. The training takes place three days per week and make no mistake, Angampora is harder than it looks. But it is not life threatening if trained by a professional Master, assured Liyanage.

Accelerating Higher Education Expansion and Development (AHEAD) is a World Bank funded government initiative aimed at supporting the higher education sector with the Ministry of Education and Higher Education as the implementing agency and the University Grants Commission (UGC) coordinating the activities in the universities.

“The objective of AHEAD is to develop IT skills, English language proficiency as well as innovation and research in the government university sector,” informed Liyanage. The programme provides funding under three key areas, one being development-oriented research, under which Liyanage’s research project proposal titled ”Lamp in a windless place’: Developing an Actor Training Methodology through Sri Lankan Combative Art Forms’ was selected for funding. The project explores the effectiveness of actor training through Angampora.

Liyanage explained that while Europeans are more explorative and there exists an intercultural discussion on performer training traditions, the potential of indigenous martial arts in developing an actor training methodology had not been explored at length before Phillip Zarrilli’s research. Liyanage was influenced by Exeter University, UK Professor Zarrilli’s research. Having met and worked with him, during an actor training workshop in India, Zarrilli’s work inspired the conception of Liyanage’s project. “Zarrilli developed an actor training methodology using Kerala-based form of martial arts, Kalaripayattu.” “But this is the first time the potential of Angampora, as a Sri Lankan combative art form, is being explored in terms of actor training,” said Hillary.



Lead academic expert of AHEAD Operation, Prof Thusitha Abeytunga and World Bank lead economist, Dr. Harsha Aturupane has been of immense support to them. “It takes a lot of effort, on their side, to appreciate the significance of this project, particularly from an economic perspective,” said Hillary. “Providing financial support to actor training research is an alien concept even for them,” confessed Liyanage. He said that he is grateful that his project is one of few from Humanities funded by AHEAD.

“The funding is provided as a soft loan, meaning the government has to pay it back eventually. But in essence, it is the public who has to bear the cost,” said Liyanage, pointing out that it is imperative that the public knows that they are paying for a good cause. “Contrary to popular belief that they are stagnating, universities actually do good work. For example, we produce academic papers quite frequently, but the general public is not exposed to them, simply because they are subject specific papers.”

The 10 million grant, offered for a period of three years, is being put to good use. The academic aspect of the project requires actual research work to be undertaken. “It makes for a healthy blend of academic exploration and practice,” said Liyanage. Consequently, much of the first year was spent on research and development of two MPhil degrees. Liyanage, Team Member, Natasha Hillary and the research assistants write academic papers while training takes place simultaneously. “Because it is only with the justification through academic writing, a qualitative method of evaluation, can we prove the objective or the outcome of the project,” said Hillary. Institute of Arts Barcelona, Spain has agreed to allocate the next issue of their journal to the project. Liyanage opined that developing new theory is an integral part of the project. “Later we would focus on developing an actor training methodology in a laboratory setting.”

In the second year an actor training laboratory was established within the university. “But we have not yet been able to make full use of it, because the university is currently off limits due to the prevailing pandemic situation,” admitted Liyanage. Hillary explained that the World Bank usually funds research projects and development of university infrastructure. “Such as the actor training laboratory, which the university was much in need of.” She explained that securing funding and actually keeping the project on par with other World Bank funded projects was no cake-walk. “They have a strict monitoring mechanism and we are expected to achieve Key Performance Indicators, within the project structure, that varies from academic papers, research problems to presentations at international symposia or conferences.”

According to Hillary University Business Linkages acts as a business partner to the project. “For example if the project achieves the results we hope it would it qualifies for a patent, where in a new course can be introduced, enabling actors to apply and learn this form of martial arts during their studies at the university.” She pointed out that students have hardly any opportunity to be exposed to such martial arts, within the university curriculum. “But if the project becomes a success it can even be converted to an internship,” informed Hillary.

Liyanage explained that although the university system produces quality graduates, there is no vibrant industry to absorb them, compared to countries like India. “The issue is that we have a small television industry, theatre is almost negligible and film industry is stagnant.” Liyanage explained that they are striving to produce high quality graduates to improve the industry, by honing their language skills, soft skills and IT skills.


Acting and martial arts

“Perfection of any martial arts requires discipline,” said Liyanage. “It is a very corporeal teaching methodology based on a traditional master-disciple relationship.” The basic principle is imitation of the master and imitation is a form of acting, explained Liyanage. “Attentiveness is essential in both mastering a form of martial arts and in acting. The presence of an actor is another key element in performing,” explained Liyanage. “It’s not mere personality, an actor’s presence is something else entirely. Just being in front of the camera or on stage, conveys a message and can count as presence.”

Training in martial arts also prepares an actor psychophysically, explained Liyanage. Liyanage points out that martial arts such as Angampora trains both body and mind simultaneously. “In fact, in the west there is a clear demarcation between mind and matter. This is a philosophical problem. However, in major Asian corporeal arts there is no distinction between mind and body. Philosophically, Angampora also reflects this unity of the body-mind.” Liyanage believes that this can be adapted as a philosophical base for actor training, as psychophysical actor training focuses on the body-mind functionality of the actor.

In fact, how the psychophysical approaches of ancient martial arts can be incorporated into actor training is what initially attracted Research Assistant, Lyudmyla Honcharova to the project. Honcharova admitted that she had always been attracted to martial arts. Honcharova observed that her training is more mentally challenging that it is physically so. “What constraints us is really a construct of the mind. Your body can take it, but your mind holds you back. But the master coaxes the students into pushing those psychological boundaries, to overcome your fears. This in the long run, builds self confidence.” Honcharova explained that if an actor is unsure of him or herself and hesitate on stage or set, it does not make the acting plausible. “The audience will see right through it. To become the character you portray, to become someone else, first you have to know yourself.”

Honcharova opined that the well-being of actors is something often ignored in traditional actor training. “Acting as a profession is both mentally and physically very rigorous. So it’s important that you know how to transit from your daily life to your stage life. A gap in actor training is that this is not taught.” Honcharova explained that, in contrast, martial arts have a solid structure, with warmups, the main session and the cooling down. “Angampora is not just about fighting, but about healing and both physical and mental well-being. Martial arts teaches you how to take care of your body, how to treat injury. It is specially based on Ayurvedic practices, capable of treating many ailments.”

Honcharova opined that Angampora helps one connect with the surrounding environment better and facilitates smoother energy flow, while also allowing one to concentrate on the different parts of the body. “The Angampora sessions start with meditation and it really helps to focus. In martial arts focus is vital, because you need to be able to foresee your opponent’s moves and you need to be observant and attentive. All these translate well into acting, since acting also involves multitasking in the form of interacting with other actors on stage, audience and delivering dialogue.” Honcharova explained that in both martial arts and acting the body becomes the main instrument. “So, although the two seems mutually exclusive, they are in fact mutually beneficial,” argued Honcharova.

Thilakshini Ratnayake, who has been engaged in theatre for over 10 years and have acted in several teledramas and films, is no stranger to acting. Ratnayake had acted in Vishama Bhaga, Silence in the Courts, Let Her Cry and Koombiyo, with two more movies in the pipeline. Her latest project is her role as Sulo in Thanamalvila Kollek. Ratnayake graduated with a Bachelor of Information Technology – external (BIT) from the Colombo University in 2010. Later she switched to Theatre Studies at the University of Visual and Performing Arts. Is is currently reading for her level II diploma in Drama and Theatre Studies at Trinity College London.

Ratnayake has attempted to apply what she had learned through the AHEAD project to her acting. Ratnayake pointed out that Angampora demands focus and coordination. “My focus and coordination between mind and body has improved. Movement needs to be coordinated, precise, purposeful and you have to be able to imagine your opponent. That’s very much like acting. When you act you may not have props or the other actors around, so a vivid imagination helps.” Consequently, the two can be mutually beneficial, opined Ratnayake. She admits that the training has heightened her focus and bodily awareness.

An injury deters Ratnayake from taking physical risks. But with the training she received from the AHEAD project, she has learned to relax and be more receptive to reactions from other actors and input from the director. “This kind of training also trains you to respect your body. My eating habits have gotten healthier and I’m more disciplined since I started training.” Ratnayake has learned to maintain a strict regimen in terms of physical health, eating right and getting regular hours of sleep. “I feel responsible for my body.”

Angampora is his forefathers legacy to Guru Karunapala, their Angampora master. Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers were Angampora masters of the Kotte tradition. Karunapala took up Angampora at the tender age of six. By the end of his studies he had become such a formidable Angampora fighter that he could kill a man with a newspaper, in quite the literal sense. He also perfected the art of using pressure points in combat and learned indigenous medicine for various ailments.

Karunapala had a tough training regimen, climbing arecanut trees in the rain and training ‘geta poottu’, different types moves or knots using one’s own limbs, in muddy paddy fields. A fully grown person can be incapacitated by tying him or her up with his or her own limbs, informed Karunapala. In fact, he said that a mere jerk of the opponent’s arm or pressing the right pressure point can nearly incapacitate an opponent for an extended period of time. “So you wouldn’t have to resort to killing.”

According to Karunapala, Angampora employs few of the oldest forms of physical exercise, such as locking one in a dandukanda (a pillory-like device). “This particular form of exercise strengthens the back and those who practice it will never hunch even at the age of 80 or 90.” While he was training he was required to do certain stretching exercises in the confines of a well. “It was called a ‘ling gete.’ Such exercises condition and strengthen the body.” Making one able to fight while standing on one foot. For most it’s nearly impossible to lift 100 pounds. But due to Karunapala’s rigorous weight lifting exercises, he can easily lift 350 pounds despite his 80 years. “In weights training, you are expected to lift other people, and the weight is increased daily, gradually.” Karunapala informed that certain breathing techniques are also employed in weight training. “When you have trained properly you can lift a fully grown cow without breaking a sweat.”

He explained that most of the Angampora moves are based on animal behaviour and certain moves are not taught because they are simply too dangerous. In fact, after mastering several of the styles Karunapala graduated only after vowing, standing neck deep in water with seven pots of milk on his head, never to use the moves to another’s detriment. He went back on his oath only once when he incapacitated 18 LTTE cadres single-handed. But this was a transparent matter of self defence.

“In all there are 64 styles. For example, the mantis is a harmless insect, but the Angampora style based on the mantis can be deadly.” The ‘Polu Sellama’ or fighting using staffs is based on deer fights using antlers. The ‘pimburu gete’ is based on pythons’ flexibility. The leopard and bear styles are some other such examples. “All these styles are slowly dying now,” said Karunapala, because some masters failed to pass the teachings onto the next generation. “Besides, people are too caught up in their economic strife, trying to make ends meet, than to take up something such as Angampora.”


Pics by Thushara Athapaththu



The ‘Cheena Abhagya’ on the rise



There is a big China Hurry in the government that seems much higher than any hurry about controlling the Covid pandemic.

The debate of the Colombo Port City Commission was scheduled for May 5, without even receiving the Supreme Court decision on the many petitions filed before it. This is a complete and shameless shift from the very process of parliamentary debate, the stuff of democracy.

A debate in parliament is based on the material — the facts, plans, decisions, proposals etc – placed before the members. This government with its Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour has no interest in the democratic process. They decide on a date for a debate on what is the most important piece of legislation today, with the MPs not given even an hour to know and study the decision of the Supreme Court on the subject. In fact, it is also a huge insult to the Supreme Court and the judicial process, too.

This decision and its refusal to agree to the Opposition calls for more days for this debate, showed how the government is ready, and determined, to use its two-thirds majority, post 20A, to have no respect for the democratic process.

Although this shameful move by the government failed, due to the Supreme Court decision not reaching the Speaker by that time, the mockery of democracy continues, with the next date for the debate on the Port City subject being fixed for May 18, again with no opportunity for all MPs to read and study the court decision/s on so many matters raised by the petitioners, some of whom were members of parliament too.

This is the China Hurry – Cheena Hadissiya – being displayed, just the initial moves to use the Sinopharm Covid Vaccine on the people of this country, while it has not been approved by the WHO and the responsible Health and Medical officials in this country.

This is the ‘Cheenabhagya’ doing much more than the Saubhagya Dekma of Gotabhaya Power. A rising ‘Abhagya’ or misery to the people.

This Cheenabhagya is certainly impacting others in the government, such as Minister Gamini Lokuge, who decided to arbitrarily lift the lockdown and travel restrictions in Piliyandala. There will be much more Cheena benefits and power in the coming weeks, as the country keeps reeling with the spread of the latest variant of Covid-19. 

The Cabinet move to import gyms to strengthen the muscles of the people is certainly a move to reduce the thinking power of the people. Muscle Power is the stuff of rulers who have no faith in the Brain Power of people, who would dare to question the decisions taken by rulers. The use of this Brain Power is the very substance of the Buddhist thinking that has been the core value of Sri Lanka through the centuries. This is the substance of the Buddha Dharmaya as against the Buddha-agama that has distorted Buddhist teachings. Are the plans to build a Sri Lankan temple, in the premises of the ancient and first Buddhist White Horse Temple in China, a show of the Cheena Dekma – or Chinese Vision – that holds sway among those attached to what will soon be the Cheena Rajavasala in Hambantota. Maybe, we will soon change the name of Hambantota to a Maha Cheenatota, and wipe off the arrival of Hamban people to this country.

Rishad Bathiuddin remains in the spotlight today. His moves with different governments, from the Mahinda Rajapaksa to the Yahapalana have been the cause of much criticism and court orders such as replanting torn down jungles. He is now detained as a terror suspect, and the Cheena Balaya does not want him to attend parliament. Sarath Weerasekera, Minister of Public Security, does not want him in the House, as he will violate the legal process that holds him in custody, as he would most likely reveal the secrets of terrorism inquiries supposedly now underway, and may even help other un-arrested terror suspects to flee the country. This is against the official thinking of the Attorney General, who certainly knows more about law, than a retired armed services officer.

The innocence of an unconvicted person until conviction by a court, is part of our democratic and judicial processes. Weerasekera is wholly pleased to have within the government ranks, in parliament, a person convicted by the courts for the crime of murder in the Ratnapura district, Premalal Jayasekera. Is this power prospect for future murderers, convicted by a court of law? This Cheena Havula also had in its ranks Sivanesathurai Chandrakanthan – Pillayan, while he was held in custody for the murder of a former MP in a Batticaloa church, many years ago. Well, well – he has since been acquitted and released by the Batticaloa High Court

It is not our delight that Rishard Bathiuddin is the focus of a call for democracy within parliament. We are aware of how his party, and the Muslim Congress too, gave support to pass the 20A, and its huge blow to democracy. But the rights of a citizen and an elected MP, have to be protected, whatever the politics and the other stuff of a person may be. To give him the right to attend and speak in parliament is a core value of the democratic process. This cannot be torn away under the Cheena thinking, which is fast taking us to the manipulations of the Chinese Communist Party, in its governance of China.

We are in the throes of a pandemic that is certainly sweeping the country. The need is to guide and handle the fight against it, and save the people of the horror we see just across the Palk Strait. Narendra Modi, who was honoured by his BJP for the so-called success in defeating Covid-19, is now facing humiliating defeats, electorally, socially and globally too. Our fight against this pandemic must be through the values of the democratic process. The values we have seen till 1977, after independence, which have been distorted and destroyed by JRJ and down to the Cheenabhagya of Gotabhaya.

The fight against Covid-19 must be a fight to restore Democracy too, in every form of the people’s rights and freedoms.

Let’s move to Janatha Bhagya, away from the rising Cheena Abhagya of today!

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From Cylinder to Liquid Oxygen Plant



Story of Oxygen supply at National Hospital –

The National Hospital of Sri Lanka (NHSL) is the largest and best equipped Teaching Hospital in the country with a bed strength of nearly 4,000. It has 26 operating theatres, 28 Intensive Care Units (ICU) and several institutes including one for Cardiology housed in a large number of buildings. It is located on a 32-acre land standing in the middle of Colombo.

NHSL is circled by a ring of busy public roads while some roads are running through the premises. Hospital premises and surrounding roads are always filled with hurriedly pacing medical staff, siren blaring ambulances, patient-carrying trolleys, distressed relatives and tired visitors. One would not miss the sight of a cylinders loaded truck crawling across in this melee and wonder why the truck. They ensure continuous and uninterrupted supply of most essential medical oxygen for the patients treated in ICUs and those undergoing surgery in operating theatres.

A few years ago, a visitor would not have missed the outside walls of these operating theatres and ICUs each of which decorated with 6-7 hanging jumbo oxygen cylinders. When I made the morning strolls down the hospital corridors my eyes always caught the sight of these cylinders. Oxygen is taken through a copper tubing system fixed to these cylinders to the respective destinations. i.e. Oxygen outlet in the bedside of patients treated in ICUs and in operating theatres. Hospital had a sufficient number of cylinders filled with oxygen. Employees efficiently replaced empty cylinders with new ones.

Every day employees collected empty cylinders, loaded them on a truck and transported to the Oxygen Company in Mattakkuliya for refilling. On certain days when the oxygen consumption was high, this operation has to be doubled. Hospital had its own truck and a group of specially trained skilled employees assigned for the task. Loading and unloading of these jumbo cylinders was a specialised job.

I noticed this operation during my afternoon inspection tour. In fact, the noise made in loading unloading as well as dismounting and mounting cylinders on the walls and the sight itself, to say the least, was a nuisance. Once the truck returned, the refilled cylinders were immediately distributed among the theatres and ICUs. Needless to say this was a hectic task considering the large number, and the spread of theatres and ICUs in the hospital.

There were tensed situations when the truck did not return on time due to a break down, a traffic congestion or an accident on the way. Thought of the delay of the truck with refilled oxygen cylinders gave me many sleepless nights. I was waiting to welcome the irritating noise made when cylinders fell on one another during unloading. While others were cursing, I got a sense of relief as it was an indication that the oxygen truck has arrived. My official residence was in very close proximity to the Merchants Ward where many cylinders were unloaded. No sooner had I heard the clattering sound than I ran to the window to witness the unloading.

As the Director of the country’s largest hospital, I was responsible for the overall smooth functioning of the hospital itself and that of men, material and machinery. And among all, ensuring the continuous and uninterrupted supply of oxygen for patients who were critically ill and those undergoing surgery was foremost.

Majority staff including doctors and nurses did not know the complexity behind the smooth flow of oxygen through the outlet whenever they open the valve to administer oxygen to a patient. Only a handful of people knew the complexity of the ‘oxygen supply operation’ in the hospital. It was a nightmare for me personally and all my predecessors.

While worrying over this cumbersome complex manual operation, I was wondering how fitting this type of oxygen supply for a Teaching Hospital of the magnitude of the National Hospital. My mind was busy in exploring and weighing alternatives.

While listening to the clattering of cylinders and watching the swift movements of workers’ hands in the unloading operation in the middle of the night, with a cup of steaming coffee in my hand, a thought struck my mind. I heard my own voice shouting over the clattering sound of falling cylinders; Hey! Man, be practical, install a Liquid Oxygen Plant in the hospital premises itself.

Early next morning ignoring the supervision tour, I was busy preparing a comprehensive proposal to the Ministry of Health with a clear justification of the investment. Having submitted the proposal followed by a few telephone calls the Ministry responded by approving the proposal.

The proposal was designed to have a Liquid Oxygen Plant with the highest capacity for the hospital and another with less capacity dedicated for the Institute of Cardiology located a little away from the main hospital premises across the street.

A few moons later, a Liquid Oxygen Plant near Ward 13 and a separate smaller plant on the premises of Institute of Cardiology rose to the sky. The copper pipelines were laid connecting all the operating theatres, intensive care units and high dependency units which required continuous uninterrupted supply of oxygen. The project was completed within a matter of a few months providing a great sense of relief to me.

The company which installed the two oxygen tanks is attending to maintenance and repairs. The company regularly monitors the level of consumption and replenishes the tanks. The hospital staff need not intervene.

Needless to mention the relief it brought to me. It was in the year 2006 during which the Hospital installed the two oxygen plants. Since then we did not have to wait for the truck or bother about cylinders. There has not been any loading unloading or clattering of cylinders. I wanted to ensure that my successors would have a permanent reliable source of Oxygen supply for our patients and avoid sleepless nights unlike me and my predecessors.

After the COVID-19 pandemic Oxygen has become the mostly used word among the healthcare workers. After retirement today, I reminisce my time as the Director of NHSL and recall how the disturbed night dawned upon me the idea to install a Liquid Oxygen Plant to ensure the continuous supply of Oxygen to patients gasping for oxygen.

Our neighbouring India is losing thousands of young lives a day due to unavailability of Oxygen. I am happy about the forethought I had 15 years ago long before the term ‘COVID-19 Pandemic’ entered our vocabulary.

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Boosting immune system to fight Covid-19: Is it possible?



By Saman Gunatilake

Emeritus Professor of Medicine

University of Sri Jayewardenepura

Immune boosting is a trending topic these days with the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of “immune boosting” is scientifically misleading and often used to market unproven products and therapies. There is no current evidence that any product or practice will contribute to enhanced “immune boosting” protection against COVID-19. This lack of evidence has not stopped wellness gurus with vested interests, and commercial entities from propagating notions of boosting immunity. Internet and popular press are flooded with messages of this nature resulting in an abundance of misinformation circulating online. The public is increasingly going online for health information and questions persist around the kinds of inaccurate information the public is absorbing and the impacts it may be having on health-related decisions and actions.


What are Immunity Boosters?

Immunity boosters are products which claim to be able to support your immune system so you aren’t as likely to get sick. Additionally, if you do get sick, taking the supplements will make your illness pass faster. There is no scientific and clinical evidence in humans to support claims of ‘immunity boosting’ foods and other products which supposedly enhance immunity. The body has its own immune system which fights against viral and bacterial invaders. With a normal immune system, we are capable of protecting ourselves against most infections but with certain situations the infection manages to overcome our immune system and cause serious disease and even death. The current Covid 19 pandemic is such a situation. We are in the grip of a spike in infection with over 1000 cases per day seen during the last few days. Total deaths from the pandemic in our country is nearing 700 and the total cases up to now amounts to around 111,800.

With no scientifically established cure for Covid-19 yet and the available recommended treatments limited to severe cases and being not so effective, recovery in most cases has largely been reliant on the human body’s natural defence, the immune system. Fighting the infection by boosting our immune systems had been the buzzword since the beginning of the pandemic. This has led to many misconceptions, misinforming and misleading the public. Improving the diet, taking vitamins and herbal products, lifestyle changes are proposed as ways of doing this. As a result, the market has been flooded with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity.

One of the common misconceptions is that high doses vitamin supplements and other minerals and nutrients boost one’s immunity. Ayurvedic concoctions, fruit juices, vitamin pills, zinc tablets have flooded the market with an array of products that claim to boost one’s immunity. Promoters of these products indicate that the body’s natural defences can be strengthened or enhanced by the consumption of certain foods, herbal products or the use of specific products.

Is there robust scientific evidence to support these claims for immune system boosting? The answer is no. Immunology experts believe that there is no way for healthy adults to improve their immunity through foods or other products. The immune system is very complex and these claims about boosting immunity are irrational and unscientific.


The Immune System

The immune system is activated by things that enter the body that the body doesn’t recognise as its own such as bacteria, viruses or even particles that cause allergy, like food, drugs and pollen. Most pathogens have a surface protein on them that the immune system recognizes as foreign. These are called antigens. Then the immune system sets in motion a complex process that fights the invader – this is the immune response.

There are two kinds of immune responses in the human body. The innate immune response is the first to kick in and is common among all animals. It is non-specific and immune cells mount an immediate attack on antigens. The response is subsequently replaced by the adaptive immune response, which tailors defences based on the kind of pathogen that is being encountered. The innate immune response consists of white blood cells like neutrophils, macrophages, and monocytes, while the adaptive response involves Lymphocytes -T cells and B cells, as well as antibodies produced by these cells as a specific response to the invader’s antigens. Stimulated immune systems release chemical proteins known as pro-inflammatory cytokines in large numbers, which can cause soreness and pain. So boosting immunity may lead to unwanted inflammations causing swelling, redness and pain locally and fever and other organ damage.

The Internet searchers will find that the myth of “boosting immunity” is extremely pervasive. Of the approaches that claimed to boost immunity, the top ones were diet, fruit, vitamins, antioxidants, probiotics, minerals. Interestingly, vaccines, the only proven method that enhances our immune response to an infection is ranked very low. One of the biggest misconceptions is that consuming more vitamins than required helps the immune system. It has been proven, time and again, that mega-doses of Vitamin C or of any kind of vitamin are not effective on the body at all. Another misconception is that zinc tablets can play a role in mitigating Covid-19. However, this isn’t backed by evidence either.

Zinc is not an immunity booster. It is an essential mineral for the body which is a ‘cofactor’ for a large number of proteins and enzymes. A cofactor is a non-protein chemical compound or metallic ion that is required for an enzyme’s activity as a catalyst. Like zinc, vitamin C is also a cofactor, and is important for the body to function. So, if you have a deficiency of these essential micronutrients, you will face a problem. But, if a person does not have any such deficiency, an excess amount of these taken does not improve one’s chances of fighting off a virus. Vitamin C and Zinc deficiencies are very rare unless someone is starving or following an extreme diet depleted of nutrients. Iron and Iodine deficiencies are seen in communities and more than immune deficiency they cause other problems.

An extremely active immune system, can also be problematic. In severe Covid-19 cases, the body launches an aggressive immune response resulting in the release of a large amount of pro-inflammatory proteins. This is known as a cytokine storm and is one of the common causes of death in Covid-19 patients. A cytokine storm occurs when the body’s immune system goes into an overdrive, killing healthy cells and causing organ failures. Several research studies suggest that the cytokine storm causes lung injury and multi-organ failure. So, if this is the case boosting the immune system in a Covid patient is not a wise thing to do.


Market interests add to the myth

The truth is natural immunity in normal people cannot be improved. There are immunocompromised individuals with a poor immunity who are susceptible to infections due to certain illnesses, and how can they stay safe from this highly infectious virus that spreads rapidly? The most effective way is by keeping our communities safe.

 We can do this by attending to the public hygiene of the population exposed to the infection. Providing safe drinking water, providing clean air, providing adequate nutrition — are ways of keeping the people healthy and strong to fight any infections. There are parts of our country fortunately not as bad in India, without access to these basic health requirements. Achieving social distancing in these communities that live in overcrowded households is impossible.

This background, and a new infection with no treatment, led to various interested parties with good and bad intentions in promoting the myth of immune boosting. They have become self-proclaimed experts exploiting this crisis, putting forth all kinds of miraculous non allopathic substitutions. As allopathic medications to be approved, a rigorous procedure has to be observed, they resorted to the easier approach of promoting quick remedies in traditional and herbal products. Unproven ‘natural’ remedies came to the fore in our country in this background where people felt helpless. The vaccine, the only proven way of boosting the immunity of an individual and the population against a specific disease was not available around this time.

There are added dangers in such situations. There may be a lot of drug-drug interactions. If people are consuming allopathic medicines, and then also start consuming these medicinal herbs, the components of the herb will interact with the drug resulting in unknown complications. These unapproved medications can have toxic effects on your kidney, liver and other organs.

Even during the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 companies jumped in on the opportunity to hail themselves as immunity boosting drug producers. However, no products were ever proven to be effective in improving immune responses.

Maintaining a normal immune system

A poor immune system is seen in people with certain ailments. Some are born with defects in their immune system and they are known as immunodeficiencies. People with chronic illnesses like diabetes and auto immune disorders are also vulnerable to catch illnesses easily as their immune systems are weak. People on immunosuppressant medications like steroids and cancer drugs also have a weakened immune system and easily catch infections and develop serious complications easily.

Lifestyle is key for keeping your immune system normal and ready to act with an adequate response when necessary. For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle, exercise and enhanced immune function. Researchers are exploring the effects of diet, exercise and stress on the immune response. There are indeed processes that do affect our immune cells and improve their responses. The best one of them, perhaps, is exercise. Many studies have shown that moderate exercise of less than 60 minutes can improve the circulation of anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, natural killer cells, T cells and B cells. This can work effectively — not for combating diseases at a specific point in time, but to combat stress hormones in general, which can suppress immune cell function. Extremely high intensity exercise leads to a short duration of compromised immunity, increasing risk for disease in this time period. This is one of the reasons marathon runners or professional sports persons tend to catch a fever or cold in the days following a sporting event. Regular exercise is known to improve cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight. Therefore, adopting general healthy-living strategies make sense since they are likely to have other proven health benefits. But whether they help to boost the immune system is a controversial issue with no proven answers.

The immune system can also be compromised by many lifestyle habits such as smoking, which is known to affect T and B cells, among a host of other parameters. Diseases like diabetes by themselves result in compromised immune systems. This is why diabetic patients are particularly susceptible to infections. Obesity is another condition with a weak immune system as it predisposes to the development of other illnesses like diabetes and hypertension. There appears to be a connection between poor nutrition and immunity and this is a problem especially in the elderly. Poor nutrition can lead to micronutrient malnutrition, in which a person becomes deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals. Deficiency of these can result in a poor immune response to infections. Older people tend to eat less and often have less variety in their food. In them dietary supplements may have some beneficial effects and they should discuss this with their doctors. Taking mega doses of vitamins do not help and can even be harmful.

Every part of your body, including your immune system that fights against infections function better when protected from unwanted damage and bolstered by healthy-living styles. These are – not smoking, taking a diet high in fruit and fibre, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding alcohol or consuming in moderation, getting adequate sleep, washing hands regularly, developing good food habits, minimizing stress.

However, there currently exists no evidence of any consumable foods or products being able to induce an improvement in immune function. Although some preparations have been found to alter some components of the immune system, so far there is no evidence that they actually boost your immunity to the point where you are protected against infection. The only scientifically proven way to boost immunity, the immune system, and an immune response is through vaccinations. Vaccines prime your immune system to fight off infections before they take hold in your body.

So, where do we stand today? Vaccines to boost our immunity against Covid, prevention of spread and catching infection by proper wearing of masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance. These are the scientifically proven methods and others appear to be market-driven myths.

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