During my university coursework in epidemiology and emergency management for viral outbreaks, I never thought I would actually live to see a pandemic. With modern medicine and technology advancement, many of us feel that living through a pandemic today would be similar to seeing a horse and carriage on the freeway between cars, but the spread of COVID-19 changed that. However, one of the world’s largest pandemics was only 100 years ago. In 1918 the Spanish Flu (more accurately the 1918 H1N1 flu) killed around 50 million people and lowered the average life expectancy just in the United States alone by at least 12 years.1
Thankfully, the coronavirus has been nowhere near as deadly as the Spanish Flu, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take a pandemic seriously.2 It’s important to remember that any virus has the potential to be dangerous and unlike bacterial infections, treating a virus is tricky and often impossible even with advanced medicine. Viruses invade healthy cells and have the ability to take control of the cell’s function, using them to multiply their viral agenda.3 After a virus invades a cell, it’s up to your immune system to take control and initiate an internal battle.
The human immune system is complicated, but incredible. Comprised of multiple types of unique cells like B cells, T cells, and natural killer cells, the immune system includes the skin, bone marrow, bloodstream, lymphatic system, thymus, spleen, and mucosal tissue.4 While scientists work restlessly to continue to decode the immune system, there are practical ways you can support your immune health on your own.
It is important to remember that the immune system is, well, a system. It’s easy to get caught up in the “boost your immune system” hype, but much like a car with hundreds of parts, it’s difficult to simply “improve your car function” without taking the small details into consideration. Not one single action is going to gift you with a stellar immune system, but focusing on healthy habits can give your immune system the basics it needs to operate correctly.5
Follow sleep guidelines
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there is now scientific evidence that sleep plays a role in immune function.6 Research shows that limited sleep (sleeping only 4 hours per night) can reduce natural killer cell activity when compared to individuals who sleep more. In one study, restricted sleep supported the creation of inflammatory proteins. Most interestingly, the CDC states, “Sleep loss is also related to a higher risk for infection. Restricting sleep to 4 hours per night for 6 days, followed by sleep for 12 hours per night for 7 days, resulted in a greater than 50% decrease in production of antibodies to influenza vaccination, in comparison with subjects who had regular sleep hours…”.6 How many hours of sleep should you get per night? Aim for at least 7 hours.7
Increase your fruit and vegetable intake
A healthy diet is one of the best ways you can support your overall health, including immune function. According to Harvard Health, “Each stage of the body’s immune response relies on the presence of many micronutrients. Examples of nutrients that have been identified as critical for the growth and function of immune cells include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, iron, and protein (including the amino acid glutamine).”8
When we consume highly processed foods and fail to meet our daily fruit and vegetable intake, we rob our body of a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. In addition, diets high in refined sugar, red meat, and low in fruits and vegetables may disrupt a healthy gut environment and could potentially decrease proper immune function.8 Focus on supporting your gut health by consuming high-fiber foods with a wide variety of plants such as fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Don’t forget to include live bacteria foods such as yogurt, kefir, and fermented vegetables. If you aren’t meeting basic vitamin and mineral needs, you can also take a high quality and bioavailable multivitamin to fill nutrient gaps.5
Reduce stress triggers
Stress can be healthy in small doses. Stress is a good response to a dire situation such as the need to run from an immediate threat. However, chronic stress to daily triggers over long periods of time can wreak havoc on the body, even for your immune system. Immunologist Dr. Leonard Calabrese points out that long bouts of increased cortisol from stress can “open the door” for inflammation and even decrease fighting lymphocytes that are vital to battling viruses.9 If you find yourself feeling tired or easily overwhelmed, it may be time to consider how you can remove stressful triggers from your life or find new ways to cope, such as practicing meditation, exercising, or getting a little extra sleep. Stress can be especially high during times of uncertainty, a feeling many of us are experiencing currently. Don’t forget to focus on your mental health; your immune system can’t operate at full capacity with a bogged down system.
American virologist Jonas Salk once said, “The mind, in addition to medicine, has powers to turn the immune system around.” While we rely on modern medicine to treat us when we do get sick, it is equally important to remember that your lifestyle choices and habits do make a difference. Keep your mind and body healthy to give your immune system the space it needs to operate at full capacity.