COVID-19 coronavirus seems like a horrible monster. But it is still a virus, even if it seems scary and horrible. The good news is that the human immune system is built to deal with viruses. Especially if you keep it strong and give it the weapons it needs. Here’s how.
What exactly is your “immune system” anyway? The human immune system is a network of organs, tissues and cells charged with the task of keeping bad stuff out or dealing with bad stuff if it gets in. Viruses are among this bad stuff, as are bacteria, fungi and parasites.
The largest immune organ “in” your body is your skin. The skin can block many pathogens, irritants and other chemicals and compounds from ever entering your system. Your eyes, lungs, digestive organs and bladder also have “skin” (membranes to be exact) which block the bad stuff from entering there as well. Keeping these healthy is a good idea, then.
Lymph is a fluid that collects dead cells and germs for removal from muscles and organs. This fluid is filtered at sites called lymph nodes and then returned to the body to clean more dead and bad stuff out. If you’ve ever had a cold or the flu, you probably noticed that the lymph nodes in your neck swelled. This is a common sign of illness and is the lymphatic system working in overdrive.
Antigens are unique markers that your immune system can recognize. They may be part of a foreign cell like pollen, viruses or bacteria. One antigen called Human Leukocytic Antigen, mark human cells that should be there so the immune system doesn’t attack them.
A variety of white blood cell types are part of your immune system, too. Cells like neutrophils, macrophages and eosiniphils are all types of immune cells which serve unique purposes. Cells called Natural Killer Cells are, well, killers. They can destroy everything from viruses to cancer cells. Other immune system attack cells include lymphocytes, T cells and antibodies.
Other immune cells act as signaling cells. Basophils and mast cells signal the immune cells to the blood and tissues, respectively. Cytokines have been in the coronavirus news lately. These signal cells tell white blood cells where to go or how to kill a germ. One type called interferons, can actually disrupt the ability of viruses to replicate. When cytokines get out of control, it’s called a cytokine storm, and can allow immune cells to attack our own tissues because too many get called to one location and then can’t recognize the invading pathogen.
So how do we keep this complex and delicately balanced system strong and ready to fight? There are some practical things you can do. Let’s have a look.
Get Some Sleep!
Sleep is critical to immune function. A study published in 2016 made a clear connection between insufficient sleep and reduced resistance to respiratory illnesses like colds, the flu and others. (1) COVID-19 is a respiratory illness.
In a 2019 study, scientists found that insufficient sleep disrupted T-cell function, thereby reducing their effectiveness against invading pathogens. (2) Since T-cells are powerful immune cells, you want them strong and operating properly.
The quality of sleep matters, but the amount of sleep you get seems to be the real key. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends that adults get at least 7 hours sleep each night. They also recommend going to bed and rising at the same times each day.
Eat your veggies (and fruits!)
Your mom was right! Eating your fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods will make you strong. That includes your immune system. Eating healthier foods also includes eating good proteins and healthy fats.
Include lots of high vitamin C foods like tomatoes, citrus fruits, strawberries and bell peppers. Spinach is also high in “C,” as well as other important nutrients. Foods high in vitamin E are also helpful. These include almonds and other nuts.
Healthy fat sources like olive oil, tuna and salmon provide the Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids you need. Poultry, Greek yogurt and other proteins help your body produce the immune cells you need. Other foods like garlic, turmeric, chickpeas, papayas, shellfish, mushrooms and green tea also have immune-boosting qualities.
Drink lots of water!
While not directly connected to immune health, dehydration impacts just about every major body system. Drinking enough water will help you keep feeling strong and healthy.
My general recommendation for how much water to drink is 1/2 to 2/3 of your body weight in ounces of water per day. So if you weigh 200 pounds, that’s 100 to 134 ounces a day, depending on activity levels. Some health experts say to drink enough water so your urine is clear to pale yellow.
Get some exercise!
Exercise has so many benefits that this should be a no-brainer. But it helps the immune system, too. A study from the University of Bath released in March of 2020 says that even when you’re in lockdown, exercise has a positive effect on the immune system. (3)
Try to get a minimum of 150 minutes a week. A brisk 20-30 minute walk each day will help you not only reach that goal, but stimulate your lymphatic system, too. Walking is a great way to get those minutes in, but if you’re looking for something more intense or with a little more “juice” to it, take a look at Lockdown Fitness.
Ride a bike, lift some weights, go for a run or a hike if you can. Just get moving!
Keep your stress in check!
Numerous studies have linked chronic stress, depression, isolation and anxiety to impaired immune function. (4, 5, 6) People reporting high stress levels have been found in nearly all of these studies to have a higher likelihood of getting sick.
One of the mechanisms identified in many of these studies is that by which stress, anxiety, depression and isolation cause a dysregulation of the body’s ability to manage inflammation. This leads to greater stress on tissues and cells and seems to lower the body’s defenses against disease.
Exercise can help with stress management. Yoga, breathing techniques, connecting with friends and loved ones, even via technology and avoiding social media are all good ways to help, too.
Easy on the booze!
For many people, having a drink or two can be a good way to relax and ease the stress of work and everything else life throws at you. While we’re in shutdown mode, though, it may become much easier for one or two drinks to turn into five or six, or even more.
Research has shown that there is a link between excessive alcohol consumption and susceptibility to respiratory illness. (7) This would include COVID-19, of course. So limiting the booze is a good idea right now. One other effect of excessive alcohol consumption is a reduction of the body’s ability to heal wounds and tissues.
A drink or two may help you relax. A drink or ten may set you up to get sick. Stick to the drink or two…on occasion.
Take a high quality multivitamin!
I won’t go to deep on the science on this one. But remember, our food is not as chock full of vitamins and minerals as it once was. Soil depletion has led to lower levels of key nutrients in food. This even goes for most fruits and veggies.
A high quality multivitamin/mineral complex can help fill the nutrient gap and give you the micronutrients you need to stay healthy. Vitamin C is important, too, since your body neither makes nor stores it. Vitamin D may be a good choice, too, if you’re not taking a high quality multi or if you don’t consume any dairy products.
Beyond that, most of the immune-boosting supplements being touted right now will do nothing more than give you expensive urine. Stick to the basics. Not sure what kind of multivitamin/mineral to get? Leave me a message here or send me a message on Instagram (@coachphilhueston) or Twitter (@philhueston) and I’ll be happy to recommend a good one.
These are the tips I’m giving my clients right now as we all work through these crazy times. Keep yourself strong, keep your immune system cranking and we’ll all get through this together.
Keep the faith and keep after it!