Looking for a way to improve your chances of staying healthy amidst the COVID-19 crisis? As the virus spreads and lockdowns begin in the United States, focus your attention on healthy food choices, physical activity, sleep, and managing stress. Creating new habits and self-care routines can help boost your immune system.
Gut health and your immune system
Much of the discussion on protecting yourself from COVID-19 is on hand-washing, sanitizing your home and work space, social distancing, and staying home, especially if you are sick. In addition, you can build up your body’s defenses against infections like the common cold and the flu by boosting your immune system. And that means good gut health.
It starts with your body’s microbiome. It’s made up of trillions of microorganisms (also known as microbiota or microbes), made up of thousands of different species. The microorganisms or microbiota stimulate your immune system and help break down foods.
Your microbiome consists of bacteria, fungi, parasites, and viruses. In a healthy person, they all live harmoniously together when things are in balance. When it’s out of balance, you’re more susceptible to health problems like Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). That sets you up for a whole host of other risks like the flu, shingles, pneumonia, osteoporosis and several cancers.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins are examining how the body’s immune system interacts with the bacteria in your gut.
“A huge proportion of your immune system is actually in your GI tract,” says Dan Peterson, Assistant Professor of Pathology at the John Hopkins University School of Medicine. “That’s what we’re trying to understand…how is the body trying to control the interaction between ourselves and bacteria on the outside.”
While this new virus is taking us into unchartered territory, and thus research is limited, the link between your gut and immune system is still strong enough to make it something to focus on no matter what virus is gripping the nation.
Boosting Your Body’s Immune System
It’s always a good idea to get your immune system as strong as possible so you can fight the flu, cold, or another virus or infection and to help you weather a chronic condition like diabetes. Even though COVID-19 gets all the headlines now, it’s still flu and cold season, so there are plenty of other reasons to boost your immune system now.
These are 5 ways you can boost your immune system, starting today:
- Use “food as medicine.”
- Physical activity.
- Manage stress through mindfulness meditation and a gratitude practice.
Healthy foods are “medicine” for viruses
Your DNA, environmental factors, and your eating habits impact your microbiome. So, let’s talk about what you can control – food.
While there are all sorts of trendy diets, healthy eating is always in style. Focus on nutritious and well-balanced food choices. They’re the perfect prescription for good health.
You can build a healthier gut by getting rid of processed foods, limiting alcohol, and eating more fruits and vegetables. Consume the rainbow. That means red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple foods.
According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the key nutrients for a strong immune system include protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, and zinc.
Protein helps your immune system recover and heal. The Academy recommends protein-rich foods like:
- Lean meat
- Unsalted nuts and seeds
Vitamin A keeps you healthy by protecting against infections in your mouth, stomach, intestines, and respiratory system. Vitamin A-rich foods include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Red Bell Peppers
- Vitamin-A fortified food like milk and some cereals.
Vitamin C helps your body create antibodies. You’ll find it in:
- Red Peppers
- Tomato Juice
- Vitamin C fortified foods like orange juice and some cereal.
Vitamin E works as an antioxidant. You’ll find it in these foods:
- Fortified cereals
- Sunflower seeds
- Sunflower or safflower oil
- Peanut butter
Zinc helps wounds heal and boosts your immune system’s function. You’ll find it in:
- Lean meat
- Whole Grains
Of course, don’t forget water. It flushes your system and keeps it hydrated.
There are lots of supplements that promise to boost your immune system, but most of the benefits can’t be proven. That’s why you’re better off sticking with raw food.
Scientific evidence suggests garlic may help your immune system. The naturally occurring chemicals found in garlic and onions and vitamin D help your body produce more immune cells. Unlike most of the other pills, this is one that experts say you can take in capsule form to potentially see a boost.
Echinacea is another commonly recommended herbal remedy. There’s some research showing it reduces how long you’re sick. The recommended dose is 3g a day.
Olive leaf extract is a third option. It’s an antioxidant supplement, and most commonly used for the flu, although research is still in its early stages.
Make sure to check with your healthcare practitioner about using these supplements to check for potential side effects or interactions with any medications you may be taking.
Overweight adults and infections
Maintaining a healthy weight is very important for overall health and well-being, but especially at a time when our nation is experiencing a health emergency from COVID-19.
Forty-two percent of Americans are obese according to 2017-2018 data from the CDC National Center for Health Statistics. That’s an increase of 12-percent from 1999-2000.
Studies seem to suggest the state of the body’s microbiome may be a contributory factor for the growing obesity epidemic. Researchers are examining the possibility that changing gut bacteria may help weight loss or prevent obesity.
The Western world tends to eat a high-fat diet, with lots of refined carbohydrates. In the study above, researchers pointed out that data suggests those eating habits lead to increased intestinal bacteria that are linked to obesity.
Another concern is inflammation. Research shows inflammation affects how you digest food, the number of calories your body absorbs, and the number of nutrients it wastes. In turn, your weight is affected.
Why does this matter? Studies show obese adults have less effective immune responses to vaccines and elevated rates of infection. In the latter study, infections of the skin, respiratory tract, and surgical-site infections were more commonly reported than in normal-weight participants.
At a time when a virus is causing a health crisis and serious lung infections, this is a wake-up call to make your weight a priority, if you haven’t already.
Eating a nutritious and well-balanced diet will help your waistline, but it’s just one component of losing weight. Portion size, physical activity, and sleep also affect your weight.
If you’re not directly involved in the response to COVID-19, you may have more time on your hands as your schedule becomes less busy outside of work. Use this extra time to improve your self-care regimen, by exercising more and preparing healthy, nutritious, and portion-controlled meals.
Cut back on portion sizes
Portion sizes in America are far too large.
According to NYC Health, a slice of pizza in the 1980s had 500 calories. It now has 850! That carries through for most foods.
So, cut back on how much you’re eating if you’re focusing on losing weight.
Even if weight has never been an issue, expect it to hit in your 40’s and 50’s, especially if you’re a woman. That’s when your body’s metabolism slows as you prepare for menopause. The average woman gains 4.5 pounds during the transition to menopause. Then, another pound and a half every year in her 50’s and 60’s.
That’s just one snapshot of society. People of all ages are gaining weight because of portion sizes and the types of food consumed like fatty, fried, and processed food products.
Use your hand as a guide to choosing how much to eat, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Eat enough vegetables and fruit to fill your fist. Scoop only a handful of grains. The meat you eat should be the size of your palm. Keep peanut butter and cheese consumption to the size of your thumb and fats like butter to the size of your fingertip.
Next, move more. Physical activity will make you stronger and help you lose extra weight. In turn, that can improve your immune system.
Physical activity also regulates stress hormones, and there’s a connection between stress, your immune system, and gut health.
A free course from Robert Mazzeo, Ph.D., of the University of Colorado Boulder, shows you how exercise helps your body including your immune system. Mazzeo points to one study, where people who were previously sedentary walked for three months and saw an approximately 50% reduction in respiratory symptoms.
Focus on moderate physical activity to boost your immune system.
Sleep and the immune system
Sleep is often low on the priority list, but it directly affects how you feel and your immune system. According to the Mayo Clinic, you’re more likely to get sick if you’re exposed to a virus and not getting enough quality sleep.
While you sleep, your body produces proteins (cytokines) to protect it. When you get sick, your body needs more of those proteins to fight the infection or inflammation. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you don’t have enough proteins to help protect your body. Also, lack of sleep often leads to fewer infection-fighting antibodies and cells.
As life slows down, focus on good sleep habits. Try these effective ways to get more sleep including a focus on a pre-sleep routine, turning off devices, and meditation.
The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. If you don’t get enough, you are at an increased risk for diabetes, weight gain, heart disease, and high blood pressure. In addition, cognitive function declines.
Also, the less you sleep the more likely you are to eat. Junk food is often what people grab. Poor food choices and less energy from lack of sleep, make it easier to gain weight. Plus, a first-of-its-kind study found short-term sleep loss subtly changes the microbiota, which includes the bacteria in your gut.
At a time when your body needs you most, make sleep a focus of your self-care routine.
How stress affects your immune system
In addition to food, stress impacts your microbiome. Researchers call this your gut-brain connection.
For instance, do you get “butterflies” in your stomach when you’re nervous or experiencing another uncertain situation? Harvard Medical School points out we use these expressions like “butterflies” or a circumstance that makes you “feel nauseous” because it’s true. Anger, anxiety, sadness, and happiness trigger a reaction in your gut.
Some people don’t digest food as well when they’re nervous about something, and it leads to an upset stomach.
Over time, stress can also change your gut bacteria, thus making you at risk for an infection.
It’s understandable if this time of uncertainty stresses you. There are many unknowns about our current state (which seems to change every day) and the future. COVID-19 impacts us all – physically, mentally, and financially.
Instead of worrying about what you can’t control, try focusing on what you can. Easier said than done, I know! Many things are always uncertain in life. You do things all day long, uncertain of the outcome. It’s just that you typically don’t think about them as much as you’re perhaps thinking about coronavirus.
Ways to lower stress during uncertainty
Now more than ever, allow yourself time to relax. Focus on your family and friends. Support each other and make your tribe stronger.
Find gratitude in your life. It can lower your stress, and help your health. It’s called positive psychology, and research shows if you’re grateful, your overall well-being is better, according to research by University of California Davis psychology professor Robert Emmons.
“Grateful people take better care of themselves and engage in more protective health behaviors like regular exercise, a healthy diet, regular physical examinations,” Emmons told WebMD.
This healthy self-care routine can, in turn, boost your immune system.
Focus on what you’re grateful for and show your gratitude toward others who are making a difference in this fight against a deadly virus.
Take advantage of the extra time you may have with your family at home, free of distractions like non-stop commitments and a rigid schedule. Make memories with this extra time you’re spending at home, and make self-care a priority.
You don’t need a lot of time to make your overall health a priority. Just focusing on your breathing can have a dramatic impact on how you feel. With mindfulness, you focus on the present rather than the past or the future. With deep breaths, you can change your overall frame of mind in just five minutes a day.
Try these mindfulness exercises to kickstart your practice. You don’t need to sit in a room with no activity around you. You can even practice mindfulness meditation while you wash the dishes, brush your teeth, exercise, drive, or get ready for bed.
Mindfulness creates a mind-body connection that has an impact according to research published by OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine. It helps you change your attitude, negative perceptions, and it lowers stress levels. As a result, mindfulness can help improve your immune function and delay the progression of some diseases.
When you have a relaxed brain, your mood improves. It also helps your gut if you practice mindfulness right before a meal. And you can also eat mindfully, which may help any weight loss efforts.
Christiane Northrup, M.D. has tips to improve your microbiome, including a ritual before eating. Just before you sit down to eat, take five minutes to shift your brain and body to a relaxed state. Avoid stressful situations, and focus on positivity.
You can do this alone or together as a family. Focus on all you accomplished that day and take deep breaths. Give thanks for the food on your table.
This relaxed state will help your gut health, once it’s time to eat.
Take this relaxed state into your daily living. Make lowering stress a priority, with these mind-body exercises.
Then, get our free, “Be Less Stressed Toolkit.” You’ll get life hacks to lower stress and then monthly inspiration with small steps you can take to maintain stress self-care.
Plus, small steps you can take to change your life each month.
Improve your self-care routine
It’s unusual that our nation simultaneously pauses. With these strategies, you can take an uncertain situation and turn it into a positive one. Take the time now to make self-care a priority.
Improve your hand-washing regimen, focus on your family, find gratitude, engage in physical activity on a regular basis, lower stress, and focus on your gut health. These small changes can boost your overall well-being, and some will boost your immune system. Taking small steps today will help you be a better version of you once life returns to normal.
What are you doing to boost your immune system and improve your well-being?
(Personal Insight MD, LLC, PeopleTweaker, and Insight MD does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are feeling extreme anger with thoughts and actions harmful to yourself or others such as physical/verbal abuse or acts of violence, find yourself self-medicating with alcohol, illicit drugs, etc., expressing your anger in such a way that threaten relationships or your job, etc. seek professional help immediately and call 911 if necessary if you find yourself in an out-of-control situation or have the urge to hurt yourself or others.)