Key Immunity Boosting Behaviors
— For the “COVID Era” & Beyond—
It’s possible you’ve thought more about your health and immune system during this past “year of COVID” than you ever have before. We take it for granted when we bounce back from colds. SARS-coV-2, though, has shown us how vulnerable all of our immune systems can be in the face of powerful, steam rolling viruses. Though the focus has fallen on the COVID pandemic, the truth is that we can ALL face myriad forms of illness at any point.
So, what can we do to best brace ourselves for such a possibility? Chances are really good you’re doing at least some of the things that help. Obviously, there’s no healthy behavioral approach that safeguards us entirely from illness, but certain habits certainly undergird good health & may positively impact the immune system as well. While research into healthy lifestyle and immune function remains in the early stages, as Harvard Health Publishing writes, “general healthy-living strategies make sense since they likely help immune function and they come with other proven health benefits.”
Whether or not you’re still awaiting your place in the vaccination line (I raise my hand) or you’ve already been inoculated, it’s ALWAYS smart to buttress this precious system with healthy habits. And as we potentially jump back into a more bustling society, what better time than now to shore up these habits?
Here are 5 behaviors with the potential power to support your immune system.
Quit smoking, a known enemy of the immune system.
If this sounds repetitive, it’s because, in a recent SomeBODYstrong.com post titled, Want to Prevent Chronic Disease?, this was FIRST in the CDC’s list of actions we we can take to extend life and health span. Possibly one of the more studied areas in relation to habits & immunity, research on smoking has shown that it increases the body’s production of numerous pro-inflammatory cytokines and decreases levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines. (Cytokines include a wide range of proteins that are essential to cell signaling and communication.) According to a CDC fact sheet, “Smoking is known to compromise the equilibrium, or balance, of the immune system. This increases the risk for several immune and autoimmune disorders (conditions caused when the immune system mistakenly attacks the body’s healthy cells and tissues).” So, one of the biggest health boosts you could create would involve quitting. If you're considering dropping the habit, check out the CDC’s solid advice here.
Exercise aerobically because it mobilizes immune cells.
We’ve all heard that working out for 30 minutes most days of the week helps to protect health. Maybe you’ve noticed that you get less colds, for example, when this habit holds steady. There’s a technical reason for this. As ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) explains, “Each bout of exercise, particularly whole-body dynamic cardiorespiratory exercise, instantaneously mobilizes literally billions of immune cells.” How cool is that? Remember those anti inflammatory cytokines mentioned above? Cardio exercise increases circulation of these. As ACSM further notes, frequent exercise, because it regularly releases such cells, basically creates a state of vigilance in which the body is routinely scanning for illness and bracing to fight it. Think about that next time you’re debating that walk or bike ride! Here’s a caveat, though: Remember that TONS of something is not always better, and this includes exercise. While over exercising is way less common that not meeting the minimum 150 minutes a week, working out at high intensities for long bouts without adequate recovery will result in the opposite effect you desire because your body will be forced into constant repair mode, compromising not only performance but potentially overall health.
Eat your fruits and veggies, which can improve antibody response.
This sounds so simple until you’re staring at the bag of pretzels versus the orange! The fact that the USDA recommends about 9 servings of fruits & vegetables a day also leaves a lot of folks feeling “behind the eight ball” and “throwing in the towel” for the day (to mix metaphors). Whether or not you meet the guideline EVERY day, choosing these foods always pays off. Specifically, they contain powerful antioxidants. In one study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, increased fruit/vegetable intake (more than 5 servings a day) “improved the Pneumovax II vaccination antibody response in older people, which links an achievable dietary goal with improved immune function.” Stock up. Eat up!
Sleep enough to preserve immune function.
Adequate sleep protects pretty much every single facet of health, so it won’t surprise you that it’s also essential to proper immune function. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, research shows that people who sleep less than 6-7 hours per night are at higher risk of infection. Sleep has even been linked to the effectiveness of vaccines. In studies of people who received vaccines for hepatitis and swine flu (H1N1), those who didn’t sleep the night after receiving a vaccine experienced a weaker immune response. Most of us know that sleep aids in the body’s recovery from injury or illness, but researchers have found that the body launches an immune response nightly, even if you’re healthy. They believe this happens in part so that the body can reinforce its memory of how to recognize and combat dangerous antigens. So, when we sleep, a host of life-preserving functions happen—all the more reason to accrue 7-9 hours nightly.
Decrease stress, a lifestyle factor that increases bodily inflammation.
This always sounds easier said than done but, as the Cleveland Clinic acknowledges, it matters immensely in relation to immune health. It’s now common knowledge that high levels of stress lead to high levels of the hormone cortisol in the bloodstream. Cortisol gets a bad rap, but in normal amounts, it actually hinders inflammation. The problem arises when cortisol is constantly released due to chronic stress, and the body gets used to it. When that happens, even more inflammation is unleashed. Equally concerning, stress also reduces the body’s lymphocytes (white blood cells that fight infection), fostering a state that can leave us more susceptible to viruses. For these reasons, it’s worth exploring ways to reduce stress. Simple activities, including exercise, socializing, meditation, yoga, and hobbies can lower stress, even if for short bouts.
PS: Wash, wash, wash your hands.
Gently in the stream. Sorry, a tune popped into this post! A sink will do perfectly. In all seriousness, as we know, regular hand washing is one of the best and most basic ways to avoid infection and illness in the first place. After all, why risk rallying your immune forces when soap & water can allow them to rest?
We can gain lots of health benefits from each of these five elementary habits. Maybe you exercise to control weight, eat veggies for heart health, and sleep seven hours to improve memory, for example. Don’t forget, though—Whether you consciously acknowledge it or not, optimal immune function falls into the list of advantages you’re garnering. Be well!