While the world is focused on the rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, the global public health community echoes what the natural health community already knows: prevention is the most important weapon against illness.
In this second of a three-part series on immune health, we’re offering a refresher course to our knowledgeable readers on the best practices for protecting yourself—and supporting your immune system—against viruses and infection.
You probably already know that being overly busy and under stress can drain your immune system, leaving you susceptible to infections. Cold, flu, and other viruses can take up residence after you’ve simply been pushing yourself too hard.
You’ve also noticed, no doubt, that a worldwide pandemic brings even more worries to manage. But stress-busting strategies like yoga, qi gong, tai chi, breath work, meditation, or exercise can go a long way toward easing the stress load and help drop your risk of getting sick.
Before you read that next pandemic update, take one minute, right now, to breathe slowly and deeply into your belly for some on-the-spot relaxation.
Botanical medicines categorized as “adaptogens” can also be helpful. They’ve been shown to improve the body’s response to and recovery from stress.
When you need a little help
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Evidence points to Siberian ginseng’s ability to help the body accommodate adverse physical conditions and improve mental performance.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha may help correct imbalances in the neuroendocrine and immune systems, significantly reduce anxiety and stress, and regulate chemical signalling in the nervous system by blocking the stress pathway in the brain.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
Rhodiola has shown an ability to protect the heart from arrhythmias and other damage caused by elevated stress hormones and has also shown improvements in sleep disturbances, fatigue, and general well-being.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
This adaptogen helps support cognitive function and/or reduce mental fatigue in cases of mental stress, boosts mental alertness and low energy while improving mental fatigue, alleviates anxiety and depression caused by stress, and ameliorates inflammatory diseases caused by stress.
Work it out
Exercise is a powerful immune supporter, especially in people who are dealing with stress. As well, plenty of studies have pointed to the positive effects of physical fitness when it comes to frequency and severity of illnesses like colds and the flu.
In one study, those who were aerobically active and physically fit experienced a 41 percent reduction in upper respiratory tract infection severity and symptoms versus those who were sedentary.
Make your workouts more protective
Get your heart rate up
A number of studies into the effects of exercise on immune function demonstrate immune system benefits from cardiovascular activity.
Take a rest day
To get the best immune benefit out of your workouts, exercise frequently, but don’t burn yourself out.
Give your workout a caffeine boost
Caffeine is well known to help improve exercise performance, so a caffeine hit before your next workout may give you the boost you’re looking for.
Recover properly by stretching
Help your muscles recover following sweat sessions by engaging in low-intensity stretching.
Researchers have long confirmed the importance of sleep for a healthy immune system. Many studies have demonstrated this. In an experiment where people were intentionally exposed to a cold-causing virus, those who slept fewer than seven hours a night, or had poor quality sleep, were three to five times more likely to develop an infection. Get some help if you’re not getting your ZZZs.
When you need a little help
An amino acid found in tea and some mushrooms, theanine promotes relaxation without sedation and helps to fall asleep more quickly/easily and sleep more soundly.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Roots of the valerian plant have been used since ancient times as a remedy for insomnia. Valerian is thought to mildly increase the amount of calming chemicals in the brain, helps reduce the time to fall asleep and improves total sleep time.
The body’s natural sleep regulator, melatonin helps the body wind down for sleep and can be especially useful for frequent travellers and shift workers.
While eating right is important all the time, a healthy diet full of nutrient-rich whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables is especially important when fending off viruses and infection. Eat for immunity by stocking up on these foods.
Stock up on these
Tofu, turkey, or tahini
Protein has a vital role in immune function. High protein-diets can protect against infection when we’re running ourselves ragged. Make sure you’re getting protein with every meal and snack during cold and flu season.
Eat your greens (and purples and reds)
Bioflavonoids are mighty plant chemicals found in colourful foods like blueberries, tomatoes, cabbage, and even tea. These antioxidant compounds can cut infections by as much as 33 percent, providing yet another reason to eat your fruits and veggies.
It’s a food, it’s a wound healer … it’s a cough suppressant? Honey may be more effective than prescription medication for reducing coughing and improving sleep in children with colds, according to researchers. A grown-up version mixed with instant coffee trumped a steroid-based medication in a different study, and it was certainly tastier.
Want to make your own honey/coffee cough syrup? Combine 3/4 cup honey with 6 1/2 Tbsp instant coffee. Add 1 Tbsp of the mixture to a cup of warm water three times per day.
You think you know how to wash your hands….
You’ve heard a thousand times that handwashing is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick. But do you really know best practices for handwashing?
For example, regular, not antibacterial, soap is recommended. Your local natural health retailer will have a selection of gentle but effective soaps for you to choose from.
When to wash your hands
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After handling shared objects
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- Before inserting/removing contact lenses
- Before flossing your teeth
- After helping someone else (like kids) with any personal care
How to wash your hands
- Remove any hand or arm jewelry.
- Wet hands with warm water.
- Apply plain soap (avoid antibacterial soaps) to hands and rub together for 20 seconds (the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday—twice).
- Wash the front and back of hands, as well as between fingers and under nails.
- Rinse hands well for 10 seconds under warm running water, using a rubbing motion.
- Wipe and dry hands gently with a paper towel.
- Turn off the tap using the paper towel to avoid re-contaminating your hands. In public bathrooms, use the same paper towel to open the door when you leave.
When soap and water aren’t available
Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol (check the label to be sure) is a second option.
- Apply to the palm of one hand (read the label for correct amount).
- Rub hands together.
- Rub the gel over all the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry. This should take around 20 seconds (yep, you’ll want to sing Happy Birthday twice).
Nutrition hack: Immune system helpers
- chaga mushroom
- oil of oregano
- vitamin-B complex
- vitamins C, D, and E