How To Support Your Immune System Beyond The COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to become more aware of our own immune function. However, immunity is so much more than just staying healthy during a pandemic — the state of the immune system is an important determinant of aging.
Longevity is defined as the length of life. Amid a global pandemic the focus may not be so much on living long, healthy, and happy lives but more on how to stay infection free and healthy today. In reality, longevity and immunity are two sides of the same coin. Research has shown that a strong immune system is vital for fighting off the virus and lowering mortality. Therefore, finding ways to optimise our longevity is crucial — and it starts with immunity.
The immune system is a wonderful collaboration between cells and proteins that work together to provide defense against infection. These cells and proteins do not form a single organ like the heart or liver. Instead, the immune system is dispersed throughout the body to provide rapid responses to infection.
Chronic conditions, including cancer, respiratory diseases and autoimmune conditions like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis compromise the immune system. They make people more vulnerable to severe illness, and more likely to require hospitalisation and ICU stays. But just because a person does not have an immuno-suppressing condition that does not mean that their immune system is in fighting shape.
A healthy body is dependent on a strong immune system. There are many ways to perform immune-system upkeep — by avoiding destructive habits, stressors, and toxins, by embracing natural immune supporters and by adopting behaviours that encourage immunity.
Here are six actionable steps you can take to support your immune system.
- Eat a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet
- Get sufficient, high-quality, sleep
- Exercise regularly
- Take a cold shower
- Practice meditation
Eat a whole foods, nutrient-dense diet
A healthy and balanced diet is essential for the correct function of every part of our organism, including the immune system. Eat multiple servings of colourful fruits and vegetables high in vitamins C, A, and phytonutrients that support the immune system. Cut out sugar and refined starches as studies have shown spikes in sugar intake can suppress your immune system. Ensure adequate protein intake as amino acids play a particularly important role in immune responses by regulating immune cells including the activation of immune cells such as T lymphocytes, B lymphocytes, natural killer cells and macrophages. Eat fermented probiotic foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, miso, tempeh, unsweetened yogurt and kefir to support your microbiome and subsequently immunity.
Add garlic, onions, ginger, and lots of spices (such as oregano, turmeric and rosemary) to your meals as they offer wide-spectrum antimicrobial properties. Raw garlic contains the potent sulfur compound allicin known to treat serious GI infections and kill parasites and yeast infections. Curcumin (diferuloylmethane) an orange-yellow component of turmeric, traditionally known for its anti-inflammatory effects, has been shown to be a potent immunomodulatory agent. Essential oils of oregano are widely recognised for their antimicrobial activity, as well as their antiviral and antifungal properties.
Get sufficient, high-quality, sleep
Sleep provides essential support to the immune system. Getting sufficient hours of high-quality sleep enables a well-balanced immune defence that features strong innate and adaptive immunity, efficient response to vaccines, and less severe allergic reactions. When you do not get the full amount of restful sleep you need, you make fewer cytokines, a protein that targets infection and inflammation and acts as an immune response.
Acute exercise (moderate-to-vigorous intensity, less than 60 minute) is viewed as an important immune system adjuvant. Each session of exercise improves antipathogenic activity in parallel with an enhanced recirculation of cells of the innate immune system including — immunoglobulins, anti-inflammatory cytokines, neutrophils, natural killer cells, cytotoxic T cells, and immature B cells. With daily exercise, these acute changes operate through a summation effect to enhance immune defence activity and metabolic health. Regular exercise also acts to improve mood, reduce stress and enhance general wellbeing.
Take a cold shower
Cryotherapy, which literally means ‘cold therapy’ is a technique where the body is exposed to extremely cold temperatures for several minutes. During cryotherapy blood vessels near the skin contract and nutrient and oxygen enriched blood is redirected to major organs to maintain core body temperature — boosting your immune system and other regulatory functions. Research has also shown that repeated exposure to extremely low temperatures has a mobilisation effect on the immune system, by stimulating an increase in white blood count. Given that few of us are likely to have access to a cryotherapy chamber, a cold shower works just as well.
Increased levels of stress actually suppress our immune response by releasing the hormone cortisol. Cortisol interferes with the ability of T cells to proliferate and get signals from the body. In addition, cortisol also lowers an important antibody, secretory IgA, which lines the respiratory tract and gut and is our first line of defence against invading pathogens. Meditation can produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind, reducing stress. Research shows that even a short course of meditation can increase levels of IgA and improve immune function.
A well-functioning immune system is crucial for staying healthy. Therefore, the potential of natural substances to strengthen the immune system has long been the subject of investigation.
- Zinc: Zinc is known to play a central role in the immune system — it affects multiple aspects of the immune system, from the barrier of the skin to gene regulation within lymphocytes. Zinc also acts as an antioxidant by fighting off free radicals.
- Vitamin D: Although you can get vitamin D through some fortified foods and sunlight, our modern lifestyle doesn’t always allow for a lot of time outdoors, and many adults don’t get the levels of vitamin D required to modulate the immune system. This is a very important vitamin for the treatment and prevention of autoimmune diseases, in particular.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C is really a powerhouse vitamin for immunity. A deficiency in vitamin C has been associated with an increased frequency and duration of colds, along with immune system defects. It is also a crucial free-radical scavenger that significantly protects against infectious disease.
- Probiotics: Microbes in the lower intestinal tract help us digest food, fight harmful bacteria, and regulate the immune system. When the gut becomes unbalanced with unhealthy levels of certain bacteria, probiotics can help restore the balance. Probiotics have been found to enhance innate immunity and modulate pathogen-induced inflammation
- Fungi: Some of the most powerful immune-supporting, antiviral, and anti-cancer substances are found in mushrooms such as reishi, maitake, shiitake, turkey tail, and cordyceps. The most common medicinally active ingredient among mushrooms is β-glucan, which research has shown effectively stimulates the immune response to defend against bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic infections.
- Colostrum: One of the benefits of being breastfed as a baby is the protective antibodies we get from our mother. These antibodies get us through the first years of life while our own immune system is learning the ropes. Colostrum is the first milk from nursing mammals, and is a rich source of these protective antibodies, as well as anti-inflammatory substances like lactoferrin. As adults, we can harness the power of colostrum to help fight inflammation and strengthen our immune system in powder form from grass-fed cows, goats, and other mammals.