4 Natural Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Whether it’s fending off COVID-19, colds, flu, heart disease, cancer, or any number of other illnesses, a robust immune system is the body’s main line of defense. So our family practice doctors want you to know the best ways to ensure your immune system is as healthy as possible.
While our bodies have evolved over millennia to fight off challenges to their survival, these days we face numerous threats to our health that our ancient ancestors never encountered. That includes the novel (i.e., new to the human race) coronavirus, air and water pollution from industrialization, highly processed foods, a 24/7 society that ignores innate circadian rhythms, and sedentary lives almost totally divorced from the natural world.
The solution to boosting our modern immune systems comprises four main lines of defense: food, sleep, exercise, and relaxation.
Diet is the fuel our bodies use to effect cellular repair and fight off viral invaders. If we had one single piece of nutrition advice it would be: Avoid processed foods.
One study published last year in the journal BMJ, for example, followed more than 100,000 adults in France for five years. They found that those who ate the most processed foods were 23 percent more likely to experience a heart condition or stroke than those who consumed the lowest amounts.
A second study, also published in BMJ, tracked 20,000 Spanish adults over 20 years. Those who ate the most processed foods were 62 percent more likely to die from any cause during the study period than those who ate the lowest.
“High consumption” was defined as four or more servings of ultra-processed foods daily, with risks to health rising 18 percent for each additional daily serving.
We recommend instead the well-known Mediterranean diet, which is based on studies during the 1990s which found that those in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea tend to live longer, healthier lives than those in other countries, and have lower rates of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The Mediterranean approach to eating emphasizes a diet high in seafood, fresh produce, nuts, olive oil, and beans, and low in red meat, dairy, sugar, processed foods, and saturated fat.
Our bodies use the time when we’re asleep to repair themselves. If you skimp on sleep, you’ll make it harder for your body to fight off invading viruses, as well as illnesses like heart disease and cancer. A 2015 Carnegie Mellon study showed that people who slept for seven hours or less were almost three times more likely to get a cold than those who slept for eight hours or more.
Another 2019 study showed that those who got eight hours of sleep every night had higher virus-fighting T-cells than those who regularly slept less than that. In addition, lack of sleep raises cortisol levels, stressing the body and leading to illness.
Exercise removes toxins and wastes, allowing the lymphatic system to flush out viruses and infections. Antibodies and white blood cells flood the body when it’s moving, helping them protect against foreign organisms.
A daily minimum of a half-hour of any kind of mild-to-moderate exercise is crucial to overall health. If necessary, it can be broken into 10-minute increments throughout the day. Even a daily brisk walk will help.
But for optimal health, we recommend any kind of regular, vigorous movement that adds up to 150 minutes (2 ½ hours) per week.
Exercise is also a terrific stress reliever, which brings us to our last line of defense against illness:
Like lack of sleep, too much continual stress never gives your body a chance to repair itself. Chronic stress weakens the immune system, increases inflammation, and opens the door to invaders.
One study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), found that healthy volunteers who were deliberately subjected to stressors then exposed to one strain of cold virus were not only more likely to become sick, but also showed an increase in cytokines, the molecules that have been implicated in the so-called “cytokine storm,” the body’s inflammation response which has proved so deadly to many of those who contract COVID-19.
Take brief nature breaks during the day, meditate, listen to music, practice a hobby, watch funny videos, communicate with friends . . . anything that helps decrease your stress level.
And to protect yourself from COVID-19, be sure to follow sensible recommendations:
- wash hands frequently, for at least 20 seconds
- practice social distancing
- wear a mask around others, and avoid those who don’t
If you have any questions about the best ways to protect yourself from the coronavirus, or how to stay healthier in general, don’t hesitate to call our office to schedule a Telehealth visit with one of our doctors.