At a time when mass panic has set in and people have found themselves caught on camera fighting over the last pack of toilet paper in the supermarket, we can often forget what exactly it is we are actually panicking about. Arguably one of the most important facets of tackling the virus, other than preventing its spread, is to ensure our immune function is ready and able to fight it if we do contract it. There are plenty of things we can do to naturally support our immune function. Below I share five proven ways to do just that.
There is no avoiding the fact that sleep is probably one of the single best things you can do to maintain a healthy immune function. Studies have shown that when we do not get sufficient sleep (between 7-9 hours each night for adults and more for children) we compromise our immune function. In one study, where study participants were limited to just four hours of sleep, researchers found that their natural killer cell activity reduced by as much as 72%. Natural killer cells are responsible for tackling viral infections, such as the coronavirus. Thankfully, these levels were shown to bounce back after a good night’s sleep.
We also know that sleep affects the expression of more than 700 genes across the body and sleep deprivation negatively affects those genes related to growth and repair and positively influences those linked to increased levels of stress hormones and inflammation. It helps to explain why our immune function is negatively impacted when we are deprived of sufficient sleep and are more likely to get ill. Invariably, if we want to ensure our immune function is at its best, we should prioritise our sleep and ensure we adopt good sleep hygiene.
Good sleep hygiene includes: not snoozing in the mornings, setting a regular sleep and wake time (even at weekends), avoiding coffee (and caffeine in general) after 2pm, avoiding alcohol at least four hours before bed and taking the time to relax an hour before bed and refraining from indulging in the latest panic inducing news feeds or social media feeds. Try instead to read a good book or watch a relaxing movie that will help your body wind down, ready for a good night’s slumber.
Regular exercise has been shown to bolster our immune function. Research published in March 2018 by King’s College London found that exercise in old age prevents the typical 2-3% decline that most of us see in our immune function from our 20s onwards. In fact, participants in the study who were in their 60s and 70s were found to have immune functions similar to someone in their 20s, due to the fact that they regularly cycled long-distances (over 100km). They found that these endurance cyclists were producing the same level of T-cells as adults in their 20s, whereas a group of inactive older adults were producing very few.
Evidence spanning the last 50 years has consistently shown the positive relationship exercise has with our immune function (amongst many other things). Those who exercise regularly (at least three times per week for 30-minutes) are less likely to catch an upper respiratory tract infection and, even if they do, the symptoms are likely to be much milder than for those who do not exercise regularly. If you currently do not exercise, now is probably not the time to start training for a marathon, as overtaxing your cardiovascular system (by exercising intensely for more than 30-minutes) has been shown to (temporarily) negatively impact your immune function and increase inflammation. However, you should absolutely think about increasing the amount of time you spend on your feet – perhaps think about whether you could introduce more walking into your daily routine. Even a brisk walk can have a positive impact on your immune function.
What we eat can have a significant effect on how effective our immune response is. When we do not consume sufficient energy and macronutrients and/or we are deficient in specific micronutrients our immune system can be impaired, making us more susceptible to infection and disease. It may be tempting to think that stocking up on multi-vitamins will provide a boost to your immunity, but there is very little evidence that these types of pills have any beneficial effects on immunity. In addition, these pills often provide huge doses of vitamins which are many times the recommended daily allowance, under the guise that more must be better. Yet, far from conferring additional benefits, exceeding the recommended daily allowance can in some cases be quite dangerous, although will mostly just result in more trips to the toilet.
If you want to ensure you are getting sufficient nutrients to maintain a healthy immune system, focus on eating wholesome foods and avoid ultra-processed foods high in sugar etc. Think leafy greens, pulses, grains fruits and vegetables and a mix of protein such as fish and chicken. Nuts are also a great source of nutrients, including several B group vitamins (including folate) and vitamin E, as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, potassium and magnesium. As with everything, consume these types of foods in moderation and find a healthy balance.
At a time when anxiety and worry have replaced the humdrum of our daily lives, it can be really tempting to get caught up in excessive worrying and catastrophising which play far too easily on people’s minds. For some, worrying can feel like an effective strategy – it almost feels like worrying is aiding our progress towards a solution in some way. Yet, the reality is likely much starker. We know from research spanning the past 50 years, that negative rumination and worry is correlated with an increased risk of mental ill-health, including depression.
Far from being adaptive, when you worry, you cause your brain to imagine an immediate threat to your survival and trigger the associated release of chemicals in the body to counter that threat. The resulting changes in biochemistry, influence how you feel and think, meaning that you are likely to perceive a reality contaminated with negativity and devoid of hope. It becomes a vicious cycle in which, as your anxiety levels rise, your thinking gets narrower and narrower and your reality darker and darker.
To counter the negative impact of excessive worry, now is the perfect time to become more mindful of your thoughts and actions. It may help to write your worries down – evidence suggests that when we write our worries down our mind is able to process them more effectively and dampen their negative impact. You could also try to notice when you start worrying and try to bring your awareness back to the present moment. You could try one of the many mindfulness apps that exists, such as Headspace or Calm, to help you cultivate greater present moment awareness.
You may also find it beneficial to set aside 5-10 minutes to simply breathe, deeply and rhythmically. Research has found that engaging our diaphragm when we breathe, stimulates our Vagus nerve which calms our nervous system down, re-engaging our immune function. Finally, when all seems lost, gratitude can be a potent antidote to hopelessness. Perhaps take time out to reflect on the things that you have to be grateful for. It will give your mind some much needed respite from worrying about things which you likely cannot control.
While it is important to follow the recommended guidance from your local government on self-isolation measures, it is equally important to remember the importance of nurturing social connection and supporting one another through this pandemic. While fear can make us think and act much more selfishly (and, at times, irrationally), our immune function is far more effective when we feel supported and cared for by others i.e. when we act with kindness and compassion. We should take every opportunity to engage our tend and befriend response with those in our neighbourhood, social and family structures.
Social connection produces hormones such as oxytocin with lowers stress hormones and promotes a healthy immune response. We can all take responsibility for combatting the loneliness and isolation that we and others may be feeling at this time. We can ensure we check-in with friends and family regularly, even if this has to be done virtually. We can also check-in with neighbours, in case they may need additional support. There have been some great examples in the news of communities coming together to overcome the isolation that many may be faced with due to the measures put in place by governments, aimed at slowing the spread of the virus. In Italy, there have been reports of people standing on their balconies singing in solidarity. While a lady in Cornwall inspired others across the world, when she sent post cards to her local community to let them know she was there to help should anyone need it.
Pro-social behaviours not only promote a strong immune function, but they also improve our wellbeing (and the wellbeing of those around us), especially when there is so much uncertainty and scaremongering. At a time when we may be feeling more isolated and lonely than normal, we should remember to reach out to one another and think about the impact that our actions (or inactions) may have on others – we are much stronger together than when we try to overcome things alone.