By Guest Author: Hillary Hunt
The potato chips, the cookies, the nightly wine. And that’s not all.
Staying at home means moving less. Not needing to get fully dressed and out the door for your daily commute means sleep schedules are off and all the days start blending together like an amorphous blob of sameness. Immobilized by anxiety and uncertainty, you may feel it’s difficult to sustain motivation for anything beyond disinfecting your home… and finishing off those chips.
But now that we’re a few weeks into this, let’s remind ourselves: the habits we fall into while trying to escape our anxiety might actually be undercutting our immune system. And if Covid-19 comes a-knocking at your body's door, you’ll want your immune system primed for a fight.
I’ve pulled together a few basic guidelines* from health experts that will give your immune system the support it needs to function well. In a nutshell, your immune system comprises several systems, all of which need to be balanced so they can work in harmony. So let’s cultivate a little harmony in our bodies with the following habits:
Eat a Mediterranean-like diet
“Eat a Mediterranean-like diet” is simply shorthand for eating more veggies, fruits, whole grains, and healthy (unsaturated) fats. This type of diet ensures you’re getting a good supply of nutrients like antioxidants, zinc, and vitamin C—all of which will help fight infection and inflammation.
Consider taking a vitamin D supplement as well, especially considering how much we’re all currently staying indoors. In a study published in 2018, adults 65-79 demonstrated modest increases in their T cell counts (the infection-fighting cells) when they ate a Mediterranean diet and supplemented with 400 IU vitamin D. And in a 2015 study, researchers found that vitamin D supplementation “protected against acute respiratory tract infection overall.”
Get your probiotics
Did you know that 70-80% of our immune system is in our guts? It’s true, which means gut health is a significant part of our immune system. Studies have shown that probiotics can reduce your risk of infection by helping your immune system target harmful pathogens in your body.
Besides supplements, probiotics can be found in yummy stuff you eat every day, like yogurt (Greek is best), kefir, and fermented vegetables like pickles or sauerkraut. Disclaimer: probiotics are not recommended for those with a severely compromised immune system.
Manage your mental health
Your mental health and physical health are very much entangled. For instance, did you know that stress produces chemicals in your body that suppress the immune system? On a more empirical level, when we’re stressed or anxious we tend to give up those healthy habits that would support our immune system and improve our mood. It’s a self-feeding loop: we don’t feel good, so we don’t do good. Because we don’t do good, we don’t feel good.
It can be hard to break that cycle, so forgive me for quoting a song from Frozen 2 to make this point: do the next right thing. The next right thing is entirely up to you and your situation. But if inspiration isn’t striking, here are some things to consider the next time your mental health needs a lift: Garden. Drink a tall glass of water. Take a break from work. Take a walk. Stay off social media. Stretch. Reach for the fruit instead of the chips. Meditate. Pray. Listen to rain. Do something creative and fun. Check in on your friends and family. Whatever calms you down, nourishes your body, and lifts your spirit is the next right thing to do.
I bet you already know through life experience that a good night's sleep will melt away the hard edges of anxiety, anger, and stress. Well, sleep works wonders for your immune system too. When you sleep, your immune system produces T cells that help your body fight inflammation and stress, giving your body the fortification it needs to fight infection. Failing to catch those z’s will make you more vulnerable to catching a virus and will make overcoming that virus take longer. In other words, cherish your sleep—it’s the reset button your immune system needs to function at its best.
One way to promote better sleep patterns is through exercise, another healthy habit that’s good for your immune system. According to studies, exercise and meditation can help reduce the burden of acute respiratory infections and regular, moderate exercise improves the functioning of your immune system. And note the words moderate exercise; intense or excessive exercise can actually weaken your immune system. Devote at least a half hour every day to being active; break a light sweat and raise your body temperature to get your antibodies and white blood cells mingling and moving.
Go easy on yourself
And after all that advice for healthy living, I’ll end with this: Be patient with yourself and with others. We are living through an unprecedented experience in our lifetime, and it’s understandable to have very human reactions while we’re processing our circumstances.
It must be said that not all of us will have the privilege of working from home, let alone the privilege of being able to work at all. Some of us will not be able to afford probiotic yogurt or Mediterranean diets, and some of us will be under so much stress that the mere notion of exercise or meditation will seem like a laughable indulgence. And so I say, go easy on yourself. Do what you can comfortably do, and don’t let a list of “things you should be doing” add to your stress levels.
*Keep in mind, these guidelines are only for supporting your immune system; practicing social distancing, staying at home, and washing your hands are the best forms of prevention and containment of Covid-19.