Our health and the health and well-being of our loved ones have been top-of-mind as we’ve endured the last three months of a nationwide pandemic. We are practicing social distancing, and have become diligent practitioners of good hygiene in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus while protecting ourselves and the livelihood of others.
Currently (June 2020), there is no specific cure or treatment for COVID-19, however, immunization and infectious disease specialists are working intently to deliver a potential vaccine. In the meantime, it is now more important than ever before to incorporate positive lifestyle habits that will help you stay healthy and support your immune system, which is command central for your body to fight infections and viruses.
Based on what we know today, people who are at higher risk of infection from COVID-19 are older adults and anyone with underlying medical conditions. People who are immunocompromised are among those who are more susceptible to infection and are at higher risk for severe illness and potentially fatal outcomes.
Being immunocompromised means having a weakened immune system, which reduces the body’s ability to fight infections and other diseases. Many conditions can cause a person to have a suppressed immune system, such as:
- People who are undergoing cancer treatment
- Bone marrow or organ transplant recipients
- People who have used steroid hormones or other immune weakening medications for a prolonged period
If you do have a compromised immune system, it is particularly essential to practice healthy lifestyle habits to help ward off illness and infection.
What is the Immune System?
The immune system is a complex network of organs, cells, proteins, and tissues that work together to protect the body against infection to maintain overall health. It plays an essential role in protecting the body against harmful germs and substances that could cause illness, infection, or disease.
Several organs make up the immune system including your spleen, adenoids, lymph nodes, lymphatic vessels, tonsils, and bone marrow. Together, these cells work to create immune cells, otherwise known as white blood cells which are responsible for detecting and killing foriegn substances such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. This process creates antibodies that can discern good cells from bad cells, eradicating them, and protecting the body against infection.
There are two subsets of the immune system that work in concert with one another in a healthy and properly functioning system. Innate Immunity is something we are all born with. This system recognizes an invader, which stimulates an immune response eliminating bacteria, viruses, or any other foreign matter. This innate immunity includes the skin and mucous membranes of the throat and stomach. If a pathogen manages to evade the innate response, the adaptive or acquired immunity will take over.
Our Adaptive (Acquired) Immunity develops over time as we are exposed to various types of bacteria, fungi, or viruses, either through exposure to an infection or through vaccination. Over time, the body develops antibodies specific to certain pathogens based on the body’s memory to past exposure.
Can I Strengthen My Immune System?
Keeping your immune system healthy year-round is essential in preventing infection and disease. Healthcare providers, nutritionists, scientists, and others have endorsed lifestyle improvements, healthy nutritional habits, and positive mental health as contributors to an efficient immune system.
With our concerns about the infectious nature of the coronavirus, we may be more concerned than usual about staying healthy and strong. For those of us who are not in the best physical shape, or at our healthiest before the virus, we may be wondering how to get healthy fast.
The notion of “boosting” your immune system quickly is appealing, particularly during a time of increased vulnerability to an infectious virus. We are bombarded daily with advertisements claiming certain vitamins and herbal supplements as effective ways to strengthen our immune system and improve our health. Supermarkets have entire aisles dedicated to vitamins, supplements, and magic powders enticing consumers looking for ways to manage day-to-day health.
Not so fast! There is little scientific support to the efficacy of supplements or herbal preparations in improving overall health or having the ability to enhance the immune system. Researchers have found that vitamins may be beneficial to people who are malnourished, but that the average American adult is not. And, if you were relatively healthy before, supplements will do little to sustain that health. So what can we do to strengthen our immune system?
Healthy Living For A Healthy Immune System
A healthy lifestyle as a whole has always been the best defense against the flu, viruses, and disease. Every part of your body will function better, including your immune system when you follow basic healthy habits. Some recommendations from Harvard Medical Health are below:
Wash your hands, wash your hands, wash your hands: Germs typically start off by being airborne, but can survive for periods of time on certain surfaces. Germs and bacteria can be transmitted by contaminated hands to your eyes, nose, and mouth. Be conscious of what you touch, try not to touch your face, and always practice good hygiene. If you cannot wash your hands immediately, use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.
Maintain a healthy weight: Eating fruits and vegetables will naturally provide the body with essential nutrients such as vitamins C, E, and D as well as antioxidants which will support the immune system. Zinc is known to boost white blood cells and can be found in nuts, beans, and lentils.
Exercise regularly: According to the American Heart Association, adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week to gain health benefits. With stay-at-home restrictions and social distancing practice, this may feel like a lot. Take a 30-minute walk or another activity, 5 times a week and you’re there.
Keep stress at bay: Living during a pandemic is stressful. And stress does have a negative impact on our immune system. If it is possible to avoid stressful situations, do so. If you feel stressed, try practicing meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises to help alleviate these feelings.
Get vaccinated: Staying up to date with vaccinations is probably the best defense against the flu and viruses. In getting a vaccine for the current flu or viruses, our bodies will recognize the pathogen if you are exposed.
Whether you practice healthy habits or rely on over the counter vitamins or herbal supplements, it is always recommended you maintain regularly scheduled medical appointments and discuss any vitamins you are taking with your physician to be sure they are appropriate for you.