In parts one and two of our taking on COVID-19 series, one of our providers, Mikayla Todd, talked a lot about what harms and weakens our immune system. Or as she called it, “our virus-fighting machine”. Now let’s talk about what we can do to calm and nourish the immune system to give our bodies the best fighting chance. A virus can’t do anything without a host, our body. Viruses are here, COVID 19 is here, and we don’t have any control of that. What we do have control of is our bodies. So let’s focus on that. Let me tell you, we really have a lot more control than people realize. If there is one positive thing that comes out of this epidemic I hope that it’s this, that people realize they have control of their health and decide that taking care of themselves is a priority. How strong is your immune system? Is it prepared to fight infection?  Are you taking care of yourself and doing the things that you need to do so that your body has a leg up on infection?  In Functional Medicine and specifically as a health coach, we talk a lot about modifiable lifestyle factors. They’re called modifiable because we have the ability to change them and do something about them. They are part of our health that is in our control. This means you have control over how well your body can fight off an infection. 

Here are 5 main lifestyle factors you have control of and can do something about to make sure that your immune system is prepared and ready to fight off what comes its way. 

1) Proper nutrition – The food you eat is either promoting health or making the body work harder for health. Nutrition is not just for you as a human but at the cellular level too. Each vitamin and mineral that enters our body is used for specific roles and functions. We call these micronutrients. We need to have a variety of micronutrients for our body to run optimally. They are crucial in order to maintain energy levels, metabolism, cellular function, and overall mental and physical well being. When you supply your body with what it needs to run optimally, your body can be much more efficient and have the ability to tackle viruses as they come. 

The simplest way we can improve our micronutrient intake is by increasing the amount and variety of vegetables and fruit we eat. Variety is key! It’s more important to eat a small amount of a large variety of vegetables than it is to eat a large number of certain vegetables.  One way to accomplish this is to focus on color. Try to eat a variety of colorful vegetables and fruits. Each color offers different phytonutrients that all support the body in different ways. So when you think about variety, think color! I personally find the easiest way to get enough variety is by incorporating soups, salads, smoothies, and stir-fries into your diet. These foods make it easy to throw in a lot of different vegetables. 

There are also so many different diet trends and ways of eating that can be confusing. Whether you’re eating paleo, whole 30, or doing an IFM food plan there are some important factors they all have in common. They are all low in sugar and processed foods and high in vegetables. So just focus on those three things if you’re overwhelmed. If you feel comfortable taking it a little farther, eat organic produce and antibiotic and hormone-free, high quality, humanely raised meat. Also, make sure you’re drinking enough water!  

2) Quality of Sleep– Some researchers have stated that when it comes to our overall health, sleep is likely more powerful than exercise and nutrition combined. Sleep is critical to so many functions in the body. When it comes to supporting our immune system, sleep helps reduce inflammation and fight infection. While we sleep, proteins that target infection and inflammation are both produced and released. Elevated inflammatory markers are associated with poor quality of sleep. C-Reactive protein, an inflammatory marker associated with cardiovascular disease, type two diabetes, some autoimmune diseases, infection, cancer, and more is increased with disturbed sleep. It is very clear that the population most affected by COVID-19 has one or more of these diseases. It’s important to note that not all sleep is created equal. You might sleep for 8 hours a night but not get the quality of sleep you need. So how do you know if you’re getting quality sleep? Take an inventory of how you feel when you wake up, how you act throughout the day, and your ability to think clearly. Do you feel rested? Are you in control of your emotions? Are you free of brain fog?  If you answered no to any of those questions, you are probably not getting quality sleep.

A very important way to improve your quality of sleep is to work on improving your internal clock/circadian rhythm. Melatonin is so important when it comes to sleep and darkness triggers melatonin production. In our society, we are surrounded by unnatural light from fluorescent lights, computer screens, tv screens, and our phones that are confusing our internal clock. So we might fall asleep but sleep cycles don’t happen appropriately. 

How to set your internal clock-

  1. Don’t snooze- get up the first time your alarm goes off 
  2. Get a little exercise first thing in the morning, even if it’s just 5 min of walking around your house 
  3. Go outside and get natural sunlight in the morning (or use a lightbox) 
  4. Limit screens 2 hours before bedtime or use blue light blocking glasses in the evening and still stay off screens a ½ hour before bedtime
  5. Try to go to bed and wake up at similar times every day

Other tips to improve your sleep include, limit caffeine intake and set a caffeine curfew at 12:00 p.m, create a bedtime routine, sleep at colder temperature (between 62-68 degrees), make your room a sanctuary that is dark, clean, comfortable and calming, calm inner chatter before bed by doing meditation, breathing, taking a bath, journal writing, reading or by listening to a book or podcast and limit EMF exposure by turning off wifi and not having cell phones near your bed.

If you are still struggling with sleep you may need to talk to your provider about nutrient deficiencies, gut health, hormonal imbalances, and possible supplements that can help. 

3) Exercise/Movement – When it comes to exercise and our immunity, it is widely agreed that regular moderate-intensity exercise is beneficial for immunity. Exercise can help the immune system both long term and short term. Exercise helps the immune system deal with pathogens in the short term and it slows down what happens to the immune system with aging, which lowers the risk of infection, in the long term. So right now, more than ever, exercise is an important part of our daily lives. Dr. John Campbell from the University of Bath said: “People should not fear that their immune system will be suppressed by exercise placing them at increased risk of Coronavirus. Provided exercise is carried out according to the latest government guidance on social distancing, regular exercise will have a tremendously positive effect on our health and wellbeing, both today and for the future.”  In a time where access to gyms has been limited, thankfully the weather is warming up and we have access to the outdoors. In Boise, you can walk/ride the greenbelt, hike, or mountain bike in the foothills.  Technology also offers many options for at-home workouts.  Just focus on keeping your body moving. 

4) Stress reduction – When the human body is under stress, it cannot function in an optimal state. If you struggle with feeling irritable, feeling weighed down, worried, excessively drink or eat, forgetfulness, have brain fog, aches and pains, feel nervous, have fatigue and trouble sleeping, and/or get sick often, this means that you are probably not managing stress well. This means that your body is not in an optimal state to fight an infection like COVID 19 if you were to get it. 

Our sympathetic nervous system takes over under stress and puts us in a state of fight or flight which shuts down blood flow to our organs and pushes it towards the large muscles. One thing this state does is prevents the body from digesting and absorbing well.  70% of your digestion is in your gut so if you are in a state of stress, you have lost 70% of your immune system. Unfortunately, most of the stress in our lives isn’t going away.  Fortunately, there are mind-body stress management techniques we can do to manage how our stress affects us.  Things like mindfulness, meditation, yoga, breathwork, heart rate variability training (HeartMath), and deep breathing have profound effects on digestion, and absorption, on the microbiome, and on the immune system. There are really great guided meditation apps, youtube tutorials, social media posts, meditation studios and books you can use to learn a technique that works for you. If you would like to explore stress management techniques and see what techniques would work best for you, schedule an appointment with a Health Coach here at FMI. I am also a trained HeartMath Practitioner so you can schedule a specific HeartMath appointment with me to learn an easy technique used throughout the day to manage your stress. 

5) Love and Connection– Good relationships are so important to our health. Social connectedness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional, and physical well-being.

Humans are inherently social beings.  As far back as you look into the history of humans, they have always done things in groups. Why? Because there is safety in numbers, but also because we have a need for identity and being a part of a group helps us with our identity. We also learn a set of skills when we interact with others that help make our lives easier.

Social connection has been proven to help you live longer, strengthen your immune system, help you recover from disease faster, improve quality of life, boost your mental health by increasing levels of happiness, and reducing levels of stress. One study showed that the lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure. 

We are experiencing a worldwide pandemic and there is a lot of fear and uncertainty.  There has been a lot of change and our future is unclear. Typically when we feel fear and uncertainty, people often use physical touch and social connectedness to get through it,  but that is the exact thing that we fear could harm someone or ourselves. Even when the stay at home orders lift, businesses are able to reopen, and kids head back to school, the way we interact socially will be different. Yet, social connection and building community during this time are more important than ever. A few ideas on how we can do that include, find ways you can give, share, and support others in need. Use technology to stay connected with friends and family by hosting a virtual watch party of a movie or show, have a virtual book club, or read your grandkids a bedtime story over facetime. You can reconnect with family or people living with you. Enjoy time at home with your family by cooking and eating dinner together, play games, do puzzles, play long-forgotten video games together and/or teach and practice life skills. 

It might seem overwhelming to work on all these different areas of your life but it doesn’t have to be. Take a little inventory on things you can do to change in each area and make small attainable goals to work on one at a time. One of my favorite sayings is, shavings make a pile!  Small changes add up and make a big difference over time. Making these changes will help your overall health in incredible ways. Invest in your health and give your body the support it needs so that you are ready should COVID 19 or any health challenges come your way.

Written By:
Jenni Terry
FMCHC, Certified HeartMath Practitioner