Fight COVID-19 by arming yourself with a strong immune system
It is hard to find a sense of control during the COVID-19 pandemic, and most of what we knew yesterday is different today.
But one thing we can control is our ability to give our bodies the things they need to maintain a strong immune system.
Being healthy right now takes some extra effort and creativity, especially when we are limited in our outdoor activities, social outlets and trips to the grocery store.
But when we are cut off from everything we used to do, it is important to try to create as much routine as we can in this new reality, said Dr. Grace Charles with Minds in Motion in Steamboat Springs. And many people now find themselves with additional time that can be put toward self-care.
At a personal level, staying healthy — along with the hygiene and social distancing measures — is how we can best defend ourselves against the invisible enemy. If and when we get the virus, the strength of our immune system may dictate the length and severity of illness.
Some people have underlying conditions that put them at higher risk, but that is all the more reason to arm our immune systems as best we can.
“The most important piece is stress management,” Charles said.
Studies show that stress, along with feelings of isolation and loneliness, has a negative impact on our immune system, she said. And of course, people are feeling more isolated than ever.
“Creatively connecting with people is probably one of the biggest immune boosters,” Charles said.
She encourages individuals to “expand your network” by writing letters, engaging in a video chat or taking a Zoom class — working to increase your connections to others during this time of unprecedented social disconnect.
And as much as you can, do the things that relieve stress, she advised — take a walk, meditate or read a book.
“Your immune system is directly connected to stress and anxiety,” said Dr. Roseanne Iverson, of Steamboat Springs Family Medicine. ”If our stress is high, our immune system is suppressed. When your stress is low, your immune system is strong.”
That doesn’t mean ignore your stress, she said.
“Address the stress. Acknowledge the stress is there. Allow it to flow up. Feel the anger, sadness and loss,” Iverson said. “The idea is not to suppress it — the idea is to acknowledge how it feels and move on.”
Find a healthy way to escape, Iverson said, whether that is a movie, a book, a walk or a yoga session.
Alcohol and drugs are an escape, but ones that, in excess, are detrimental to the immune system.
“Make sure you aren’t overdoing it,” she said.
Take three deep breaths and take a break — most of us are not used to this much family time. If you need to go sit in the car or the bathroom to have a moment to yourself do that, Iverson said.
Of course diet plays a role in our immune system, and vegetables are at the top of the list for Charles and Iverson.
A lot of that relates to the fiber and beneficial gut bacteria. Gut health — and probiotics — are also tied to the immune system, Iverson said. And vegetables are the best thing for ensuring a balanced gut — more so than yogurt or supplements, she said.
Get five to seven servings of vegetables a day, Charles said. And if you can’t get fresh produce, eat frozen or canned. The main thing about canned vegetables is to watch sodium intake, Iverson said. And if the only thing left on the produce shelves is a rutabaga, be adventurous and try cooking rutabaga.
There are three primary supplements thought to play a role in immune support: vitamin D, vitamin C and zinc. And as with everything, arguments can be found in support and against each supplement.
But keeping your vitamins C and D at healthy levels is a good thing, Charles said. And zinc has its benefits.
With vitamin D, it is good to know your level before taking supplements.
It’s also important to remember there is no magic bullet to boost the immune system, said Dr. Shannon Becker, physician with UCHealth Primary Care Clinic in Craig.
“It’s more about maintaining self care, a balanced diet and regular exercise,” Becker said.
In terms of exercise, movement is known to be beneficial to the immune system, Charles said. It improves circulation and gets more nutrition to your immune cells.
But Iverson added it isn’t necessarily the time to train for your first marathon.
“We have to support the immune system, not stress it,” she said.
And get outside as much as you can safely, the doctors all advise.
“Getting fresh air does a lot for the mind and body,” Becker said. “But do it in a responsible way.”
Sleep is another key piece to supporting the immune system, Charles said.
“We know sleep deprivation has a detrimental effect on the immune system,” she said.
Try to follow a schedule and go to sleep and wake up at the same time, she said. Make sure your bedroom is cold, dark and quiet. There are a number of herbal supplements that can support sleep, Charles said, including chamomile, melatonin and ashwagandha.
And, you now may be able to work a regular nap into your day.
“Get back to the basics,” Iverson said.