How resilient is your immune system? Do you seem to get constant coughs and colds, or can you hardly remember when last you had the flu? This is probably an indication of the state of your immune resilience. Immune resilience is your body’s ability to deal with any kind of bacteria or virus. Now during this strange time of covid-19, we all want our immune resilience to be the best that it can be. So is there anything we can do to improve it? You’ll be happy to know that there are a lot of simple steps we can take to strengthen our body’s ability to fight off any virus. Here are the steps (and I need to acknowledge Dr Datis Kharrazian, immunologist, for much of this information – see drknews.com)
- Reduce inflammation in your system.
- Increase the diversity of your gut microbiome by improving your diet.
- Stay hydrated to improve immune signaling.
- Move your body to get your lymphatic and immune system functioning optimally.
- Get enough good quality sleep.
- Laugh and cry! There are physiological reasons why we need to do this!
I could (and might) write an article on each of these, but for now let’s touch on each.
1. Reduce inflammation.
Your body will tell you if you are dealing with chronic inflammation. It will be sore, and you will be tired. If your body is constantly inflamed, your immune system will be constantly occupied with dealing with that chronic inflammation, and you will be less resilient. Inflammation needs to be dealt with by finding out what’s causing the inflammation. Going on something like Chris Kresser’s 30 day Paleo Reset Diet, which cuts out a lot of the foods that commonly cause inflammation, and then gradually adds them back in so that you can find the triggers, is a great start. Sometimes there are chemical triggers, or an inflammatory response to toxic moulds – these can all cause inflammation. So if you feel worse after eating particular foods, or after being in a certain environment, take note. Obesity also causes inflammation, so losing weight will help to reduce it. Easier said than done, believe me, I know! But more about this in another post.
2. Increase the diversity of your gut microbiome by improving your diet.
There has been an explosion of new research and knowledge about the crucial role that the bacteria in our gut play in keeping the body healthy. These bacteria are centrally involved in the immune system. Many people know that when using antibiotics, our good bacteria in the gut get killed off along with the bad. And many doctors now prescribe probiotics with antibiotics. But probiotics are not enough. Your good bacteria in the gut need to be as diverse as possible, and they need to feed on something. Those friendly little creatures love vegetables, and a huge variety of them. If you always eat the same breakfast, the same salad at lunch, and pasta for supper, you will have not have much diversity in your microbiome. So go to the organic market, or the supermarket, and pick out those strange vegetables that you’ve never tasted, and put them into a soup or a stir fry. Also buy (or grow) the rainbow – brightly coloured fruits and veg have lots of flavonoids and anti-oxidants which your body and immune system will love. Go easy on the fruit though, as too much sweet fruit can create an insulin surge, which is not want you want!
But crucially, cut out anything that inflames the body. I can tell you now that the big culprits here are sugar, gluten, industrial seed oils and the hydrogenated fats in many processed foods (avoid anything in a box or a bag!) Also concentrated fruit juices contain way too much sugar. All of these are extremely inflammatory and should be totally avoided.
3. Stay hydrated to improve immune signaling.
There are now many studies which show that if you are deydrated, your immune system weakens and is less able to fight off infection. Your body needs to be hydrated in order for the biochemical signaling within the immune system to work efficiently. If you’re dehydrated, your lymphatic system, which detoxifies the body, is less efficient. And if you are fighting off a virus or infection, then you need to drink copious amounts of fluid.
As you know, alcohol can cause dehydration, so go easy on the alcohol and replenish with water as you drink. And teas and coffees won’t do it – caffeine acts like a mild diuretic which causes you to lose water. Herbal teas are fine, though. So try to drink 3-4 litres of water/herbal teas a day, more if you’re exercising. Make water more interesting by fizzing it up, or dropping some lemon or orange slices in it, or some mint leaves. Try iced herbal teas if it’s hot. And if you care about the environment, don’t buy bottled water, get it from the tap and filter it if you don’t trust the tap water.
4. Move your body to get your lymphatic and immune system functioning.
The immune system is complex and involves constant signaling. Immune cells sample an invader like a virus and release messenger proteins to alert the immune system to the invader. Then antibodies need to be made, and the killer cells need to come in and deal with the infection. In order for all of these messages to circulate through the body, you need blood flow. Pink cheeks after exercise is a great sign of good blood flow. Movement creates this blood flow as you pump your muscles, and your lymphatic system can move its fluids through the body. Regular exercise also has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, which is what you want for your immune system to be healthy. (Nieman, D.C and Wentz, L.M. 2019)
The runner’s ‘high’ is the release of opioids into your system. These impact and support your natural killer cells, T cells and B cells. These are your elite fighting troops. So it’s really important to exercise sometimes at high intensity in order to release opioids. You don’t have to run a marathon! You don’t even have to run! You can dance for 10 minutes to elevate your heart rate, or climb some stairs or a mountain. Short bursts of high intensity exercise is enough. This will make your immune system fit too! However, if you are sick, you need to rest, and do a little bit of slow walking around the house to get those fluids moving, but no high intensity exercise!
5. Get enough good quality sleep.
Sleep impacts every system in the body, including the immune system. I’ll write about sleep in another blog but for now, how does it impact immune function? When we sleep, cytokines, a large group of proteins which target infection and inflammation, are produced and released. We need these! Ideally you should get enough sleep so that you wake up naturally, without an alarm. Just briefly, some simple strategies for getting more sleep:
- Go to bed earlier.
- Use soft lighting or candlelight in the evening to allow your melatonin levels to rise so that you get sleepy.
- Try to avoid screens at night – the blue light of the computer or TV blocks melatonin production and confuses your circadian rhythms or body clock.
- Exercise helps most people to sleep, though hard exercise at night can be overstimulating for the body.
- Monitor how alcohol affects your sleep – for many it causes wakefulness and restless sleep.
6. Laugh and Cry!
You know how you can feel much better after a good laugh or a good cry?Like high intensity exercise, both laughing and crying cause the release of opioids, which make you feel good, and which support the immune system. Try laughter yoga or just watching some funny videos and spending time with funny friends. And if you need to cry for whatever reason, don’t hold back! Many of us need to have a good cry now in this crazy Covid time with its social isolation, dearth of hugs and touch, and feelings of anxiety and helplessness. So I invite you, and give you permission, to have a delicious laugh or cry whenever you need to. Your immune system will thank you for it.