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What We Can Do to Boost Our Immune System During a Pandemic

 

What we can do to boost our immune system during a pandemic:

This is not medical advice. This is information only. 

By Erin Stair, MD, MPH 

A lot of the news is about things we can’t do during the pandemic. There are mandates, closings, restrictions and lockdowns all in the name of health. That made me wonder about the things we can do to boost our immune system and overall health to maximize our ability to prevent or fight off a COVID-19 infection. After I constructed a list of things that I think are important, I realized that most of them could apply to any disease. There are things we can do right now to make our bodies healthier, boost our immune system and battle an infection like COVID-19.

First, we must talk about our obesity problem. It’s clear that obesity is a significant risk factor for severe COVID-19 infections, but it’s also a significant risk factor for costly chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes, cancer and chronic pain. It’s no secret that we were battling an obesity epidemic before the COVID-19 epidemic, and despite various initiatives, we haven’t made any dents. This means both epidemics are happening simultaneously. According to the CDC, nearly 42% of the US adult population is obese, and it’s predicted that this will be 50% by 2030.

The US isn’t the only country with an obesity problem. The WHO estimates obesity rates have tripled since 1975. There are over 1.9 billion adults in the world who are overweight, and of them, 650 million are obese. The obesity epidemic is not limited to adults. The WHO estimates that 38 million kids under 5 are obese, and 340 million kids between the ages of 5-19 were either overweight or obese.

In one of my recent Causes or Cures podcast episodes, Dr. Rami Nakeshbandi and Rohan Maini discuss why obesity makes COVID-19 infections worse and why it is a pro-inflammatory state that fuels the “cytokine storm” that severely damages the body. Obesity also increases the risk of  other disease states that make COVID-19 worse, such as high blood pressure and Type 2 Diabetes. Part of our pandemic response should be addressing obesity in an effective way.

We need to think about solutions for obesity on both the population and individual level. Globally, humans have been ingesting more calories than they are burning. This is due to food production, food choices and an explosion of the sedentary lifestyle. We sit a lot, for work, to play on the internet, to watch TV, to fight on Twitter or Facebook, to travel somewhere. While the obvious response to obesity is that we have to eat less and move more, there are complications and multiple factors to consider.

On the population level, we need to make sure people have easy access to healthy foods. We have to get rid of the food deserts, places lacking healthy food options, and the food swamps, places saturated with unhealthy food options. We need to make sure there is adequate and safe outdoor spaces for folks to exercise.

On the individual level, we need to talk about food, exercise, sleep, stress and loneliness. These factors interact with each other in a way that can be beneficial for our health or in a way that can be detrimental. They interact in a way that is either pro-obesity or anti-obesity and in a way that either boosts the immune system or in a way that dampens it. The good news is that we can make choices to help optimize those interactions for our health. In the next section, I’ll discuss each factor and how they relate to both obesity and the immune system.

FOOD: Prevent Obesity and Boost Our Immune System:

When it comes to food, the most important thing is to find a healthy, balanced eating plan that YOU can sustain for the long-term. There are no quick fixes, and there is nothing sexy about reducing caloric intake. Some people swear by the Keto diet or another low-carb version. Some like the Mediterranean diet or a modified version of it. Other popular diet plans include the vegetarian diet, going gluten-free, following a low-sodium diet, a low-fat one or a low-sugar/no-sugar one. There isn’t one perfect healthy diet for everyone. You must figure out what works for you, not just in the short-term but in the long-term too. The long-term is ALWAYS the trick. You’ll know you figured out the trick, when eating feels more like a stressless flow than a stressful fight. In addition to helping keep obesity at bay, once you find a healthy and balanced eating plan that works for you, it will naturally boost your immune system. This is because every healthy diet that is sustainable in the long term has immune-boosting properties.

Of course, since we are in the throes of a pandemic, folks are looking for specific food items to boost their immunity. While one’s overall diet matters significantly more, we all have immune-boosting favorites. Here are some of mine:

1.Foods rich in probiotics and prebiotics:

In a previous blog I covered why probiotics and prebiotics may help with depression and anxiety, but there’s also evidence linking them to improved host immunity. Probiotics are living microorganisms that yield an overall health benefit to the host by limiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria, improving the gut barrier function and improving overall host immunity. Prebiotics are ingredients that increase that composition and/or activity of specific bacteria in our gut. All prebiotics are classified as fiber, but not all fiber is prebiotics. Prebiotics are not digestible, are fermented by the intestinal microflora and stimulate the growth of intestinal bacteria associated with well-being. While you can take a supplement, I can’t vouch for a particular company. I prefer to be as natural as possible and get my probiotics and prebiotics from my diet. My favorite sources of probiotics are yogurt and Kimchi. My favorite sources of prebiotics are Jerusalem Artichokes, bananas, asparagus and garlic. In fact, I start my mornings by eating 5-10 garlic cloves. I hate the word “superfood” because it’s soooo first-world-country, but garlic is as close to a superfood as it gets, including being a super booster for the immune system.

2.Grape Seeds:

I eat actual grape seeds. If that sounds unappealing to you, you can buy Grape Seed Extract. Grape Seeds have proanthocyanidins, which are not only powerful antioxidants but shown in studies to boost cell-mediated immunity and improve the immune function of the thymus and spleen that is weakened by obesity. Grape Seeds are also high in melatonin, the “vampire hormone” that helps you sleep, and as you’ll read below, a good night’s sleep is vital for both a healthy weight and healthy immune system

3.Vitamin D:

While we get Vitamin D, a steroid, from the sun, you may want to consider supplementing during the winter months since you’re getting less sun. I recently spoke to a top researcher at the NIH who said that one of the most important things I could stress to my readers is that Vitamin D deficiency is linked to higher mortality from COVID-19 and that Vitamin D deficiency is common. The darker your skin color, the more likely you are to be deficient. If you decide to supplement, the recommended daily dose is 600-1,000 IU (international units) of Vitamin D per day. (The toxic dose of Vitamin D is 40,000 IU.) Women and folks who are overweight may need to supplement more ( 2000 IU/day). ( I take 2000 IU/day)

4.Vitamin C:

Vitamin C may shorten the course of COVID-19 infections and decrease severity of infection. Increase your Vitamin C by eating more citrus fruits and some vegetables. My favorites are oranges, strawberries and lots of tomatoes.

5.Zinc:

Zinc may help prevent infection and/or assist in recovery from COVID-19. I regularly take Zinc lozenges when I feel like I’m coming down with something. My favorite food sources of Zinc are Hemp Seeds and Chickpeas. I sprinkle Hemp seed on salads, oatmeal and use it in smoothies.

6.Chicken Soup:

It’s not just a tip from grandma! Chicken soup has been shown to inhibit neutrophil chemotaxis, which can help improve symptoms associated with upper airway infections.

7.Green Tea:

I love my coffee, but I try to have a cup of Green Tea a day. Its polyphenols ( antioxidants) help boost the body’s antibody and cell-mediated response.

8.Neem Tea:

When I don’t drink Green Tea, I drink Neem Team. One of my medical herbalism teachers turned me on to Neem Tea. Unfortunately, this isn’t safe to drink if you are pregnant or trying to get pregnant, so keep that in mind.

SLEEP: Prevent Obesity and Boost Our Immune System:

Poor sleep is an independent risk factor for obesity, which we know makes COVID-19 worse. Poor sleep is also linked to a weakened immune system and an increased risk of other chronic illnesses. Sleep deprivation experiments show that loss of sleep leads to lower immune-cell numbers and impaired immune function. Evidence also suggests that chronic and partial sleep loss is significantly more detrimental to our immune systems than short-term sleep loss, regardless of the amount. This is important since chronic, partial sleep loss is a hallmark of our society, due to stress, shift work, diet and overuse of technology. To boost our immune sytem, we need to optimize sleep.

I call my sleep routine the Caveman Routine. Here’s what it is:

  1. Cavepeople went to bed when the sun set and woke up when the sun rose. Modern life doesn’t allow for such a simple routine. Still, set a time for when you plan on going to bed and stick to it.
  2. Are you a coffee drinker? I am. Don’t have any coffee at least 5-6 hours prior to your scheduled sleep time. Coffee has a very long half-life, meaning it stays active in your system for a long time and will interfere with sleep.
  3. Caves are dark. Survey your bedroom and make sure no light can get in. The smallest hint of ambient light, whether it’s from your phone, an adjacent room or from the street, will keep you aroused and make it difficult to fall asleep. Light inhibits melatonin, the “vampire hormone.” (It’s called the vampire hormone, because it only comes out when it’s dark.) Melatonin is necessary for a good night’s sleep, which is why your room should be dark.
  4. Cavepeople had no technology, so have no technology in your room. Phones, TVS, kindles, and computers all emit blue light which inhibits melatonin release. Using technology even only a few hours before bedtime can keep you aroused! Some studies suggest wearing blue light blocking amber lenses if you work at night to help minimize arousal.
  5. Caves are cold, so drop the temperature in your bedroom. My bedroom is chilly. Studies have shown that a high temperatures makes it harder to fall asleep, increases night-time awakenings and inhibits deep sleep.
  6. Cavepeople didn’t wear much, let alone to bed. About an hour before your designated bedtime, put on what you wear in bed. Less is best: t-shirt, underwear, birthday suit. Keep it light and cool.

The next steps are my “pre-sleep” ritual for when I really can’t sleep. I don’t do this every night. I do it when I’m really struggling to fall asleep:

  1. I put on a ZENBand and spray it with a blend of calming essential oils. Studies show lavender has a natural anxiolytic effect and can help induce sleep. In general, I’m a big believer in combining the ZENBand with essential oil sprays to help rouse a desired mental state.
  2. Sit in a quiet space and plug the ZENBand into a phone. If you are a minimalist like me and want to avoid possible distractions on your phone and exposure to blue light, use an MP3 player. Pull the ZENBand over your eyes if you wish. Blocking out light helps enhance the relaxation response.
  3. Choose one of our Fall Asleep ZENTones and listen for at least 20-40 minutes. All of the ZENTones are rooted in the science of binaural beats and require headphones (bilateral stimulation) to work. The Fall Asleep ZENTones include delta waves, or the slowest frequencies, that dominate our brains during sleep. Pure binaural beats at 2-8 Hz have also been shown to induce sleep.  Some of the Fall Asleep ZENTones include relaxing natural sounds, which you can choose based on your preference. These include ocean waves, whales, crickets, etc.
  4. As an alternative to sitting, I recommend listening to the Fall Asleep ZENTones while coloring. It’s incredibly relaxing and a great way to alleviate any night-time stress. It’s also something parents can do with kids if you both struggle with sleep. You can get a coloring book anywhere these days, or if you want, get a mini white board and draw with markers.
  5. After listening, take off the ZENBand, empty your bladder if you haven’t yet (an easy one people ignore), crawl into your bed in your dark, cold cave ( I mean room) and go to sleep.

Exercise: Prevent Obesity & Boost Our Immune System: 

As with diet, sticking to a long-term exercise plan is the trick for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight, preventing obesity and helping to boost our immune system. My exercise advice is similar to my diet advice: Find an exercise(s) that you like and will continue to do in the long-term. Many people try to adhere to an exercise plan that they hate, and guess what? That doesn’t work for the long-term. And don’t be afraid to get creative. Maybe exercise involves “Salsa Night” in your living room…with a party of 1. Maybe it involves working in resistance exercises with your daily chores. I like to do squats while I wash the dishes and after I sweep my floors, I often put the broom under my arm pits and do waist rotations. Maybe it’s a fun activity, like bird-watching combined with a high-intensity walk. The idea is to keep moving. Just move. Always look for ways to add more movement into your daily routine.

Does exercise impact the immune system?

Research shows that moderate exercise maintained in the long-term boosts immune function more than intense, long-term exercise. Intense, long-term exercise is associated with lower concentrations of lymphocytes, reduced natural immunity and suppressed levels of secretory IgA in saliva.

COVID-19 does more damage to older people than younger ones. One study monitored the effects of a year-long moderate exercise program on the secretion and concentration of IgA in the elderly. (Low IgA is associated with a higher incidence of upper respiratory infections.) Results showed that a moderate exercise program led to a significant increase in both the concentration and secretion of IgA. Another study showed that exercise increases the level of Natural Killer cells ( NK cells) in both the young and old. NK cells are part of the body’s innate immune response and known for killing virally-infected cells and cancerous cells.

Stress: Prevent Obesity & Boost Our Immune System: 

The field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) has done wonders for highlighting the specific ways stress impacts our health and immune system. Stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, causing the release of hormones that help regulate the immune system, including adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), cortisol, growth hormone, epinephrine and norepinephrine. Chronic stress can disrupt this process and lead to immune dysregulation. It can cause an unhealthy imbalance by inducing inflammation and suppressing immune-protective cells. Studies show that chronic stress is linked to a higher rate of clinical colds. It is also associated with a lower immune response upon receiving the flu vaccine.  Symptoms of depression and anxiety were also shown to reduce the immune response after vaccination. That is important because the success of a vaccine depends on the body’s ability to produce an optimal antibody and T-cell response. Hypothetically, people with lower levels of stress may produce a stronger immune-protective response after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. This indicates that people should take steps to actively reduce stress in their lives. Just like my diet and exercise advise, pick a stress-reduction technique that you can adhere to in the long-term. It might be exercise, meditation, listening to binaural arrangements like our ZENTones, therapeutic breathing, etc. An interesting meta analysis of 34 studies showed that mind-body interventions, such as Tai Chi, meditation and Yoga, can impact the virus-specific immune response after vaccination.

Stress and obesity are also related and influence each other in a bidirectional manner. Not only is obesity a stress-inducing state, especially due to stigma, but stress leads to obesity by interfering with our ability to self-regulate, by causing us to binge on high-fat, high-sugar comfort foods, by stimulating the production of hormones and proteins that favor obesity and by affecting our microbiome, or the bacteria that hang out in our guts. Therefore, following a long-term stress reduction plan can help us boost our immunity and maintain a healthy weight. Achieving both of those things on the population-level would be helpful in our fight against COVID-19.

Loneliness: Prevent Obesity and Boost Our Immune System:

In addition to the COVID-19 epidemic and the obesity epidemic, we are also battling a loneliness epidemic. This is important because perceived social isolation, or loneliness, is linked to higher levels of stress, which we know is associated with disruptions in the immune system. One study showed that loneliness shifts the immune system response in a nonbeneficial way. Loneliness is also a confirmed risk factor for issues such as drug abuse, depression, suicide, eating disorders and even cardiovascular problems. Given the school shutdowns and lockdowns, one wonders if we’ve made our loneliness epidemic worse.

Addressing the loneliness epidemic is difficult. How do you tell others to care about someone? Or how do you tell someone to build more intimate relationships? Sometimes, the process of trying to build positive relationships to counter loneliness backfires, because you meet the “wrong” people along the way. Opportunists and Con Artists often prey on lonely people.  My only advice is to try to focus on and build relationships with people you love and trust. If a relationship makes you feel more lonely, then work on it till it doesn’t, and if that doesn’t work, minimize or end it. Do it for your health. Some experts suggest exploring religious groups, but I’d be careful. You don’t want to end up in a cult. (They prey on lonely people too.) And if you’re an animal person, adopt a dog or a cat. You’ll make a positive difference in an animal’s life, have a 24/7 buddy and experience unconditional love. If you’re not an animal person or are not willing to put in the work to take care of an animal and give it a great life, do not get one. Lots of animals end up in shelters because people who “wanted one” weren’t really invested in taking care of one.

 

In closing, there are simple steps you can take to improve your overall health status and boost your immune system to be in better shape to fight COVID-19, or any disease. However, and I must stress this, even if you do the above-mentioned things and optimize the ways these factors interact with one another, you can still get a serious case of COVID-19 and even die from it. This goes for any disease. There are no guarantees, and life is often an unforgiving and unpredictable villain. But we still owe it to ourselves to have a fighting chance.

Thanks for reading, guys. If you have any questions, please post below.

xo,

Erin

Hope you read my new, SHORT parody, available as a book or audiobook, on the Wellness Industry and Big Pharma! It’s here on Amazon. 

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2 Responses to “What We Can Do to Boost Our Immune System During a Pandemic”

  1. Thoughts on oregano oil as a covid fighter?

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