Another new year, another new virus...and it won't be the last. By design, viruses and bacteria are intent on surviving anything so they will constantly change to avoid annihilation by your immune system. This isn't a problem if your immune system is healthy, but is it?
Take it from me, you can pop a hundred pills, but if you aren't also taking care of yourself and your immune system, you'll be a sitting duck for all kinds of nasty things to invade your body, including COVID-19 and all forthcoming mutants.
Here are the TOP TEN ways you can keep your immune system in tip top shape and drastically reduce your likelihood of getting sick with COVID-19 or any other bug.
(Please note: You still have to follow the CDC guidelines. If someone with COVID-19 coughs all over you, you are still likely to get sick! Be smart with your health.)
#1: Stress Less
Usually when we hear the word stress we think “bad”. But in fact, short term stress is critical for our survival. It improves our ability to perform and protect ourselves in the face of a threat, challenge, or opportunity. The KEY is, however, that stress be short term. Your body was never designed to be chased by a lion for 6 months or 6 years. To maintain optimal performance, your body was designed to withstand sustained stress for no more than 30 minutes!
The human body was never designed to stand up to the chronic stress we pitch at it daily. Whether emotional (like getting in an argument), physical (like over exercising), or psychological (not knowing the answers to the SAT test), stress is stress, and your body will chemically respond the same way regardless of what kind of stress you are chronically exposed to.
Long-term stress can reduce healthy immune system function by decreasing the function and number of all types of immune cells and by actively shutting down normal immune system performance. Chronic stress also increases levels of inflammation throughout the body. This is a recipe for success for viruses and bacteria but a recipe for disaster for you and your health.
#2: Savor Sleep
Getting enough sleep is key for the optimal function of all cells, organs, and metabolic systems in the body. Your immune system is no exception!
The US Department of Health recommends people get at least 7 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night to maintain optimal health and immune system function. In fact, lack of adequate sleep has been tied to everything from increased risk of heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure to increased risk of infections and every single type of cancer you can think of.
Sleep loss as also been tied to reduced responsiveness to vaccination. Studies have shown that adults who do not routinely get at least seven hours of sleep experience reduced vaccine effectiveness. Researchers believe this occurs because the body doesn’t have enough time to develop immunological memory, something that occurs mainly during sleep.
#3: Engage in Regular Exercise
The immune system also thrives on regular exercise. The general consensus is that regular, moderate intensity exercise for no longer than 45 minutes at a time is beneficial for immune system function, especially in older adults and people with chronic diseases.
For those of you who believe more is better, infection rates are actually higher among high performance athletes and second only to injury for the number of training days lost during preparation for major sporting events. So, when it comes to exercise, more is definitely NOT better!
#4: Avoid Alcohol
This can be a tough one, especially around the holidays. It also gets confusing when you hear different opinions from different medical professionals.
An occasional glass of red wine with dinner is actually supposed to be a good thing (referring to the Mediterranean Diet here). What I am really talking about is how often and how much you drink. Even a single episode of binge drinking can have measurable effects on the immune system, from within the first 20 minutes to several hours after alcohol consumed.
Over the long term, drinking alcohol in excessive amounts weakens the immune system and increases the risk and severity of viral and bacterial infections. A 2021 European study confirms not only does alcohol weaken the immune system it can also make us more susceptible to infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Alcohol consumption has also been shown to reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, although this has not been specifically demonstrated with the COVID-19 vaccines to date.
#5: Stop Smoking
This one is probably a ‘no brainer’. Thousands of studies over numerous decades have proven that smoking cigarettes not only increases the risk of every disease imaginable it also increases the likelihood of more severe illnesses and death from everything.
The World Health Organization published a scientific brief last year also concluding that cigarette smoking is associated with increased severity of disease and death in hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
#6: Let Food be Thy Medicine
Remember good old Hippocrates? There were no drug companies or prescription drugs, no laboratories, and no CAT scans back in 460 BC. The healers at that time relied heavily on Mother Nature to provide cures for many of the illnesses…and with good reason. She always delivered!
Ever wonder where most of today's prescription drugs even come from? You guessed it…Mother Nature. For example, the statin drugs used to lower cholesterol come from the Red Yeast Rice plant.
In general, my motto is “If Mother Nature didn’t make it, don’t eat it”. Keep is simple and healthy by sticking to healthy food choices like fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, lean proteins, nuts and seeds, and healthy fats. Avoid trans fats, processed foods, sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and artificial dyes and preservatives. Do you really want to eat something with that has an expiration date one year from now??
#7: Lose Weight
Countless studies have confirmed that being overweight can lead to every disease imaginable…but, did you also know that obesity can weaken your immune system?
Fat cells (“adipose”) make over thirty (30) different types of inflammatory chemicals. In addition, they reduce healthy immune system function in at least ten (10) different ways.
This is especially true in patients who carry most of their weight in their belly.
Recent studies have even found that obese patients who are infected with COVID-19 are more likely to be sicker and to die from the disease.
#8: Go with Your Gut
Those of you who’ve followed my newsletters and/or belong to my Barely Surviving Facebook Group know how much I focus on gut health. Gut health is especially important when it comes to protecting yourself from infection since 70 to 80% of your immune system is in your gut!
This graphic is a very simple representation of all the different types of immune cells that are found in the lining of your intestinal tract. Under normal circumstances, your gut serves like a military barricade to protect your cells and tissues from attack by outside invaders like bacteria and viruses.
Eating a healthy diet really goes hand in hand with this one because what you eat has a huge impact on your gut health. Alcohol avoidance is also critical since alcohol not only suppresses the immune system found in the gut, it also causes damages the protective intestinal lining which allows toxins and other contents from your intestine to leak into your blood stream and cause inflammation.
#9: Have an Attitude of Gratitude
Webster’s dictionary defines gratitude as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”. Numerous studies have shown that gratitude not only improves physical and mental health, but it boosts immune function as well. One 2010 study on 124 University of Kentucky law students found that the more optimistic and grateful the students were, the stronger their immune system function was.
In addition to their direct effects on health, gratitude and optimism also indirectly improve health and immune system function by fostering more tolerance, less stress, and more self care. Having a better psychological attitude and sense of well-being tends to promote healthier lifestyles and less engagement in unhealthy lifestyle practices like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption. All of this adds up to a healthier immune system.
You'll notice I decided on a picture of someone gardening. That's because I've never been able to sit cross-legged in a small quiet room chanting "ohm". The point is, there are many different ways to meditate...which basically means to take time out of your life to slow down, relax, breathe, and focus on nothing. For me, that's gardening. What is it for you?
You might find it hard to believe, but mindfulness mediation appears to be associated with reductions in inflammation, increases in cell-mediated immune system defenses, and increases in the activity of enzymes that guard against cell aging.
When it comes to boosting immune system function, meditation and breathing exercises have some pretty powerful positive effects. This is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic which has forced more and more people into social isolation. A recent study of COVID-19 positive patients in isolation revealed that meditation reduced depression and stress levels and improved quality of sleep. Other research has found that in adult paitation coupled with exercise reduces the incidence of acute upper respiratory infections.
So there you have it, ten of the very best tools you have to keep yourself healthy. Notice all of them involve personal choice and responsibility. See how much control you really do have?