Although a strong immune system won’t prevent you from contracting COVID-19, it can help you fight it off in the event you do come down with the virus.
Your immune system is like your personal army of invisible soldiers, while bugs and viruses are like those pesky invaders coming in for attack. You can’t control their existence, but you can bolster your soldiers with good habits so they have the best possible chance at succeeding in battle.
First things first...
Is this going to cost me an arm and a leg?
Unfortunately, the Internet is riddled with overpriced snake oil, which has given optimal health the illusion of being out-of-reach. Let’s be clear: that’s a lie told to sucker you into shelling out for, often, nothing more than a placebo effect disguised as a magic potion.
And though placebos can admittedly have a therapeutic effect, they only work on symptoms controlled by the brain, like perception of pain. So, if you have money to spare and have fun experimenting with the latest trends, have at it! But, if you don’t, no sweat.
The truth is that real health is more simple (read: more accessible) than our digital age has made it out to be. For most of us, it is about doing less. Scrolling less, working less, eating less, drinking less. Plus, true, upping our dose of that which nourishes: exercise, quality sleep, sun exposure, whole foods, connection, meditation.
The following 10 ways to boost your immune system should save you money and increase your productivity, therefore saving you time, reducing your cortisol, and, all the while, making you a happier, healthier person, more capable of battling bugs like COVID-19.
1. Reduce Screen Time
Do you remember the last time you went an entire day without staring into a screen? Remember how good that felt? How much more calm you were? How much clearer your thinking was? It’s not in your head. Reducing screen time does a lot more good to the body than most are aware of. It can improve our vision and posture, fortify the cardio-vascular and neurological systems, and strengthen the endocrine system—which has a lot to do with our immune system. When we’re on our phones for hours a day, our levels of melatonin are negatively impacted. Melatonin has a direct effect on cortisol, which is the hormone that helps our bodies manage stress. When our bodies aren’t producing enough melatonin, our cortisol levels spike, destabilizing our energy levels and immune system. Cue the mid-afternoon crashes that send you crawling to the coffee machine. While, for most, a life without screens is not realistic, it is possible to reduce the time we spend on them.
Tips To Reduce Screen Time:
Have allotted times in which you check your social media/texts
Make use of the time limit feature
Download blocking apps, like Freedom
Eat without a screen in front of you
Keep screens out of the bedroom
Replace movies/TV/YouTube with books before bed
Exchange endless texting with occasional phone/video calls
Limit non work screen time (more on that below)
2. Set Boundaries Around Work
We all have busy seasons where our work hours are extended and we’re glued to our desks for an unnatural number of hours a day. That’s okay.
But when you can’t remember what life was like when you didn’t feel behind or your left eye didn’t twitch? That’s when you need to step back and come up with a game plan to create sustainable change. The alternative is having elevated stress levels for an overextended period of time, which creates higher levels of inflammation that, long term, leads to an overly taxed immune system that is not equipped to protect you.
“You can have all the riches and success in the world, but if you don't have your health, you have nothing.” — Steven Adler
Create change with these 4 steps.
Step 1: Zoom out and assess what’s draining your energy the most.
Maybe it’s a colleague, boss, or client badgering you incessantly. Maybe it’s the fact that you start your day with email when you should be prioritizing your most important tasks. Maybe it’s the fact that you have taken on too much. Explore this for yourself.
Step 2: Look at why you’re in this situation.
Why has X problem gone on for so long? Don’t blame other people here. Pointing fingers doesn’t help. Consider the part you’ve played. This will empower you, because this is in your control to change. For instance, are people overstepping because you have given them permission to do so? Or, are you starting with email because you feel anxious about not getting back to people right away? Why is that? Get to the root cause by repeatedly asking yourself why until, as Steve Pavlina advises, you cry.
Step 3: Sort out what you require to live in a state of mental peace, and the ways in which you can get there.
This may take the form of assessing what a realistic response time is for you surrounding email, or what a more honest timeline looks like for your projects.
A good place to start? The 4 Ds of time management: do, defer, delegate, drop. Drop your to-do’s in each of the four categories. Go from there.
Step 4: Communicate.
Be clear and be firm. If you’re worried about disappointing others, reframe this. We disappoint when we don’t show up. We can’t show up when we’re overworked and overcommitted. By contrast, we serve best when we aren’t running against the clock, when we’re in a healthy headspace. That’s when we’re capable of producing work of high quality. That’s when we’re more present in meetings, etc. This is the key point, the one that transforms your ideas from step 3 into your new reality, the one that will go a long way to strengthening your immune system. Nervous still? That’s okay. Do it anyway. You’ve got this.
3. Be Mindful Of Junk Food
We all know that eating excessive amounts of junk food is not good for us. This is Health 101. But do you know how junk food actually reacts in the body, and what it does to the immune system? A diet rich in junk food increases a specific type of immune cell, which leads to an inflammatory response so strong that it resembles the sort a bacterial infection would create in the body. Picture again those soldiers that make up your immune system. When eating junk food, they’re running around panicked. Even weeks after switching to a healthier diet, these soldiers may have stopped running around like chickens with their heads cut off, but they still remember the state of alarm they were in before.
This means, at the first sign of even a small attacker, they’re whipping out their swords and jumping on horseback—going into high alert. Or, in other words, kicking your body into a state of inflammation. This makes you more prone to developing diseases wherein the body is essentially attacking itself, like diabetes and arteriosclerosis, versus saving its energy to protect you from external bugs, like COVID-19. Now, this is when your diet is rich in junk food. The odd cookie or slice of cake here and there won’t kill you. In fact, it’s a mentally healthy thing to indulge now and again. Restriction altogether is what will push us knee-deep into the barrel of cookie dough. What’s more, food has been connecting us with others since the dawn of time. What is Christmas without a gingerbread house? Valentine’s Day without a box of chocolates? Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie? The trick isn’t to ban the goods. The trick is to be mindful, to enjoy those sweets sparingly, remembering their role: they are treats (not love).
4. Eat More Whole Foods
Whole foods are packed with immune-boosting vitamins and minerals, crucial to staving off illness, like COVID-19. Below are a few that you can easily add to your shopping list without breaking the bank.
Why? Packed with Vitamin C, these fruits help stimulate the formation of white blood cells, which are vital to fighting bugs. These fruits include grapefruit, oranges, clementines, tangerines, lemons, and limes.
Why? Broccoli contains Vitamin A, C, and E, plus many more antioxidants. Vitamin A is especially important during the Pandemic as it promotes intestinal and respiratory health, while Vitamin E promotes neutralization of free radicals.
Why? It contains a sulfur-rich compound called alliin, which has been shown to strengthen the disease-fighting response of the white blood cells in the body when they encounter viruses.
Nuts and Seeds
Why? They contain zinc, which many enzymes are dependent on. A zinc deficiency is linked to a poor immune system. Almonds are highly recommended for their Vitamin E content, while sunflower seeds are advised for their Vitamin B-6 and selenium content, the latter of which has been found to be helpful in combating viral infections.
Why? Chicken is rich in Vitamin B-6, which plays a lead role in many chemical reactions in the body, including the formation of healthy red blood cells. It also has the potential to lower inflammation. The amino acids in the protein of chicken are also essential for T-Cell function, which protects the body from pathogens.
5. Drink Less
Like with junk food, you don’t need to swear off alcohol to lead a healthy lifestyle. That said, The World Health Organization has warned people to reduce consumption to a couple of times per week. Drinking too often can harm the body by damaging the fine hairs in the lungs that clear pathogens out of our airway. It can also negatively affect the gut by promoting inflammation and destroying the microorganisms in the intestine that are responsible for immune function. All of this increases susceptibility to COVID-19. If you’re having a hard time kicking the habit, consider what you’re after when you’re reaching for that glass of wine. For most, it’s stress relief. Getting outside for a walk or meditating are two alternatives, and unlike alcohol, they only have positive side-effects.
Mood been spiking and dropping as if you were strapped, without consent, into an emotional rollercoaster ride? You’re not alone. But exercise can help. Unlike the cheap thrills brought to you by a glass of wine, physical activity can improve mood in both the short term and for the long haul. The runner’s high—that exhilarating euphoria, is the best example of the impact on mood in the short term. It stems from the release of endorphins, which are natural mood-lifters. The long-term effects are even more alluring though. Regular exercise increases serotonin, helping your brain regulate mood, appetite, and sleep (the importance of which we’ll get into next). Regular exercise also enhances brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which helps neurons grow. Why does this matter? The growth of brain cells enhances our ability to learn, reduces anxiety, and helps prevent and treat depression. A sustained habit of exercise also comes with a repeated sense of accomplishment. You feel proud of yourself for treating your body well. Over time, this self-respect results in a powerful, trickle effect, fostering a deep level of self-confidence and self-love.
It is nearly impossible for this to not affect all aspects of your life—including the area of immune health. Yes, researchers have found that self-respect has the power to control stress, which positively impacts immune dysfunction.
At Home Exercise Ideas:
Walk or jog around your neighborhood
Go for a bike ride
Play games with your family (soccer, football, even tag!)
Single leg step-ups on stairs
Bicep curls while watching TV
Laps around your home
Dancing around your home
Active chores: doing the dishes, laundry, taking out garbage
Stay tuned for more Pandemic-friendly exercise tips.
7. Get More Quality Sleep
Sleep is a basic building block when it comes to health. You may have heard that the body repairs itself when it sleeps, that if you’re sick or injured your body revs up its internal healers, sending them to work when you hit the sheets. But it goes further than that. Sleep is a reparative period for us even when we’re not sick or injured. When we sleep, just as our learning and memory are strengthened, so is our immune memory. This means the immune system is equipped with a better ability to recognize bugs and defend against them. Consider sleep the time when our soldiers are fed. It’s believed that this happens because energy is freed up when we’re at rest, and able to go on and be delegated to this internal “house-keeping.”
Getting enough (7-9 hours), quality shut-eye is an essential then for a reliably healthy immune system.
Tips For Quality Sleep:
Exercise in the morning
Don’t have caffeine past 1PM
Avoid nicotine, period
Avoid alcohol before bed
Avoid big meals before bed
Limit artificial light sources before bed
Relax before bed (read, take a bath, meditate)
Stick to a sleep schedule
Sleep in complete darkness
Sleep in a cool room
8. Sun Exposure
Sunlight helps your body make Vitamin D, which is crucial for your immune system. Most of us know this, as well as the fact that Vitamin D helps us absorb crucial minerals. This in and of itself is enough a reason to get outside on your lunch break. But there’s more. A study found that low levels of blue light, as are found in sun rays, make T cells move faster. T cells are key cells when it comes to fighting viruses and boosting immunity. How much sun exposure should you get? Scientists think 5-15 minutes at the start of the day is enough, or, if you’re darker-skinned, up to 30 minutes a day.
The ancient practice has been heralded in the news over the past few years, and, unlike so much of the other pomp and circumstance, this is for a good reason. Meditation is one of the most powerful tools in the wellness toolkit. Angry with your partner? Heartbroken over the state of the world? Overwhelmed with work? Closing your eyes for even just one minute and focusing on your breath can help. On one hand that’s because, yes, meditation disrupts the monkey-chatter looping in the mind and leading to the seemingly unbearable emotion. And that pause it creates brings stillness, peace, and ultimately perspective. But there’s more to it than that. Researchers have found that meditation supercharges the body with those soldiers we keep talking about: T-Cells and antibodies. By drafting more to “the front line,” so to speak, our immune system is strengthened, and we are more capable of defeating our attacker—in this day and age, that’s COVID-19. What’s more, meditation has also been found to have the ability to turn on a critical immune-linked brain region, the left-sided anterior, which has been shown to have a strong antibody response to the flu vaccine.
Sneak In A Quick Meditation When...
Your computer freezes
Waiting for your food to cook
Making your bed
You have that awkward ten minute window between meetings
We humans are social creatures. We've evolved to count on close relationships with friends and family. They make us feel safe when we’re scared, and loved when we’re hurt, and like everything will be okay when we’re completely unsure. When we feel alone, our nervous system produces a hormone called norepinephrine, which is linked to the “fight or flight” response. As this happens, inflammation increases, along with blood pressure and sugar. Then comes the cascade of effects. In the most extreme cases, one of two things tends to happen. People spiral down into A) numbness, breaking apart as they disconnect from themselves in an attempt to “cope.” Or, B) they melt into an all-consuming ache, where looping, anxious thoughts take over. But loneliness is preventable. This is a choice. We may be sitting in a Global Pandemic. That is out of our control. But what isn’t is how we will respond.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl
So, if you feel yourself beginning to spin out, beginning to feel disconnected, remember you’re not alone. Reach out. That is within your power. Loved ones are a phone call away. If you feel like you can’t open up to anyone you know, you may find engaging online to be helpful. Message boards and social media platforms do have helpful pockets to poke into for those preferring to stay anonymous while receiving support. If you need more direct help, know there’s no shame. No. Shame. There are incredible, reputable resources like Better Help that do a great job at providing affordable therapy.
To avoid contracting the coronavirus, yes, you need to prioritize your hygiene. Wash your hands. Social distance. Avoid getting coughed on.
Above and beyond that though, it is your responsibility to pay attention to the ways you can minimize stress—whether that be physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually. Stress is at the root of a poor immune system.
Next, pick and choose the ways that best suit you to bolster your immune system.
Remember, the stronger your soldiers, the more resilient you become in the face of all bugs, including COVID-19.