Boosting Immunity in the Age of COVID-19

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There are several things you can do to help your body fight off exposure to any virus or bacteria, including the coronavirus.

We all know to wash hands for at least 20 seconds and practice social distancing (cabin fever, anyone?). But you may not be aware that there are ways to help keep our bodies in shape to fight off the microscopic particles that spread disease. Hopefully, you will never have to test your defense against coronavirus. But it is always a good idea for older adults and anyone else to maintain a strong immune system for whatever comes our way.

Eat Right

A study by researchers at Cambridge University recorded that immunocompromised people improved their immune response by eating more fruit and vegetables. The higher their intake, the better the response. The Cleveland Clinic adds that Vitamin C, B6, and E are the most important for immune function. While you can take a supplement, the body absorbs them best when eaten in foods that are rich in the nutrients. Citrus fruits are high in Vitamin C, vegetables including soybeans, contain Vitamin B6, and sunflower seeds and almonds deliver Vitamin E.

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“Eighty percent of your immune system is in the gut, so when it is healthy, we tend to be able to fight off infections faster and better,” says Yufang Lin, M.D., of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic. She recommends a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. A 2018 study of adults aged 65 to 79 who followed a Mediterranean-style diet with the addition of 400 IU of vitamin D in a daily supplement boosted disease-fighting cells.

Lin also notes that fermented foods, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, miso and kefir, are beneficial because they boost healthy bacteria in the gut. Meat intake should be limited, especially processed meats such as salami and bacon, and all fried foods.

Organic produce, particularly when it is eaten raw, can also improve gut health since it has a more diverse bacteria population than food grown with pesticides and herbicides, according to Dr. Jenna Macciochi, lecturer in immunology. She also says that while making a single lifestyle change may have a small effect, strengthening your immunity is best achieved by combining several different approaches.

Get Your Sleep.

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Your immune system needs down time, meaning sleep. When your body is sleep-deprived, it produces stress hormones such as cortisol just to keep alert. Cortisol can suppress your immune system. In one 2015 study, people who got at least seven hours of sleep per night were four times less likely to catch a cold than the participants who managed only six or less.

A single night of poor sleep can result in a 70% decrease in so-called “killer cells,” a type of white blood cell that play a major role in fighting both cancer and viruses.

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A strong immune system is highly correlated with fitness, according to several studies. While suddenly stressing your body by running a marathon if you are not in shape to run one can actually suppress your immune system while you recover, moderate exercise can build immunity.

Amazingly, those killer cells can increase tenfold after a single exercise session, according to research. And did you know that exercising for just a few minutes before a getting a vaccination can improve the protection it provides?

A walk outside can do more than just alleviate the boredom of being cooped up at home. Country air contains beneficial bacteria along with soil and plant organisms that are good for you as well, according to Macciochi. Just breathing it can boost your immunity. If you are a city dweller, try spending time in a garden or park.

Supplements may help. Many Americans are low in Vitamin D, which was found to offer protective benefits in a 2017 review of 25 studies published in the British Medical Journal. An easy way to make sure you are getting enough is to walk in sunshine for 10-15 minutes several times a week. Mushrooms also contain the vitamin, which is best consumed with fats or oils to boost absorption.

Probiotics are live micro-organisms that are linked to a reduced chance of getting colds and reducing the duration when you do get one. They can also improve immunity and make nutrients in the food we eat more available. However, they may not be useful for everyone, and there are a wide variety of strains that may, or may not, work.

If you want to keep inflammation in check, Lin advises cooking with herbs such as garlic, ginger, rosemary, oregano and turmeric. “When my patients ask me about taking supplements to enhance their immune system, I always go back to food, food, food,” she says. “Food is medicine.”

Alternative Immune Boosters.

For those souls who are a little more willing to suffer for health or try something that is out of the norm, a couple other preventative measures may be worth a look. A growing, although limited, body of evidence points to cold exposure for stress reduction, which leads to better immunity. Anyone for a cold shower? Those that take them on a regular basis are 30% less likely to call in sick, according to research. Brrrr!

A handful of recent studies show acupuncture has anti-inflammatory effects. Tiny needles are inserted at specific body points to provide stimulation in this ancient Chinese practice. “The point of acupuncture is to strengthen the immune system by balancing and fortifying certain organic systems,” says Joanie Stewart, an acupuncturist and health professional. “One of the things acupuncture does is fortify the lungs and the kidneys, which are also very important in boosting immunity.”

All in all, we should be eating well and exercising no matter what health threats are in the news or what age we are. We may all need to get out and walk for our mental health right now as much as our physical well-being. So it certainly wouldn’t hurt to adopt some of the strategies listed above to make sure we all stay in tip-top condition while we wait for the urgency of quarantines and self-distancing to abate. Now and years later, we will be glad we did.

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