Dr Ronx Ikharia is on a mission to get drunk, but don’t worry, it’s all the name of science. Ikharia is normally a one glass of wine a month type of person, so half a bottle of Prosecco is an exhilarating leap outside the norm. The cautious professor who comes along for the ride acknowledges that a small amount of alcohol is “unlikely” to do much harm. But when it comes to the immune system, alas, it’s not good news for habitual tipplers. Ikharia’s white blood cell count is way down the next day, and during a pandemic those fighting cells are needed more than ever before.
Ikharia gives a brief outline of the different types of cells forming the body’s defence system. There are the first responders, “natural killer cells” that are characterised by speed and aggression, while others are more targeted, swallowing alien cells whole or casting “nets” to trap them, like tiny gladiators in a liquid Coliseum. At last there is an explanation for the “two days off alcohol” rule: the cell count will mount if given a bit of time off.
Next Ikharia turns to the supplements business, worth £1bn per annum in the UK. Will garlic, vitamin C or echinacea fight off illness? “They can help your immune system in a very minor way,” says an unenthusiastic expert. The evidence around echinacea is “reasonable”, though some supplements contain little, even none, of the active ingredient. Look for the THR mark is the useful advice.
So far the news is fairly predictable. It’s back to our old friends, the gut biome, moderate exercise, good sleep habits and a diet rich in fibre, fruit and vegetables. Also predictable is the arrival of six volunteers who’ve signed up for an “immune makeover”. A more surprising revelation concerns the beneficial effect of stress. Ikharia’s revulsion at the thought of handling Charlotte the tarantula has an upside in that more white cells appear soon afterwards. Thankfully, there are suggestions on how to achieve the stress effect which don’t involve spiders.
Ikharia is a lively presenter, describing the lab battle between blood microphages and salmonella with a cheerful: “It’s all kicking off in there,” while an unexpected T-cell boosting treatment is pronounced “really quite Zen”. The programme seems to be pitched at those who scraped through their biology GCSE. Despite the fanfare when the five of the six volunteers return to get their results (one got Covid-19), it’s hard to get too excited when the grand announcement concerns lowering their NLR — whatever that is. Never mind — just thinking about all those busy little gladiators is probably beneficial.
On BBC1 on January 6 at 9pm