The immune system is your body’s defense against sickness. It’s responsible for detecting and regulating your body’s response to germs such as bacteria and viruses. Before the coronavirus pandemic, you could think of maintaining a strong immune system as something to do for yourself to stay healthy. Now, after the coronavirus has turned so many countries upside down, we can see how connected our individual immune systems are.
In one study, researchers studied twins to see whether our immune systems are genetically handed to us or created by our environment, habits, and exposure. They found that identical twins, who have the same genome, have very different immune systems based on things like diet and life experiences.
“Before, we couldn’t see the immediate public consequence of bad hygiene and personal health,” says Gold’s Gym Wellness Director Connie Cheng. But now we know why washing our hands is so important. It’s not just a matter of keeping yourself clean. “The consequence is not just your own health, but other people’s, too. So, you have a duty not just to yourself but also to society to do these things now.” In this way, boosting your own immunity helps others — and if they do the same, it helps you, too.
So it’s time to get back to the basics. Wellness isn’t just something to focus on for yourself — it’s also for your loved ones, your neighbors and your community. That involves developing healthy ways of eating, sleeping and minimizing stress. Here are three habits that can become major immune system boosters.
1. Get your nutrients from food.
Researchers are now calling the gut “the second brain” because of the way it produces hormones and biological responses. For example, certain cells in the lining of your gut create some of the antibodies for your immune system, and antibodies are what responds to anything foreign detected in your body.
Good nutrition helps keep your gut healthy enough for a ready antibody response, which helps your immune system work at an optimal level. This requires getting the nutrients you need through food. And it’s like going to the gym: Working out really hard once in a while will not achieve the same results as consistent habits.
“If you’re only going to eat these nutrients when you’re sick, they won’t do much,” says Cheng. “But if you are treating this like a daily medication and having a variety of these foods, that’s where the effects compound over time.”
Here are our recommendations for foods that boost the immune system:
- Zinc and selenium: nuts, seeds, tahini, beans, hummus, tofu, whole grains
- Vitamin D: salmon, mushrooms, tofu, fortified dairy or dairy substitutes (check the label)
- Vitamin A: carrots, mangos, papaya, sweet potato, cooked tomatoes
- Vitamin C: strawberries, blackberries, kiwi, oranges, bell peppers, parsley, kale
- Prebiotics/probiotics: high-fiber foods such as vegetables, legumes, and whole grains; dairy substitutes with live cultures; and other fermented foods (yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, natto, tempeh)
“Try to include a couple of these nutrient sources at each meal,” says Cheng. “It’s about variety.” For example, throw some parsley on top of your chicken dish. Add sunflower seeds to your salad. Getting an enormous amount of these foods at one time won’t necessarily increase immunity, but you can build it up over time by consistently sprinkling them into your meals throughout the week.
2.Get enough sleep.
We know from scientific studies that sleepless nights can reduce your cellular immune responses, which could increase your susceptibility to disease.
Some researchers are finding that sleep quality and chronic sleep deprivation may impact the effectiveness of the flu vaccine. Like good nutrition, good sleep habits compound over time. A good night’s sleep can even help your exercise performance.
“Tonight alone might not matter if I don’t get good sleep,” says Cheng, “but if it’s a collection of sleepless nights, then the negative consequences compound down the road.”
- The recommendation: 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.
There are many ways to improve your sleep, including stretching beforehand and banning your cellphone from the bedroom.
If a full night’s sleep is not possible, as a backup strategy, take a 30-minute nap twice a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. This will help decrease stress and reduce the negative effects on the immune system.
3. Reduce your stress.
The science is clear: When you are stressed at work or by circumstances around you, your body increases its cortisol response, which decreases the amount of white blood cells and lowers your ability to fight off infection.
“What stresses people out right now is that they see all the havoc around them,” says Cheng. “They see people dying and suffering, and they don’t know what to do about it.”
- The recommendation: Create daily stress-reduction strategies and use them as if they were prescribed medicines. These include:
- Deep-breathing breaks
Be sure to adhere to physical distancing rules when you are exercising. Preserving space around you minimizes exposure to pathogens and can help slow the spread of the coronavirus in your community.
Many digital options for strength and cardio workouts are available that allow for social distancing: Try GOLD’S AMP™ our digital personal training app, or Gold’s Gym Anywhere, our on-demand streaming workouts from Gold’s Gym experts.
The key for your personal immunity, says Cheng, is to develop habits and stick with them over time. “What can we do to help our world right now?” she asks. “These suggestions might seem like they’re just for us. But keeping our immune systems strong is what we can do. And it’s not just for ourselves. It’s for the whole world.”