While the world remains focused on the new realities imposed by the virus that causes COVID-19, the global public health community continues to echo what the natural health community already knows: prevention is the most important weapon against illness.
In this last of a three-part series on immune health, we’re looking under the hood at some common miscues and misunderstandings surrounding immune health. Fueling yourself with the right information is one of the best forms of prevention.
Here are some essential dos and don’ts to keep your immune system revved up for optimal performance in the face of microbial challenge.
Not only can exercise reduce our risk of developing heart disease, protect our brain health, and keep our bones strong, but it can do wonders for our immune systems as well. When we exercise, we boost the production of macrophages, important cells that attack viruses and bacteria that can trigger respiratory tract infections.
But, can exercise suppress the immune system? A popular assumption for decades held that exercising vigorously can temporarily suppress immune function. This long-held theory has since been “debunked” by experts in exercise physiology and immunobiology at the University of Bath in the UK. The important thing to remember is that our bodies need time for recovery between workouts to get the maximum benefit.
A great adjunct to any exercise regimen, protein powders, found at your local natural health store, can include a wide variety of sources, such as whey protein, but plant-based alternatives are many, including pea, rice, hemp, and soy protein.
Branched chain amino acids (BCAAs)
Often used by athletes, post-workout, BCAAs are thought to provide energy for muscles and assist with protein metabolism.
As a strength- and power-boosting supplement, creatine is one of the world’s most well-researched, and most popular.
Among their many health benefits, these healthy fats can also assist in post-workout recovery—they’re found in fish oil supplements or plant-based alternatives like flax oil or seaweed extracts.
Supporting your support system
Your local natural health store has a wide variety of immune system helpers to keep you in fighting shape. Check with their knowledgeable staff to find the right ones for you.
- chaga mushroom
- manuka honey
- oil of oregano
- reishi mushroom
- vitamin-B complex
- vitamins C, D, and E
Top 5 ways to prevent Covid-19
It’s pretty simple—these are the US Center for Disease Control’s top five recommendations.
- Washing hands—properly and frequently
- Avoiding close contact with others
- Wearing a cloth face mask when around others
- Covering coughs and sneezes
- Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces
Supporting our immune systems is a happy byproduct of something that also helps reduce stress, rejuvenate muscles, and ease chronic pain. In other words, having a massage doesn’t just make us feel good; it may also pay dividends for our hard-working immune system.
Studies have shown that massage supports our immune system by
- increasing the number, kind, and distribution of lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell) throughout the body, making it less susceptible to disease
- reducing inflammation and edema, which can lower the body’s immune system
- stimulating the brain to release endorphins, producing calm, happy feelings
- decreasing cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses the immune system
There are different types of massage, ranging from gentle stroking to deeper tissue kneading. It’s a good idea to check with your health care practitioner before beginning a massage treatment if you have blood, vein, or bone problems.
uses plant-based essential oils on the skin to enhance the healing and relaxing effects of
concentrates on improving the flow of lymph, a fluid that helps fight off infection and disease.
uses gentle finger and hand pressure to specific body points to relieve pain and enhance the flow of energy (qi) through the body.
blends a variety of strokes and pressure techniques for all-over body health.
Evidence indicates that alcohol consumption may have increased during the social isolation invoked during the COVID-19 pandemic. But increasing our intake of alcohol is a serious faux pas when it comes to our immune health.
There’s evidence from both human and animal research that overconsumption of alcohol decreases immune reactivity, reducing the body’s ability to fight infection. The best advice, when it comes to safe alcohol consumption, is to limit yourself.
- Men—3 standard drinks a day on most days; no more than 15 drinks a week.
- Women—2 standard drinks a day on most days; no more than 10 drinks a week.
If you’re enjoying a little too much from time to time, you might want to consider some supportive supplements to ensure your immune system isn’t depleted.
Studies have shown that even moderate alcohol consumption may decrease the amount of vitamin B12 in our systems.
Because studies have linked alcohol overuse with intestinal inflammation, probiotics may play an important role in maintaining gut health while we enjoy moderate sipping.
Sure, we know that if we don’t get enough sleep, we increase our chances of getting sick. And that, if we get sick, lack of sleep affects how long it takes for us to recover. But what exactly is happening to our immune system when we’re sleep deprived?
Our body engages in a wide variety of little-understood and complex processes while we sleep. A group of scientists in Tübingen, Germany, recently published a comprehensive review in the Journal of Experimental Medicine describing the process by which sleep can fight infection through positively impacting how our T cells (specialized immune cells) target virus-infected cells.
Good-quality sleep can also contribute to many other aspects of physical and mental well-being. Deficiency is linked to increased risk of heart and kidney diseases, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, and stroke as well as stress and mental health. If you’re not getting enough, consider support.
The flavonoid, apigenin, in camomile (often consumed as a tea) is said to interact with benzodiazepine receptors in the brain that are involved with the sleep-wake transition.
An amino acid that plays a role in the nervous system, glycine supplementation has shown promise in its ability to improve sleep while also promoting less fatigue during the day.
With a reputation as the anti-stress mineral, magnesium can help sleeplessness by calming feelings of nervousness, irritability, and an inability to relax.
Stress can induce our immune system’s acute phase response (“fight or flight”) that is associated with infections and tissue damage and increase the levels of circulating cytokines to help fight off infection.
This means that short-term stress may boost our immune function. In a study of children starting primary school, those with higher levels of the stress-associated hormone cortisol had fewer colds. And knee surgery patients who were anxious before surgery were shown to have elevated circulating immune cells in their bloodstream and actually recovered better post-surgery.
But our immune systems can also be seriously stressed by stress, because when it’s constant and long term, the continuous higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines dysregulate our immune system. Serious harm to our mental and physical well-being can result, from anxiety and mood disorders to high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
Tackling chronic stress involves a multipronged approach that typically involves re-examining commitments and priorities, in addition to sleep, diet, exercise, and self-care. A number of supplements, depending on your specific needs, can also be helpful.
Found in green tea or green tea extracts, L-theanine and epigallocatechin (ECGC) have shown, in research studies, to have positive effects on anxiety reduction as well as on mood and cognition.
Used for thousands of years, lemon balm is a herb that has shown effectiveness at improving mood, reducing symptoms of anxiety, and increasing calmness and alertness.
In a recent meta-analysis, researchers found that vitamin D supplementation had positive effects on stress, depression, and sleep, as well as other health biomarkers, in those with psychiatric disorders.
A diverse set of gut flora teaches the immune system to differentiate between friend and foe. Having the right set of gut microbes boosts the activity of immune cells in the gut.
Probiotics also restore the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut. They occur naturally in cultured foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, and yogurt and in certain fermented drinks like kefir and kombucha. Taking probiotics in either food or supplemental form has been shown to reduce cold frequency by as much as 55 percent, likely due to influence on gut-based immune cells.
Probiotic supplements have shown promise in research studies for their role in supporting immune health. Some of the most studied probiotic species include
- Lactobacillus paracasei
- rhamnosus GG