Boosting Your Own Immunity
We know vaccines for COVID and the flu and good handwashing practices are an important part of fending off these diseases, especially as the weather cools. So, it is wise to make plans to get your updated COVID vaccine and flu shot as soon as they are available and recommit to a recommended handwashing routine.
We also know that those who have the greatest difficulty with COVID and the flu are those with underlying health conditions. Taking actions toward better overall health truly supports immunity and decreases your chances of a serious case of either of these deadly diseases. Here’s a quick guide that illustrates what we know about how the health advice you hear all the time related to better immunity.
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, “A high-fiber plant-rich diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes appears to support the growth and maintenance of beneficial microbes. Certain helpful microbes break down fibers into short-chain fatty acids, which have been shown to stimulate immune cell activity.” In addition to providing an adequate supply of important vitamins and minerals, nutritious food also helps your body build strong defenses, like skin, hair, and mucous membranes which work to keep pathogens from having an effect.
An Active Lifestyle
There are many theories about how exercise helps fight infections. Scientists are still working to prove them. Physical activity might help expel harmful pathogens from the airways or decrease harmful inflammation. An increased rate of circulation associated with regular exercise may help immune cells find and respond to pathogens more efficiently. The increase in body temperature experienced during exercise or the stress-busting aspect of exercise may help the body fight infection. All of these factors may contribute in small ways.
Scientists have shown that exercise increases several important immune responders, including cytokines, leukocytes, natural killer cells, and lymphocytes, among others. Note, though, that the frequency, duration, and intensity of your workouts matter. Moderate-intensity workouts are best. Overdoing it can decrease immunity for a time. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), most adults should get at least 150 – 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week.
People who don't get enough quality sleep have been shown more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. Tired people also recover from illness more slowly than rested ones. The same cytokines we heard about related to exercise are released during sleep. They spring into action against infection or when you’re stressed. Not getting enough sleep can decrease your supply of protective cytokines. Cytokines are just one of many immune cells whose production and function relates to rest. Aim to get 7 – 8 hours of quality sleep a night.
The more we examine health wisdom and immunity the more we see how interconnected our body systems are. Eating well, moving well, and sleeping well are central to all of our body functions. Taking care to build healthy habits pays off in better immunity, decreased risk for chronic illness, an improved quality of life, and more.
Marie George, MD, FIDSA, is an infectious disease specialist at SVMC Infectious Disease, part of Southwestern Vermont Medical Center and Southwestern Vermont Health Care in Bennington.