These days, we’re all thinking about the smartest way to navigate our day-to-day life with the ongoing pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends everyone who goes out in public to do essential things wear a cloth face mask over their nose and mouth to be safe and exercise social distancing to help prevent the spread of the disease. But as winter looms and flu season lingers, the question on everyone’s mind: “How can I stay as safe as possible?”
This is where immunity comes into play. Our immune system is composed of cells, tissues, organs, and other substances, and it helps the body fight infections and other diseases. Our immunity relies on many factors — some of which we have control over and some we do not.
“Given the challenges before us due to COVID-19 and the upcoming flu season, many have found themselves seeking ways to best protect themselves from unwelcome illness,” says Dr. Scott Kaiser, family medicine physician and geriatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in California. “While the science can be a bit murky around specific things anyone can do to help strengthen their immune system — and things can vary widely from person to person — there are several habits associated with a robust and healthy line of defense.”
Here, experts weigh in on immunity-boosting practices to integrate into your regular routine.
MOVE YOUR BODY
Whether you’re a fan of dance cardio or more of a wake-and-walk kind of person, regular exercise is important to an overall healthy lifestyle. The CDC recommends at least 2 1/2 hours of moderate-intensity cardio (i.e., brisk walking) every week. Plus, it can positively impact our body’s ability to stave off infection. “Exercise has numerous benefits related to cardiovascular health, blood pressure, weight maintenance, mood and mental health,” says Kaiser. “In all of these ways, exercise proves beneficial to immune health, as well as improving circulation, which may help the body’s immune system work more effectively as well.”
Just make sure not to overdo it, cautions Dr. Natasha Trentacosta, sports medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles. “Overdoing it with excessive exercise can have detrimental effects on your health,” she says. “Just because there is more free time in people’s schedules, it does not mean that we should be spending every minute doing exercise on a treadmill or stationary bike. Be sure to allow your body to recover from exercise sessions.”
HAVE A STRONG SENSE OF PURPOSE
Having a powerful “reason to get up in the morning” and involving yourself in meaningful activities that help others can have a profound influence on our health and well-being. “Several fascinating studies have linked regular volunteer activity with healthy immune function along with a whole host of other components of good health,” says Kaiser. “Next time you go to the doctor, perhaps they’ll get out their prescription pad and recommend that you go volunteer in that mentorship program.”
REDUCE EXTRA STRESS
Whether you read a book, take a trip, socialize with friends or do yoga, reducing stress is vital. “Immune systems come under attack more easily when your body is stressed, making it much easier for you to get sick,” says Dr. Jay Woody, chief medical officer of Intuitive Health and a co-founder of Legacy ER & Urgent Care.
How do you start? Well, that’s a great question. Try implementing regular breathing exercises during your day, stopping to close your eyes and take three deep breaths before continuing on with important tasks. Slowing the breath and focusing on exhalation can trigger your vagus nerve, which in turn kicks your body into rest-and-digest mode
Sleep is a critical time to rebuild and restore body systems, and it plays a major role in our immune system’s functionality and health. If we’re getting poor sleep either in quality, quantity or both it can negatively impact our immune system, says Kim Peirano, a doctor of acupuncture and Chinese medicine. The good news? You can actively work on improving your sleep hygiene — or the quality of your shut-eye. “Start with limiting screen time, blacking out your room, and not eating too close to bed and removing distractions before bed,” she says.
Peirano also recommends engaging in practices that help with sleep, like meditation or receiving acupuncture treatments. “Our body’s natural ability to fight infections and regenerate and renew itself happens while we sleep, particularly in a deep sleep state, so engaging in these practices that help us get to those stages of sleep is essential,” she says.
Consuming probiotic-rich foods is a little known but highly effective way to promote a healthy immune system. They actively repopulate your gut with healthy bacteria and include yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles, apple cider vinegar, miso and kimchi — to name a few. “A healthy gut keeps the digestive process working smoothly, which prevents free radical and toxin build up in the body known to lead to many acute and chronic illnesses.” says Trista Best, RD. “It is also thought that probiotics secrete substances that trigger the immune system to react more strongly, thereby preventing pathogens from being able to take root and cause illness.”
STAY SOCIAL (VIRTUALLY COUNTS)
We may not be meeting up for dinners or workouts like we used to, but that doesn’t mean you have to forgo all connection with friends and family. “The impact of social isolation is tremendous, and a subjective feeling of loneliness has been found to be as dangerous to the body as smoking 15 cigarettes/day,” says Kaiser. “Maintaining meaningful connections with others (like friends, family members, colleagues, neighbors) is an often overlooked part of good mental and physical health.”
CLEAN UP YOUR DIET
If you want great immunity, lean into eating clean, whole, non-processed foods. “Overeating processed foods, added sugar, artificial sweeteners, caffeine and alcohol can definitely harm your immune function,” says Tiffany Allen, founder of Triad Lifestyle Medicine. “All of these foods increase inflammation in the body or affect insulin levels, which can exacerbate chronic conditions and their symptoms.”
Furthermore, these foods also often result in energy crashes, which cause you to eat more and often eat irrationally. Instead, seek foods high in vitamins, antioxidants and fiber. Think fresh vegetables, fruits and lean meats, like chicken or fish.
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