With the whole world clamouring for information during the rapid spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 disease, the global public health community has been echoing a message familiar to all proponents of natural health: live a healthy lifestyle to arm yourself against illness.
In this second of a three-part series on immune health, we’re offering a refresher course to you, our knowledgeable readers, on the best practices for protecting yourself—and supporting your immune system—against viruses and infection.
We already know that being overly busy and under stress can drain our immune systems, leaving us susceptible to infections. Cold, flu, and other viruses can take up residence after we’ve simply been pushing ourselves too hard.
With worldwide pandemic concerns, our routinely busy lives have another worry to manage. But stress-busting strategies like yoga, qi gong, or tai chi; breathing; meditation; or exercise can go a long way toward easing the stress load and help drop your risk of getting sick.
Also potentially helpful are botanical medicines, categorized as adaptogens, which have been shown to improve the body’s response to and recovery from stress.
When you need a little help
Siberian ginseng (Eleutherococcus senticosus)
Evidence points to Siberian ginseng’s ability to help the body accommodate adverse physical conditions and improve mental performance.
Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
Ashwagandha may help correct imbalances in the neuroendocrine and immune systems, significantly reduce anxiety and stress, and regulate chemical signalling in the nervous system by blocking the stress pathway in the brain.
Rhodiola (Rhodiola rosea)
Rhodiola has shown an ability to protect the heart from arrhythmias and other damage caused by elevated stress hormones and has also shown improvements in sleep disturbances, fatigue, and general well-being.
Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng)
This adaptogen helps support cognitive function and/or reduce mental fatigue in cases of mental stress, boosts mental alertness and low energy while improving mental fatigue, alleviates anxiety and depression caused by stress, and ameliorates inflammatory diseases caused by stress.
Work it out
Exercise is a powerful immune supporter, especially in people who are dealing with stress. As well, plenty of studies have pointed to the positive effects of physical fitness when it comes to frequency and severity of illnesses like colds and the flu.
In one study, those who were aerobically active and physically fit experienced a 41 percent reduction in upper respiratory tract infection severity and symptoms versus those who were sedentary.
Maximize your immunity-boosting workouts
Get your heart rate up
A number of studies into the effects of exercise on immune function demonstrate immune system benefits from cardiovascular activity.
Take a rest day
To get the best immune benefit out of your workouts, exercise frequently, but don’t burn yourself out.
Give your workout a caffeine boost
Caffeine is well known to help improve exercise performance, so a caffeine hit before your next workout may give you the boost you’re looking for.
Recover properly by stretching
Help your muscles recover following sweat sessions by engaging in low-intensity stretching.
11 immune system helpers
- chaga mushroom
- oil of oregano
- vitamin-B complex
- vitamins C, D, and E
Researchers have long confirmed the importance of sleep for a healthy immune system. Many studies have demonstrated this. In an experiment where people were intentionally exposed to a cold-causing virus, those who slept fewer than seven hours a night, or had poor quality sleep, were three to five times more likely to develop an infection. Get some help if you’re not getting your ZZZs.
While eating right is important all the time, a healthy diet full of nutrient-rich whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables is especially important when fending off viruses and infection. Eat for immunity by stocking up on these foods.
When you need a little help
An amino acid found in tea and some mushrooms, theanine promotes relaxation without sedation and helps to fall asleep more quickly/easily and sleep more soundly.
Valerian (Valeriana officinalis)
Roots of the valerian plant have been used since ancient times as a remedy for insomnia. Valerian is thought to mildly increase the amount of calming chemicals in the brain, help reduce the time to fall asleep, and improve total sleep time.
The body’s natural sleep regulator, melatonin helps the body wind down for sleep and can be especially useful for frequent travellers and shift workers.
Stock up on these
Tofu, turkey, or tahini
Protein has a vital role in immune function. High protein-diets can protect against infection when we’re running ourselves ragged. Make sure you’re getting protein with every meal and snack during cold and flu season.
Eat your greens (and purples and reds)
Bioflavonoids are mighty plant chemicals found in colourful foods like blueberries, tomatoes, cabbage, and even tea. These antioxidant compounds can cut infections by as much as 33 percent, providing yet another reason to eat your fruits and veggies. And, remember that your local health food store stocks greens supplements in powder form that are quick and easy to incorporate into your morning smoothie routine—or anytime.
It’s a food, it’s a wound healer … it’s a cough suppressant? Honey, particularly manuka honey, may be more effective than prescription medication for reducing cough and improving sleep in children with colds. A grown-up version with instant coffee trumped a steroid-based medication in another study, and it was certainly tastier (check out the recipe and see for yourself)!
Honey/coffee cough syrup
250 g (about 3/4 cup) Manuka honey 35 g instant coffee (about 6 1/2 Tbsp)
Combine honey and coffee well and add 1 Tbsp (15 mL) of mixture to a cup of warm water, 3 times per day.
Wash your hands!
The best way to protect yourself—and others—from getting sick, handwashing is pretty basic advice. But, just as a reminder, we’re sharing some useful information about when and how.
When to wash your hands
- Before, during, and after preparing food
- Before eating food
- Before and after caring for someone who is sick
- After blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing
- After handling shared objects
- Before and after treating a cut or wound
- After using the toilet
- Before inserting/removing contact lenses
- Before flossing your teeth
- After helping someone else (like kids) with any personal care
When soap and water isn’t available
Using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60 percent alcohol (check the label to be sure) is a second option.
- Apply to the palm of one hand (read the label for correct amount).
- Rub hands together.
- Rub the gel over all the surfaces of your hands and fingers until your hands are dry. This should take around 20 seconds.
How to wash your hands
- Remove any hand or arm jewellery.
- Wet hands with warm water.
- Apply plain soap (avoid antibacterial soaps) to hands and rub together for 20 seconds (the length of time it takes to sing Happy Birthday—twice).
- Wash the front and back of hands, as well as between fingers and under nails.
- Rinse hands well for 10 seconds under warm running water, using a rubbing motion.
- Wipe and dry hands gently with a paper towel.
This article was originally published in the June 2020 issue of alive Canada magazine, under the title \”Protect Your Health and Resist Illness.\”