At the Y, we’re here to help you lower your risk for serious illness or chronic disease. We’re also here to help you reclaim your health if you do become ill. While a healthy immune system may not be able to prevent you from becoming sick if you’re exposed to the coronavirus, it may help you fight off the illness and get you on the road to a speedy recovery.
Right now, we all want to find ways to stay healthy. One of the best ways to keep ourselves feeling well is by taking care of our body and in particular, bolstering our natural defenses to illness — our immune system. The immune system is a complicated network of cells, tissues, and organs that help your body defend against illness, infection, and disease. While a strong immune system can’t always prevent you from getting sick, there are several ways you can help your body mount the strongest defense. From sleep to healthy eating to regular exercise, here are some ways your behaviors can impact your immune response.
Get Plenty of Sleep
Getting 7-8 hours of sleep each night is crucial for your health and for your immune system to function as it should to fight off infection. When your body is sleep-deprived, it starts flooding your system with stress chemicals like cortisol, which keep you alert, but may suppress your immune system. In fact, a 2015 study found that those who got at least seven hours of sleep were four times less likely to catch a cold than those who only got six hours of shut-eye.
Maintain a Healthy Diet
Healthy eating is an essential part of good overall health and certain foods are linked to a stronger immune system. Focus on foods that reduce inflammation and promote gut health. Make sure you’re eating foods that rich in important nutrients:
- Beta carotene from carrots, sweet potatoes, winter squash, spinach, kale, cantaloupe, and apricot.
- Vitamin C from cantaloupe, cauliflower, kale, kiwi, orange juice, papaya, red, green or yellow pepper, sweet potato, strawberries, and tomatoes.
- Vitamin E from wheat germ oil; sunflower, safflower, and soybean oil; sunflower seeds; almonds; peanuts; peanut butter; collard greens; spinach; and red bell pepper.
- Zinc from lean meats, seafood, wheat germ, beans, nuts and tofu.
- Protein from nuts, seeds, beans and lentils as well as eggs, lean meat, poultry, and seafood.
- Try to avoid or limit your intake of highly processed, greasy, or sweet foods, which promote inflammation and dampen the effectiveness of the immune system.
Engage in Regular Exercise
Regular moderate-to-vigorous exercise plays a role in keeping you from getting sick, too. In a study conducted in 2010, researchers found that people who exercised on a regular basis were up to 50% less likely to have a cold and when they did get sick, their symptoms were generally less severe. In a separate study, scientists found that people who engage in regular moderately intense exercise had improved immune function overall and were at reduced risk from respiratory viral infections.
Lower Your Stress
Both stress and anxiety are detrimental to our health. Thinking positively and maintaining close social connections (even if it’s just a phone call to check in on a friend) are vital to our health.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is scary, so it’s easy to spiral down in negative thoughts,” says Dr. Sandra Darling of the Cleveland Clinic. “The story we tell ourselves is crucial. Change it from ‘It’s not going to be OK’ to ‘I am safe at home with the people I love.’ Start your day with a positive thought or even a mantra such as, ‘I am well.’”
Other ways to reduce your stress during stressful times is to limit your intake of news, practice breathing exercises or meditation, and or to talk to someone you trust about what’s making you anxious.
There is Hope
These actions and behaviors for better health are all within our control, but we may need to be creative to accomplish them. These practices have been researched and demonstrated to improve our immune systems’ and our capacity to be resilient in the face of illnesses. Approximately 90% of hospital admissions for COVID-19 involve those living with an underlying health condition, but the good news is that you can take charge of your health. By investing in your health, you can give your immune system the tools it needs to fight off infection and keep you feeling well.