COVID-19 put the microscope on the need for a robust immune system, but the desire to hack our way to health has been around for centuries. Let’s separate fact from fiction and help you fatten up your immune defences without thinning your wallet.
From cold remedies to Vitamin C gummies, there’s a pill for that (whatever that is).
But a burst of placebo notwithstanding, most of the over-the-counter stuff simply doesn’t reliably boost your immune system.
With a few exceptions, most vitamins and minerals won’t do anything unless you’re in an extremely susceptible state, and even then, are no substitute for lifestyle and diet modifications.
One Pill To Consider …
With that said, there is one vitamin that may be worth investigating based on recent findings.
More research is still needed, but a lot of emerging data — especially since the COVID-19 pandemic first struck — has found a direct link between Vitamin D deficiency and a compromised immune system.
One study found higher levels of vitamin D (in older individuals) led to a 40 per cent decrease in respiratory infections.
Plus, unlike many vitamins and minerals which can be produced by your body naturally or found easily in food, Vitamin D is harder to come by and deficiency is widespread in many populations (The sun isn’t strong enough during Winnipeg winters to synthesize Vitamin D).
To support your body naturally, try to get about 15-20 minutes of sun per day right now (of course, don’t overstay your welcome and burn yourself).
If that’s not a reliable option, look towards natural food sources fatty fish such as salmon, eggs, muchrooms and dairy products fortified with Vitamin D.
You can supplement if needed as well. I recommend getting a blood test to see where your levels are prior to going that route.
How To Stress Less
If popping a pill (or three) likely isn’t the answer, what is?
If you really want to help your immune system, start by addressing your stress levels.
Look, I get it. Modern life is busy and you have responsibilities.
My wife and I have been without child care for 10 weeks and our self-care routine has taken a big hit. Stress is a fact of life.
But research has discovered that your T-cells (the fighters that protect you against everything from viruses to life-threatening diseases like cancer) decrease in the face of stress.
So how do you combat stress in the easiest way possible?
Meditation is great, whatever that looks like for you, but let’s make it even easier.
The act of deliberate breathing is my easiest, actionable tip to combat stress.
Box breathing involves controlling both parts of your breath (breathing in and out) as well as holding your breath. It’s called “box” breathing because you do each part of the breath for an equal amount of time (four counts), as if you are breathing around a square.
You exhale through your mouth for a total of four counts, then hold your breath for four counts, and then gently and slowly breathe in through your nose for four counts. And then hold your breath again, for four counts.
For a full session of box breathing, you simply repeat the cycle for a total of four times through.
Sleep – Long & Deep
Our culture too often devalues rest and leisure time, but taking time to get a good night’s sleep should be prioritized.
One way to do that is setting a reverse alarm on your phone 60 minutes before bedtime.
An hour before bed, you should shut off all devices (i.e. no more screen time – I’ll tell you the reason why below).
This routine will, over time, cue your body to start feeling tired. That’s exactly what you want.
TVs and cellphones produce blue light and “trick” your brain into thinking it’s daytime.
This, in turn, reduces the production of the hormone melatonin in the brain, which signals bedtime and gives you that sleepy feeling before bed.
The easiest and most effective way to avoid blue light is to wear amber-coloured glasses a few hours before bed.
They look ridiculous (OK, they’ve gotten better designs on the market in recent years) and your children will mercilessly make fun of you, but you’ll feel better for it.
These glasses effectively block blue light, so your brain doesn’t get the signal that it’s supposed to stay awake and suppress melatonin production.
Studies show that when people use blue-blocking glasses, they produce just as much melatonin as if it were dark. That said, many devices now come equipped with a night light feature to dim the screen as well.
Chronically bad sleep slathers on body fat, screws up your hormones, ages you faster, and suppresses your immune system.
One study by Prather et al showed sleeping six hours per night makes you four times more likely to catch a cold compared to sleeping seven hours per night.
Lastly, if you need help improving your sleep, stick to the same bedtime seven days a week.
Consistently going to bed and waking up at the same time throughout the week (and weekend) will do wonders for your stress levels.
Your body craves routine. If you’re constantly in a state of flux competing against your circadian rhythms, you’ll never be at peak performance and you’ll be exasperating your response to stress.
Maybe you could get away with it at 20, but eventually a lifestyle predicated on burning the candle at both ends catches up to you.
Do everything possible to stick to a routine. Boring? Sure. But very effective.
Recent research has found regular exercise helps the overall health of your immune system and decreases your risk factors for illness and disease.
It is widely agreed that regular moderate intensity exercise can help the immune system find and deal with pathogens.
In the long term, it slows down changes that happen to the immune system with ageing, therefore reducing the risk of infections and disease.
Some findings suggest too much of a good thing can be bad when it comes to exercise, but illness risk is typically only increased in athletes during periods of intense training and competition (think ultramarathons here).
You May Want To Skip The Night Cap
Debbie Downer section left for the end here, but despite the increase in alcohol sales during this pandemic, the research is strong linking drinking to poor immune function.
Too much drinking – too often – leaves you more susceptible to everything from upper respiratory infections to slower recovery from injuries and illness.
If you’ve found it harder trying to moderate your alcohol intake right now, you’re not alone.
Your best defense is to minimize the temptations by putting up figurative walls between you and the bottle.
Just like you shouldn’t have your kryptonite food in the pantry while on a diet, nor should you have your favourite beer chilled and at the ready in the fridge.
Designate a day to indulge but fight the urge to habitually reach for a brew (or three) after dinner.
Mitch Calvert is a Winnipeg-based weight loss coach. His last group intake of the “Healthy @ Home 30-Day Challenge” gets underway next week, helping you reverse the Quarantine 15, all from the comfort of your own home. Visit www.workwithmitch.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org with the word “HOME” in the subject to get more details.