One of the scariest things about the coronavirus pandemic is feeling like you have no control. The reality is that there are many concrete actions you can take to sharpen your immune system and mitigate the chance you will suffer severe symptoms if you do contract the virus. In addition to taking common sense habits like washing your hands frequently and avoiding touching your face, there are several actions you should take to give your immune system a boost. The good news is the following four steps are actions that support health and will help your body fight off both acute diseases (like the flu or COVID-19) and chronic diseases, such as cancer and diabetes.
Step #1: Develop A Stress Management Plan
When you compound everyday stress with worries about the economy and a worldwide pandemic your body will pump out the stress hormone cortisol, which hampers immune function. Studies consistently show that when you have higher levels of cortisol, your immune system is not as robust and you are more likely to get sick. This is the reason that we often associate being cold with getting sick. It’s not that catching a chill makes you sick. Rather, being cold is stressful and illnesses are able to bypass your immune defenses.
Solution: Your body does a better job fighting off illness when it’s not under stress. Managing stress needs to be individualized but some things that can help include deep breathing, regular meditation, exercise, sticking to a routine, having fun, playing with pets, and getting good sleep.
Step #2: Optimize Sleep
Sleep is an essential component of the body’s rest and repair system. For example, one study found that individuals who slept less than hours a night were three times more likely to get sick than those who got more than 7 hours of sleep.
During dreamtime is when your body produces disease-fighting white blood cells and sleep is necessary for production of the “master antioxidant” glutathione, which is the linchpin of your body’s ability to counter oxidative stress that leads to diseases and compromises immunity. Sleep is also when growth hormone and other chemicals are released that allow your innate immune system to function optimally to fight off viruses, pathogens, and harmful bacteria.
Solution: Make the effort to get at least 7 hours and ideally 8 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Having a set bedtime, managing your stress, and winding down in the hours before bed can help set you up for a good night’s rest.
Step 3: Eat Plenty of Plant Foods
Every healthy diet should focus on an array of foods that provide the abundant phytonutrients your body needs to counter inflammation and fight off disease. Plant-based foods also provide prebiotic fiber that feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. These bacteria interact directly with immune cells. By keeping your gut healthy, you lower the production of inflammatory cytokines that impair immunity. You also support your lymphatic system, which plays a central role in defending your body against viruses, bacteria, and foreign pathogens. When the lymphatic system is compromised, you are more likely to get acute illnesses and will have a harder time recovering.
Solution: There’s no need to shun meat and dairy or go vegetarian, but including vegetables, nuts, fruits, beans, and grains in your diet will provide the array of nutrients your body needs for optimal immunity. Focus on eating the rainbow, incorporating as many red, yellow, orange, purple, red, and purple, and leafy greens as possible.
Step 4: Stay Active
Physical activity and strength training can elevate your immune system and protect you from illness by improving the body’s natural antioxidant system. But overdoing it with high volume training is well known to compromise immunity. Elite endurance athletes are notorious for getting sick, likely because this form of training elevates stress hormones and depletes immunity. This is one reason officials moved so quickly to cancel professional cycling and running races in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.
Solution: Stay active and keep up regular workouts to support your immune system. On the other hand, if you are prone to overtraining or have a habit of getting sick, consider backing off and focusing on recovery to give your immune system a chance to recuperate. You don’t want to put yourself at risk due to an overcommitment to killer workouts. Once you are already feeling ill, it is generally best to get extra rest.
Besedovsky, L., et al. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Archive. 2012. 436(1), 121-137.
Dröge, W., Breitkreutz. Glutathione and immune function. The Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 2000. 59. 595-600.