The current circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis have left the world in a state of uncertainty. Many of our questions have gone unanswered, leaving us feeling quite uneasy about the unknown. Although we lack much control over our current circumstances, we need to consider what we do have control over: our health.
The importance of shifting our focus towards our immune health is critical during these times. Now more than ever we have the time necessary to strengthen our immunity in order to help fight off illness or infection. Not only will this assist our ability to fight off sickness, but it also allows us to adapt better to the stressors in our environment. To influence our health and strengthen our immunity, we must first understand what’s involved in our body’s immune response.
What is Immune Health?
The immune system is made up of numerous white blood cells and proteins that all share the common goal in keeping us healthy. Immune cells defend by removing foreign substances (also known as pathogens) from the body that may cause us to become sick. These pathogens can come in the form of bacteria, parasites, and even viruses (1).
We have two main lines of defence:
1. Innate Immunity
2. Adaptive Immunity
The innate system is our first line of defence. It’s not specific towards what it targets; instead, it functions to prevent access, and remove any unwanted pathogens that have infiltrated our body. Examples of our innate system include our skin, mucous membranes, chemicals in the blood, and various defence cells from the white blood cell group, also known as leukocytes.
The adaptive system, on the other hand, is our second line of defence that acts up when the innate system fails to remove the pathogen. Although it takes longer to initiate its response, once activated it targets intruding substances with great accuracy. This complex system reacts to pathogens that are displaying specific antigens. The leukocytes that make up the adaptive system work towards creating antibodies, which are proteins that attach to the pathogen’s antigen. This will both inactivate the pathogen from attaching to any other cell in our body, and mark it for destruction and subsequent removal (2).
Together, these systems make up our immunity. Although efficient, our immune health can become compromised if it’s not taken care of. In order to optimize its activity for days, weeks, and even years, certain habits need to be incorporated into our routine. Here are 5 ways to not only strengthen your immune health, but to keep you feeling healthy and energized despite the ever-changing world we live in.
1. Proper Nutrition
Under the right conditions, cellular responses can be fast-acting and efficient. In an effort to maintain optimal activity of immune cells, proper nutrition and supplementing can go a long way (3). We’ve all learned about certain immune-boosting foods that could be influential to our health – here are some of the most vital sources to consider:
Vitamin A: functions as an antioxidant to fight off infection.
– Bright and colourful fruits and vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, cantaloupe, squash, etc.)
Vitamin B6: helps support biochemical reactions in the body that assist in immune functioning.
– Lean meats (chicken and turkey)
– Fatty fish (salmon and tuna)
– Green vegetables
Vitamin C: the primary immune-boosting vitamin that acts as an antioxidant, cofactor for enzyme functioning, and support in various innate and adaptive immune activities.
– Citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines)
– Greens (spinach, kale, broccoli, and brussel sprouts)
– Bell peppers
Vitamin E: acts as a powerful antioxidant to fight off infection.
– Nuts (almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, etc.)
– Dark leafy greens
Iron: helps carry oxygen from our lungs to our cells.
– Lean meats (chicken and turkey)
– Greens (broccoli and kale)
Zinc: slows our immune response to control inflammation.
– Shellfish (crab, clams, lobster, and mussels)
– Lean meats (chicken and turkey)
Probiotics*: the “good bacteria” of the gut which act as a line of defence throughout our digestive system in order to protect our body from anything deemed unsafe.
* supplement if histamine intolerant
Much like a well-rounded diet, exercise is another key component contributing to proper immune health. Many people are aware of the countless benefits exercise provides. In improving cardiovascular health, controlling blood pressure, protection from numerous diseases, the list goes on. But the question is, does it have any effect on our immune health?
Research suggests that the immune system is incredibly responsive to exercise (4). It’s noted that acute bouts of exercise (moderate-to-vigorous intensity for up to 60 minutes or less) are sufficient for stimulating the exchange of immune cells between the bloodstream and tissues. Ultimately, this helps to enhance our immune response thus keeping us feeling well.
On the other hand, higher intensity bouts of exercise for greater than 60 minutes are related to disruption in the immune response. It causes higher stress which is associated with inflammation, oxidative stress, muscle damage, and even increased risk of illness (5).
The most important factor when engaging in an exercise program is moderation. Regular exercise at moderate intensity for 30-60 minutes every day has an overall anti-inflammatory effect. This helps to ensure we don’t create an unnecessary immune reaction when it’s not needed (6).
Some great social distancing activities you can incorporate into your routine include walking, running, biking, and any sort of at-home strength exercises.
3. Stress Management
During times of stress, your body goes into a state of flux; however, the severity of this fluxed-state depends on the duration we are exposed to the stressful stimuli. It could last only a short duration of time, also known as an acute stressor, or it may be long-term, also known as a chronic stressor.
An acute stress response is a short-lived experience, lasting for only minutes or hours. It’s known to signal activation of our immunity and enhance the innate and adaptive responses. It also improves the immunoprotective activity, such as wound healing, anti-infectious agent, anti-tumour, etc. (7).
This type of stress response is not only normal but necessary for us to experience on a more regular basis. In order to adapt to our environment and build-up our immunity, we need to be exposed to acute stressors. It’s beneficial for both our physical and cognitive performance as long as we have a clear understanding that these challenges will eventually subside (8). We can rest assured that we will return back to normalcy after a certain amount of time.
Unlike acute stress, chronic stressors can significantly disrupt both the innate and adaptive immune responses. Over the days, weeks, or months that we are exposed to stress, our immune system becomes fatigued. It causes dysfunction by altering the balance of some of our white blood cells. This can actually suppress the function of many immune-supporting cells as well as cause low-grade chronic inflammation (7). During this period you become more susceptible to disease or illness.
Chronic stress is far less stable than the former. It creates more discomfort and uncertainty because we don’t know when this challenge we are faced will ever end (8). This prolonged state of unease, much like what we are experiencing from COVID-19, can take a toll on our immune health if we don’t acknowledge it early!
So how can we manage this stress?
Engaging in more positive, fun, and lighthearted activities is a great step towards managing any stress you may be feeling. Create space in your day to do more things that spark motivation, elevate your mood, and simply make you smile! Some examples include exercising, baking/cooking, reading, engaging with friends and family (even over the phone), journaling, and the list goes on!
Sleep is a vital feature of your overall health and wellness. Without adequate sleep, you’re not allowing yourself the time to cognitively or physically recover from the day. This can cause various disturbances in your state of health, more specifically, your immune health.
The circadian system, also known as the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle, assists to regulate your internal immune processes. During the time you’re asleep you release cytokines, a protein in your immune system that helps to target infection and inflammation. Once you wake up from a full night’s rest, your immune cells are able to function more efficiently to fight off any intruding pathogens, repair tissue damage, and reduce inflammation (9).
The optimal time frame of sleep for the average adult is about 7-8 hours every night. Prolonged sleep can become detrimental to your immune health as it induces a stress response that produces inflammation as well as immunodeficiency.
Last but definitely not least, hydration. It’s a well-known fact that we all need water to survive. For blood circulation, transportation of vital nutrients and minerals, maintaining body temperature, and making saliva; countless cellular processes take place throughout our bodies every second, all of which are supported by water.
But are we getting enough of it to support the various functions of our immunity?
Our blood is made up of roughly 90% water. By staying hydrated throughout the day, water helps to carry the oxygen from our lungs to our cells. This helps our bodies cells function at full capacity, including our immune-supporting cells.
In addition, water assists in supporting our lymph nodes, which are a key player in filtering out harmful substances from our blood (10). Immune cells are carried throughout this system which helps to fight infection. Without adequate intake, we wouldn’t be able to properly remove the toxins and free radicals from our bodies, leaving us at increased risk for illness.
To ensure you’re drinking your daily requirement adults should be drinking at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water. This equates to about 2 litres. As a simple trick – remember the “8 x 8” rule of thumb. It’s important to note that based on various factors such as lifestyle, body weight, etc., this value may be more or less.
Strengthening your immunity is multifactorial. Your immune system functions most optimally with a combination of factors. For instance, with adequate water intake you will be able to support your body better during exercise, as well as getting a more restful sleep at night.
During these times of stress and uncertainty, your immune health should become a top priority. Not only will it be beneficial to yourself, but it helps you to remain healthy and slow the spread of any illness or infection to those around you. Give yourself the best opportunity to remain healthy by implementing some, if not all 5 tips.
And remember, doing everything in moderation can go a long way!
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