Wow what a welcome to 2020 – things have gotten crazy real fast! Covid-19 aka Coronavirus is officially at pandemic status and panic, fear, and anxiety levels are through the roof. I want to address something that’s probably top of mind for everyone right now: how to boost your immune system.
A healthy immune system (as well as following self-quarantine measures) will help to stem the burden on the healthcare system, slow the spread, and protect you and your loved ones.
There are many factors that impact immune functioning, and strategies to boots immunity go way beyond Vitamin C (which, yes has in fact been shown to improve immune functioning!). Best of all – they are quarantine-friendly!
What Makes us Susceptible to Infection and How to help Prevent it
The fact is, as a society we are living in constant overdrive mode, and this makes us more susceptible to winter afflictions (aka viruses) like the cold and flu. Think about the last time you came down with something – the odds are you were working long hours, getting little sleep, eating on-the-go, and operating full-speed-ahead. Basically, you were depleted.
Now add Covid-19 to the mix, and our worn out and weary selves are having a hard time handling the burden it brings to our immune systems.
But there are many other ways you can start boosting your immunity now, especially during quarantine. With life slowing down a bit, it’s actually a wonderful opportunity to take a step back and re-prioritize your health and self-care.
One of the best things we can do for ourselves and for society right now is to prioritize self-care. Fear, stress, and anxiety deplete our bodies of much-needed resources and interfere with our bodies’ ability to combat infection.
My Thoughts on Building Immunity after going through Chemo for Cancer
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had been feeling depleted on many levels for quite a while. As soon as I was diagnosed, I got serious about self-care and figured out the gaps that could have contributed to my illness.
By prioritizing rest and relaxation, eating a nutrient-dense diet, supplementing my system, exercising and being in nature as much as possible, exposing myself to natural sunlight, and engaging in activities that lifted my mood, I was already well on my way to healing before treatment began. And by the end of treatment, my doctors were literally asking how I was doing so well.
In a nutshell, through research and experimentation, over time I organically developed an immune-boosting healing plan for myself by doing all of the following – many of which are free and can be done from the comfort of your home. Again – quarantine-friendly!
Chronic stress is extremely detrimental to our immune system and leaves the body vulnerable to infection and illness. There are a number of pathways through which stress impacts immune functioning, including the sympathetic nervous system and the HPA axis. Whole books could be written on the subject, but let’s keep it simple for the time being. Stress suppresses the immune system by releasing cortisol, which interferes with the T-cells’ (white blood cells) ability to reproduce and receive signals from the body (aka respond to pathogens and cancer cells).
Countless studies have shown the association between chronic stress and myriad psychological and physiological disorders, including depression , atherosclerosis , asthma , cardiovascular disease, cancers, and the progression of HIV to AIDS and increased risk for premature all-cause mortality and a variety of diseases including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and metabolic syndrome.
Eat more Fruits and Vegetables
Plants are for the most part nutrient-dense, so including more fruits and vegetables in your diet will increase both the quantity and variety of vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients crucial to optimal health and functioning of the immune system.
People are stocking up their pantry with canned and dry goods to the point that store shelves are bare nationwide. But from what I’ve seen, produce sections still seem to be well-stocked stocked… and fruits, vegetables, and fresh herbs do the most to boost immunity! So if you venture out for more supplies or order grocery delivery, don’t forget the produce!
They obviously don’t last *as* long as dry goods. But stock up the fridge on fresh produce, especially items that have a slightly longer shelf life, like squash. Even avocados have a decently long shelf-life if you let them ripen and then stick them in the fridge. You can also use produce to pre-make plant-heavy soups and meals and then stick them in the freezer for later use.
On that note, frozen fruits and vegetables are also a great option. Because they are typically flash-frozen at peak freshness, they often retain more nutrients than fresh produce that must be shipped to the stores. Broccoli, berries, peas, and stir-fry blends are some of my favorites.
Sleep More, Sleep Better
Sleep allows our body time to digest, repair, and restore itself. One of the first things to slip when we are chronically underslept is our immune systems. Studies have shown that people who don’t get enough sleep or high-quality sleep are more susceptible to getting sick after being exposed to a virus. It can also impact the recovery period.
In my personal opinion, I believe insomnia played a significant factor in my illness, as well as my ability to recover. During my post-treatment phase, I thought was doing all the right things with my diet. However I couldn’t get a handle on my sleep.
Once I figured out I had adrenal fatigue, I figured out the missing pieces and *finally* I can now sleep peacefully through the night – a solid eight hours no less. I was averaging four hours for so many years, and some nights as little as two. It was awful and extremely detrimental to my wellbeing and ability to function. I was often in full-on walking zombie mode.
Now I feel better and better – better in fact than I did for quite a while pre-diagnosis! Bottom line – sleep is absolutely necessary to our overall wellbeing, particularly our immunity.
Move Your Body
Exercise is shown time and again to boost our overall health, which includes our immunity. There has been some confusion regarding the link between exercise and immune functioning, however epidemiological evidence consistently shows that regular activity reduces the incidences of disease, including viral and bacterial functions.
Exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, which helps optimized immune functioning through multiple pathways. There is no need to dive in to intense training – the most benefits are derived from consistent exercise, activity, or movement… whatever you prefer to call it! When I was going through treatment, I often only had the energy to walk (some days I didn’t have any energy to get out of bed, but on the days that I did!). But walking was enough!
And with gyms closed and most of us in quarantine-mode, this is great news. All we need to do is find one of the millions of workout videos on Youtube. Or hop on Instagram and it’s almost a guarantee you’ll find someone streaming a live workout whatever time of day it is!
Many yoga and fitness studios as well as personal trainers are streaming free or donation-based workouts online, so now is the absolute perfect time to develop a regular yet simple workout routine from the comfort of your home. Experiment and figure out what you like!
And if you don’t have fitness equipment at home – don’t sweat it (pun intended ;). Your kitchen counter or the back of a chair can become a barre, water bottles can be used as weights, chairs can be used as blocks to do tricep dips or glute bridges, so on, and so forth. Or just throw on some sneakers and find a zumba class or find a playlist and dance like nobody’s watching – because they literally aren’t right now! Have fun with it. Go wild!
(Plus, Amazon is still delivering 😉
Soak Up the Sun and Supplement that vitamin D
While much of the nation and Northern Hemisphere is still experiencing winter weather, it is more important than ever to soak up some fresh air and sun as much as possible. Our modern, largely-indoor lifestyle results in chronic Vitamin D deprivation which is highly detrimental to our immunity. Vitamin D modulates the immune system, aka it helps it stay balanced. Deficiency is associated with autoimmunity as well as increased susceptibility to infection – literally the last thing we all want right now.
Direct sunlight (without sunblock) for about 20 minutes is a great way to get your daily dose. But for the gray days – or for those in quarantine without access to the outdoors – supplementing is a great option. Studies have found that anything between 300-4,000 IU daily will help build up your vitamin D reserves.
Stock up on Vitamins and Supplements
Optimal immune functioning is not just about Vitamin C – it’s about the ABCDEs! And then a whole bunch of other supporting friends. While many health experts out there say there is little evidence that supplementing with more than a multi-vitamin does little good, there is in fact plenty of evidence that supplementing can indeed help to optimize immune functioning, especially when in the midst of healing.
While obtaining nutrients from food is the ideal choice, the simple fact is most of us do not consume enough nutrient-dense foods to actually get the full spectrum and quantity of nutrients required. Plus our food is not as nutrient-dense as it was in the past due to soil depletion and the lag time between when it was picked and when it is purchased. I personally supplemented during cancer treatment and – not for nothing – doctors did wonder how I was doing so well by the end.
Biologically it makes sense – our body requires a wide range of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in order to build the proteins, enable the enzymatic reactions to proceed, repair tissues, and fight infections. Providing our bodies with ample resources and building blocks so that it can do what it’s designed to do simply makes sense.
Here is a short list of additional immune-boosting supplements to consider:
- Vitamin C
- B complex
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin E
- Bromelein/ Quercetin
- Fish Oil with DHA anti-inflammatory
**Please defer to your doctor regarding supplement use, particularly if you are on medications or have a health condition. I personally went with my intuition regarding supplement use during treatment, however I did so in moderation.
Moderate Your Alcohol Intake
Sometimes catching up with friends over a glass of wine is straight up good for the soul – especially in times like these where quarantine and social distancing can lead to a sense of isolation and disconnection, neither of which are good for our health. So if it feels good to have a glass of wine while cuddling on the couch and watching Netflix with a loved one you’re quarantining with or get fancy and mix yourself a cocktail while Facetiming with your family or friends, don’t deprive yourself!
However, excessive drinking can really tax the body. The liver must process all the alcohol that enters the body, and if it becomes overwhelmed, our overall system can become overwhelmed. Chronic consumption can impair the immune system to a great degree. It can trigger an autoimmune response and disrupts the immune pathways.
All that said, many studies have also found that the polyphenols in beer and wine can in fact have a beneficial impact on the immune system. Bear in mind however that it usually means 1-2 small glasses, not the entire bottle! And some people tolerate it better than others. Alcohol can disrupt sleep, so keep this in mind before topping up one more time before you turn out the light. Stick to the early evening cocktail so your body has time to process it before going to bed.
And at the first sign of symptoms or general depletion – skip the wine and opt for some herbal tea!
Eat More Mushrooms
Mushrooms have long been considered to be an immune-building superfood. They contain a wide range of nutrients essential for the immune system such as B vitamins, vitamin D, selenium, niacin, and seven of the eight essential amino acids (the ones our body does not produce on its own). They also contain high levels of beta-glucan which helps to modulate the immune system.
Many mushrooms, including shitake, have show robust anti-cancer properties via immune functioning itself. Chaga has been found to have the highest anti-oxidant and melanin content of any substance on the planet. Reishi is renowned for its antihistamine and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as its ability to stimulate anti-tumor activity. Turkey Tail increases Natural Killer cells activity against viral infections. Lion’s mane, Cordyceps, and Maitake also each contain powerful immune-boosting properties.
I personally consume mushrooms as a regular part of my diet. I also take a mushroom supplement that contains a blend of 10 different medicinal mushrooms in easy-to-consume pill form.
Get Your Gut Health In Order
There is more and more and more evidence pointing to the link between gut health and immunity. An estimated 70-80% of the immune system resides in the gut, and a diverse microbiome is linked to boosted immunity. The gut is home to an estimated 100 trillion microorganisms that serve a variety of purposes including protection against infection and regulation of the mucosal immune system.
And impaired gut lining (leaky gut) has been linked to a variety of health conditions, including inflammation. As such a significant portion of immunity resides in the gut, a healthy gut is directly linked to improved immunity. A natural diet high in plants and low in processed foods is the best weapon against gut inflammation. Probiotic supplements and eating probiotic-rich foods also helps to maintain a healthy balance of gut flora.
Do More Yoga
Yoga helps to relax the system, release stress, get the blood and energy flowing, and helps to optimize the functioning of the nervous system. All of these factors help to boost immunity.
It also conditions the lungs and respiratory tract, stimulates the lymphatic system to release toxins from the body, and brings oxygen to the organs to help them operate more efficiently. Yoga tradition also notes that improper digestion can lead to a buildup of toxins and phlegm in the body, and many yoga postures specifically stimulate the digestive tract to improve functioning.
Breath is life. Breathing is the first sign of life. When we stop breathing, we die. But the vast majority of us have forgotten how to breathe properly! Deep, diaphragmatic breathing stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system (the relax, rest and digest system), decreases inflammation, and can even help boost immune cells that combat cancer progression!
While it’s not necessarily a quick fix when it comes to increasing natural killer cell production, deep breathing can immediately activate our parasympathetic nervous system. This instantly helps us to calm down, decrease anxiety, and reduce physiological stress. Taking ourselves out of a fight or flight response –chronic or otherwise – is crucial to optimal immune functioning.
There are many breathing exercises, including a simple deep 4-4-8 belly breath. Inhale deep into the belly for a count of 4, hold for a count of 4, exhale completely for a count of 8. As you get comfortable with this practice, you can extend the amount of time for each portion, such as 8-4-12, 8-8-16, etc. The crucial factor for this deep breathing exercise to activate the parasympathetic system is for the exhale to be longer than the inhale. And of course to breathe deep into the belly.
Pranayama – the yogic breathing method – includes a wide variety of breathing practices to oxygenate the body and improve overall wellbeing. Kundalini yoga also incorporates very powerful breathwork practices. Yes, recently a huge scandal came to light, but I have found the method itself to be very beneficial. My feeling is don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater! I recommend searching youtube for some free online classes and instructional videos to gives these yogic breathing methods a try.
Wim Hof is another breathing method that has exploded in popularity of late – if you’ve heard of the Ice Man, that’s Wim! He offers a free course and introduction to his method. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he is also offering an indefinite discount on his courses using the code CORONA50. (To be clear, I have zero affiliation, I just appreciate the method and the benefits I’ve derived from it and want to share.)
Boost Your Mood and Laugh
Looking on the bright side isn’t just good for your mental wellbeing – studies have shown it may actually improve your physical health. A study of law students found that when they felt better about school, they had a stronger immune system. Yet when they were worried, their immune response slowed. So there’s a biological basis for looking on the bright side, finding the silver linings, and making all that lemonade!
When I was going through treatment, on the days had little energy I would binge-watch comedies. I intentionally chose comedies and feel-good movies because I knew the laughter would make me feel better. Studies have literally proven that laughter really is the best medicine! It relieves tension and relaxes the body, it boosts the immune system, it diffuses negative feelings like anger and frustration, and it even burns calories! So indulge in some silly memes and comedies and connect with people who make you laugh.