Immune system health is on everyone’s mind right now with COVID-19, or Coronavirus, making its way around the world. But the truth of the matter is that immune health should always be on our minds.
Here are some simple tips to employ daily that will help reduce your exposure to the various bugs that go around and support your immune system, especially during the traditional cold and flu season.
First, wash your hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and warm water.
Proper personal sanitation and hygiene isn’t just about keeping yourself from getting sick. It is as much about not spreading illnesses as it is keeping you from getting ill. Too many of us pay little if any attention to washing our hands regularly – and even then it is usually a cursory rinsing them under cold water with no soap, and drying with the nearest (dirty?) towel. Sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it.
To do the best job you must use running warm water (not standing water in a basin), plenty of soap, and at least 20 seconds of thorough lathering of the front and back of the hands, in between fingers, and under the nails. Hum the “Happy Birthday” song twice and that should give you about 20 seconds. Only then can you rinse the soap off your hands under running water and use a clean towel, disposable paper towel, or air dryer to dry them.
Second, make sure to sanitize.
COVID-19 may last 3-4 days on certain surfaces, and other viruses can also live several days (if not longer) on surfaces as well. So, make sure to sanitize contact surfaces in your home or workplace. Door knobs, desks, computer keyboards, etc. are all places where viruses can be lurking. There are a number of commercially available spray or wipe disinfectants that are useful for sanitizing, such as Lysol and Clorox products.
However, you may not be able to sanitize every surface you come into contact with – public doors, escalator or stairway handrails (these can be really dirty!), etc. And, you won’t always have access to hand washing in those areas.
The use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer can be very beneficial in these situations. Use hand sanitizers that contain at least 60% alcohol. But remember, hand sanitizers are not effective for all types of germs, and may not be effective if your hands are dirty or greasy – hand washing is still the best method.
Again, be sure to use the sanitizer properly – rub thoroughly over your hands and between fingers and continue to rub until your hands are dry.
Third, limit potential exposure.
A new phrase has entered the lexicon – social distancing.
Simply put, this means keeping away from people to the best extent possible. Avoid crowds such as in bars, restaurants, sporting events, concerts, crowded buses and subways, etc. I know that is easier said than done, but not only will this help to reduce your exposure to potentially infected people, but also limits your chances of spreading illness if you happen to be sick.
It is important to note that not all who are infected show symptoms, or have very minor symptoms, so they may not even know that they are ill and posing a risk to others.
Fourth, support your immune system.
There is currently no cure for COVID-19 or the many other communicable illnesses that make their way through our population annually. And, even if you strictly follow the tips listed above, there is still a chance you will be exposed to someone who is ill.
A healthy and robust immune system, while no guarantee, is a good way toward helping your body fight off these tiny invaders. So, how do we support our immune system?
Not many people think about the digestive system when talking about immune support. But, apart from our skin, our digestive system is probably the most important tool in our arsenal for immune defense. In fact, researchers have discovered that 70% of our immune system is actually within the walls of our intestines.
There are many things we can do to help support and maintain our digestive system including lifestyle, diet, and nutrition (see our four-part series in Healthy Insights – The Digestive System: Part I The Basics – Mouth and Stomach).
Vitamins – especially C and D
Vitamin C, typically associated with oranges, is well-known to help support the immune system. Vitamin C has been shown to support immune defense through supporting cellular function of the natural and adaptive immune system. In addition, vitamin C supports the epithelial layer of the intestines, and supports the antioxidant actions of the skin which protects the skin against oxidative stress.
One of the most interesting benefits of vitamin D is in the support of the immune system. Studies have shown that vitamin D regulates immune reactions and supports autoimmune reactions through the enhancement of certain molecules that help to control the activation of T cells, which play a crucial role in helping to fight infections. Other studies have shown that there is a correlation between low vitamin D levels and the prevalence of autoimmune disease (see our Healthy Insights posting Vitamin D- The “Sunshine Vitamin).
Zinc is a mineral that has been shown to help keep the immune system strong by supporting NK cells, supporting development of cells mediating immunity, and development of white blood cells. Zinc has become a popular natural treatment for colds, with some studies showing that zinc supplementation may reduce the duration of the common cold. Zinc also helps to fight infections and helps to heal wounds.
There are quite a few other botanicals and medicinal mushrooms which have shown benefit in supporting immune health including elderberry (see our Health Insights post – Don’t Overlook the Humble Elderberry), maitake mushroom, Echinacea, spirulina, probiotics, Astragalus, beta glucans, and others.
Stress and lack of sleep are known to have a negative impact on your immune system.
Studies show that people who don’t get enough of quality sleep are more likely to get sick when exposed to a virus such as the common cold. Conversely, sufficient quality sleep enhances our body’s immune system and response to virus exposure.
Stress reduces the ability of the immune system to fight off antigens. And, the stress hormone cortisol can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system.
So, I know it is easier said than done in today’s world – especially with the uncertainty of the COVID-19 virus – but, relax and get 8 hours of good quality sleep every day. To borrow a phrase – It’ll do a body good!