Immune health is always a valuable asset, but it’s of utmost importance right now in light of the spread of COVID-19. Despite this, many of us are struggling to find the motivation to take care of ourselves. According to the Pew Research Center, 44% of Americans say that coronavirus has changed their lives in a major way. With our normal routines and support systems suddenly gone, life can easily feel like one big bummer of a weekend.
When it comes to health, we believe in practice, not perfection. This practice will shift from month to month and season to season. It’s definitely going to look different during a global pandemic! How do you support your immune system while operating with limited emotional and mental resources? What role do healthy habits play in immune health in the first place? We’re here to help you answer these questions.
How Does Your Immune System Work?
Your immune system is a complex collection of cells and proteins that work together to eliminate foreign pathogens in the body.
The innate immune system, composed of your skin, mucous membranes, white blood cells, and various bodily fluids, works to protect the body on a more general level. The adaptive immune system, on the other hand, is more specialized. References to antibodies, immunity, and vaccines are references to the work the adaptive immune system does to neutralize strong, novel invaders that manage to evade the innate immune system.
Is It Even Possible to Boost Your Immune System?
Given the multi-faceted nature of the immune system, many of the one-size-fits-all immune boosting solutions marketed today are overly simplistic. The only way to ensure your body gains immunity to a particular virus is either through infection or vaccination. However, there are practices that everyone can do to strengthen their immune system and help it to do its job to the best of its ability when called upon.
Here are five simple and natural steps you can take today to care for your immune system:
Put Yourself to Bed, Strengthen Your Immune System
Sleep is one of the easiest, most accessible, and cheapest ways to improve the function of literally every system in your body – especially your immune system. This 2012 study illustrates how chronic undersleeping puts your body in a severely stressed state. Systemic stress weakens your immune health and makes you more susceptible to infection.
Fortunately, one of the unintended side effects of social distancing and quarantine is that many of us are free to make sleep a priority. Here are two tips to promote better sleep:
Create a super cozy sleep environment
Weighted blankets, fans, blackout curtains, essential oil diffusers, down comforters - give yourself permission to get a little extra with crafting the perfect bedtime situation. Eye masks and earplugs may be helpful if you share your sleep space with a partner or child. Research demonstrates that complete darkness and minimal exposure to blue light (emitted from electronic screens of any kind) prior to bedtime are ideal for optimal sleep.
Try to go to bed and wake up at the same time each day
It doesn’t come as a surprise that greater variability in bedtimes and wake-times is associated with poor lifestyle behaviors. While it’s especially hard if you’re furloughed or working from home, establishing a wakeup and bedtime routine can make a big difference in how well you sleep (and how well you care for yourself in general).
Make a Movement Goal
Moderate exercise has been shown to boost your immune system. If you’re struggling to get moving, pick a simple daily goal. It doesn’t have to be complex or ambitious. In fact, super-intense workouts can be taxing to your immune system without proper recovery.
Here are a few easy-to-implement daily movement goals that will strengthen your immune system and improve your mood, too. Pick one and track your consistency on a wall calendar or whiteboard:
Take a walk
Bonus points if you call someone to chat with while you’re walking. Choose a route with hills to get your heart rate up if you feel like challenging yourself.
Do a yoga video
Just twenty minutes of yoga will help your joints recover from hunching over a computer or slouching on the couch. A yoga practice may help sustain equilibrium during challenging circumstances. This means less stress-induced inflammation for your immune system to mitigate.
Try an online workout resource from a local gym or studio
Many gyms, yoga studios, personal trainers, and group exercise instructors are offering free or paid online workout resources right now. See if you can find one to follow and support! You’ll feel more connected to your community and more inspired to stick with your workouts.
Keep It Spicy for a Flavorful Immunity Booster
Consuming spices and herbs (like garlic, turmeric, ginger, black pepper, and cardamom) is linked to a stronger, more resilient immune system. These ingredients are full of antioxidants that combat inflammation in your body. This allows your immune system to fight off invaders more effectively. Plus, spices and herbs add flavor and interest to your cooking with minimal calories.
Here are few of our favorite ways to keep it spicy with these natural immunity boosters:
Cook a traditional Thai or Indian recipe
If you have extra time to cook right now, take advantage of it! Try a traditional curry or soup recipe rich in spices and veggies.
Add herbs to a smoothie
If you have less time on your hands, try adding grated ginger or turmeric root to a smoothie. A handful of cilantro or parsley in a green smoothie is also surprisingly delicious.
Take an immune-boosting shot
This is the quickest, easiest option: a turmeric or ginger immunity booster shot is an easy way to ingest these research-backed superfoods.
Do Anything That Helps You Chill Out
Few things damage your immune system more than stress. According to immunologist Leonard Calabrese, “Eliminating or modifying...[stress-inducing] factors in one’s life is vital to protect and augment the immune response.”
If you’re feeling overwhelmed with anxiety and stress, let yourself do whatever you need to in order to relax. Try not to feel guilty if this means being ‘unproductive’ or ‘self-indulgent’. Here are some of our suggestions for ways to boost the immune system that involve taking it easy:
Watch a movie or play a video game
See if you can include a friend remotely for an extra dose of enjoyment.
Schedule a virtual (alcohol-free!) happy hour with friends
Crack open a can of seltzer or mix up a cocktail with your favorite non-alcoholic spirit and get your besties involved. Add some trivia or would-you-rather questions if you’re looking for something to talk about other than coronavirus.
Now is not the time to power through feelings of stress. Practice kindness and compassion towards yourself as much as possible. It’s good for you!
Take a mental health day if you’re able to step away from work
If your work is stressful right now and you’re struggling to cope, considering taking a sick day if that’s a possibility. A day off from the pressure of work demands can help reduce stress considerably.
Set up an online therapy appointment
Talking through your stress and anxiety with an objective third party may be helpful. Many therapists are offering online video and phone sessions with sliding-scale fees.
How to Boost the Immune System With Vitamin C
The link between vitamin C consumption and a strong immune system is well-known, but taking megadoses via supplements isn’t necessary. Monica Reinagel, MS, suggests focusing on foods rich in vitamin C to improve immune health without creating imbalance in your body.
Check out these ways to add vitamin C to every meal:
Slice up a cantaloupe, pour a glass of organic orange juice, or top your oatmeal or yogurt with strawberries.
Dip bell peppers, cauliflower, and broccoli in hummus, or add tomato slices to your grilled cheese.
Roast sweet potatoes as a comforting side dish, or stir chopped kale into soups, stir fries, or pasta dishes.
Make a tropical dessert plate with coconut sorbet and sliced papaya and kiwi.
Strengthening your immune system doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. The best way to boost your immune system is to improve your overall health – and that includes emotional and mental health as well as physical. According to NYC immunologist Timothy Mainardi, MD, “Exercising regularly and eating healthy are the most significant factors for your immune system.”
Pick an item from this article on how to strengthen the immune system and incorporate it into your routine today. Every step towards balance and self-care counts.