Continuing our series on ways to stay healthy during the coronavirus crisis, this article discusses natural ways to boost your immune system. While lifestyle choices and incremental changes over time will make the most difference in the long run, there are things you can do right now to help stimulate your body’s immune response.
As we mentioned previously, there’s a lot of conflicting information out there right now and it’s hard to know fact from fiction. So our focus is not necessarily on the data or severity of any particular COVID-19 claim; our focus is on helping you take control over your own health and wellbeing as much as possible.
Your body’s own immune system is pretty amazing. Every time you catch a cold or get a particular type of flu virus, your immune system remembers the virus and attacks it quickly if it comes around again. That’s why vaccinations work—they essentially “teach” your immune system how to fight off certain antigens. This is why novel viruses (like the current coronavirus) are so dangerous, however. With no immunity or vaccination, our bodies haven’t learned how to handle the disease.
There are some 100 trillion bacteria in your digestive system. In recent years, there has been a lot of scientific interest in the microbiome as it relates to heart health, cancer, depression, digestive health, immune system health and other functions of the body. Your microbiome contains80% of the immune cells that are present in your body, so it makes sense that taking care of your gut biome is essential to immune system function. If your digestive tract is full of good, beneficial, immune-boosting organisms, there’s less room for invaders.
Eating a lot of different (healthy) foodshelps a more diverse microbiome thrive in your gut. Antibiotics, illness, alcohol, sugars and stress can damage the gut biome and destroy some of the beneficial immune-boosting, antigen-blocking organisms.
When we get sick, doctors often prescribe antibiotics. While antibiotics are useful for some serious bacterial infections, they hurt the gut’s microbiota and deplete the beneficial organisms in your digestive tract. So taking probioticsduring and after a course of antibiotics is crucial to restore balance and repair some of the damage done to your microbiome. Taking probiotics with antibiotics can also help mitigate some of the digestive issues, like diarrhea, that often accompany antibiotic use. Thecurrent best practice for a probiotic/antibiotic regimen is to start taking probiotics during the first day of antibiotic treatment, and space them at least two hours apart. Continue to take probiotics one to two weeks after the end of the course of antibiotics.
Probiotic supplements have been studied and subsequently recommended for people who are looking to improve digestive function. But recent research has shown that probiotic supplements have many other benefits. The brain and gut appear to be directly connected (referred to as the brain-gut axis). Thishelps explain why stress and anxiety often result in digestive issues, and why diet can impact your mood. There are over 100 million neurons in the gut (more than the spinal cord and peripheral nervous system), prompting scientists to call the gut the body’s “second brain.” This second brain handles the complex digestion/excretion/nutrient absorption processes independently from the brain. It may also have a much bigger role in regulating mood than we tend to think about, as 95% of the body’s serotonin is contained in the bowels.
Certain probiotic strains have also been shown to reduce the severity of respiratory infections and increase theproduction of immune system cells. By taking probiotic supplements, you’re helping to repopulate your gut with beneficial organisms that help the immune system and prevent harmful antigens from entering the digestive tract.
Lactobacillus probiotics specificallyhave a direct effect on cytokines. Cytokines are proteins in the body that help regulate the immune system and inflammatory response. Cytokines are also produced during sleep, which makes sleep an important part of the immune response as well. Research is always evolving, but as scientists reveal more definitive information about the brain-gut connection, it’s reasonable to expect that probiotic supplementation will become even more commonplace (and important).
Exercise has many benefits in the context of general health: Longevity, heart health, stress relief, weight management and sleep quality. Exercise also helps your immune system in multiple ways and is one of the best natural solutions to improve immune function.
Evenshort periods of exercise can boost your immune system. So it’s never too late to start exercising and make an impact on your ability to fight off illness. But the real immune system benefits come from a sustained exercise routine. This is especially important to protect our immune systems as we age and our immune response becomes weaker.
In the current COVID-19 climate, where gyms are closed and it’s difficult to get out in public, exercise options are more limited. To ensure that you can keep up (or start) an exercise routine and reap all of the immune-boosting benefits of physical activity, keep the following in mind:
Lockdowns do not prevent you from going outside, walking, getting air or jogging. Just be sure to adhere to social distance advice and avoid contact with surfaces (and wash your hands when you get back home).
Evenfive minutes per day can help, if you don’t have a lot of time to get in a full workout. If you’re limited on space, use everything you’ve got in your house to your advantage: Stairs, tables, furniture and other surfaces to do burpees, crunches, pushups, yoga, leg lifts and more. You don’t need a gym or high-end home gym equipment to stay active. But it is important to stay active as you get used to a temporarily more sedentary lifestyle. TheCDC recommendations for activity and stress relief during COVID-19 isolation are fairly straightforward: Find time to stretch, take deep breaths and meditate.
If you’re looking for free online workouts/classes to get you through quarantine,several gyms and companies around the country are offering them up for a limited time:
Lack of sleepincreases your chances of getting sick.
When you sleep, your immune system releasescytokines, which help you sleep. When you’re sick or have an infection, your body needs to make more cytokines to fight the illness (why your doctor always says to “get plenty of rest”). Being sleep deprived reduces the cytokine flow in your body, and you produce fewer disease-fighting antibodies.
According to theSleep Foundation, if you have trouble sleeping at night, taking two naps of no more than 30 minutes during the day (one in the morning, one in the afternoon) can help make up for some of the lost immune support.
Many things that are good for your immune system are also good for helping you get sleep.
Evenmoderate amounts of exercise can help you sleep better. Making an effort to get as little as 5-10 minutes of exercise per day can make a big difference in how well you sleep (more is better, but anything is a lot better than nothing). You can also try some chamomile tea right before bed in conjunction with moderate physical activity.
Natural sleep supplements with chamomile, melatonin and valerian root may also be helpful since they are non-habit-forming and have very few side effects.
One of the challenges of isolation is the reliance on electronic devices to occupy your time and keep you entertained. To ensure you’re getting enough sleep, however, it’s important to put away the tablets and phones and turn off the TV at least an hour before bed. The blue light that is emitted from these devices interrupt your sleep patterns, and as a result, impact your ability to produce cytokines and ensure your immune system is as strong as possible.
As people scramble to look for ways to boost their immune systems at the peak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, it’s important to be armed with information and CDC recommendations to help sort fact from fiction. While there is no vaccine yet for COVID-19, there are several things you can do to keep your immune system healthy during cold and flu season now and in the future.
Moderate exercise, restful sleep and a diverse, healthy microbiome are scientifically backed ways to ensure your immune system is functioning at peak capacity. By making healthy choices year-round, you can help your body fight off infections and viruses more efficiently and help ensure you’re less likely to find yourself in an at-risk category for serious illnesses when they do come around.
For more information about health and coping during the COVID-19 outbreak, please visit theofficial CDC website.
Seth Garland - Content Writer, Physician's Choice