It’s always a good idea to do everything you can to have your immune systems firing away at full speed.
People always ask what they can do to boost their immune systems, and, as much as I love and believe in supplements, herbs, and (when necessary) medical drugs. People are always told that the most important thing to boost their immune system is to master the basics first.
These are things that you can do today that don’t cost anything. I recommend you prioritize these basic steps for protecting and improving your health — and potentially your immune system.
While these actions are always important aspects of maintaining good health, they may be crucial during times of increased risk. Below are 7 natural things you can do to boost your immune system.
1. Practice Proper Handwashing
Most viruses are killed by proper handwashing for 20 seconds with soap or using hand sanitizer that is greater than 60% alcohol.
2. Don’t Smoke
Smokers have an increased risk of catching infections and suffering severe complications from those infections. We shouldn’t need more reasons not to smoke, but a time like this highlights the importance even more.
3. Get Adequate Sleep
Sleep is important for health in general, and as a bonus, it may also benefit our immune function. For instance, one study. showed those with insomnia had, on average, less immune response to the influenza vaccine, while another study on twins showed those with worse sleep had altered expression of genes related to immune function.
Again, the science in this area may not be robust, but when it comes to overall health, proper sleep helps. In times like these, you should prioritize sleep hygiene.
Since it’s hard to quantify the quality of sleep, I like to use sleep tracking tools that measure your nighttime Heart Rate Variability (HRV). A high HRV has been associated in several studies to an overall lower level of stress.
Companies who sell HRV tracking devices like Apple or Oura claim that, by tracking the HRV average of an individual, combined with resting heart rate and body temperature, they can quite accurately predict whether you’re going to catch a cold or the flu if you get in contact with a source of bacteria or viruses.
We still need more science to back up these claims, but, in my experience, tracking the above-mentioned variables is the best way we have to check on our immune system without having to get a blood analysis.
Also, if you’re isolated at home, that likely means more time on electronics like tablets, phones, and TVs. This may be a good time to invest in blue-light blocking glasses and to look for non-tech related activities to do in the evening, like puzzles, crosswords, or reading an actual book (not an ebook!). Studies show that filtering blue lights in the evening improves sleep and fights insomnia.
4. Get the Right Amount of Exercise
Observational studies show that those who exercise tend to suffer fewer infections than those who do not. While those studies have confounding variables, the general consensus is that exercise overall is likely beneficial, with some caveats.
Some studies show bouts of strenuous exertion (>1.5 hours with an average heart rate >75% maximum) may temporarily decrease immune function. In addition, elite athletes who “overtrain” tend to suffer from infections more frequently than others.
Stay active, but remember that now is not the time to start a new high-intensity exercise routine. If you already enjoy strenuous exercise, consider decreasing the frequency or intensity by 10-20% (this is not scientifically backed but is recommended by some experts).
Also, try to focus on home or outside exercise. Shared gym equipment, like weights and cardio machines, may have surfaces that transmit the virus.
5. Manage Your Stress
While acute stressors may temporarily enhance immune function, chronic stressors likely diminish immune function. Worrying about the stock market, stressing about having enough toilet paper, and focusing on the uncertainties of the future can raise cortisol levels, which may negatively impact our immune function.
While data is difficult to interpret in this area, one study showed medical students with increasing stress levels before their final exams had decreased function of natural killer cells, the cells that are the “first responders” of our immune system.
We can’t make stressful situations disappear, but we can all take measures to control our response to stress. Meditation, mindfulness exercises, and getting outside and going for walks are all examples of activities that are free and relatively easy to do.
6. Drink Alcohol in Moderation
In times of stress, some people turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism. While meditation, nature walks, and mindfulness exercises are likely healthier ways of coping, for some they aren’t enough, and alcohol adds a little something extra. There’s no judging here. We all have to do what we can to get through tough times.
However, studies show a relationship between chronic heavy alcohol consumption and increased susceptibility to infections. The trick is knowing where to draw the line. While there is little science, most experts suggest that a reasonable daily limit is two drinks for men and one drink for women.
Once the above-mentioned basics are part of your daily routine, you can consider boosting yourself with supplements.
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