During this past year, the COVID-19 has impacted several millions of lives worldwide, and unfortunately, many lives were taken away before the vaccines were created. While during quarantine and lockdowns, many supermarkets have implemented hand sanitizers, face masks and other protocols to protect ourselves from the virus. What are some things that we can do to improve the immune system?
Our immune system is a complex network of cells and proteins that defends the body against infection. Vaccines are a good example that demonstrates how the immune system functions. When a virus enters the body, such as a harmful bacteria or pathogen, an organism that causes the healthy cells in the body to lyse (break down and malfunction), the immune system is alerted and sends out antibodies to fight and degrade the virus. Through this combat, the body can result in headaches, fevers, or other symptoms after getting a vaccine. The immune system will keep track of every harmful virus that enters the body. When the same virus enters, the immune system can immediately recognize it and destroy it before anything severe occurs. However, viruses often mutate, change forms, and become foreign to the immune system. Therefore, it is important to strengthen the immune system to ensure that any harmful bacteria or viruses cannot defeat our immune system.
The most important factor is sleep. When you do not get enough sleep, your immune system will not have enough time to 'reset' and fight back against the viruses. It is recommended that adults should aim to get 7 or more hours of sleep each night, while teens need 8–10 hours and younger children and infants up to 14 hours. Sleep is essential for initiating effective adaptive immune responses that eventually produce long-lasting immunological memory. Furthermore, prolonged periods of sleep deprivation for several days can result in a general enhancement of markers for inflammatory activity and immunodeficiency. With lack of sleep, the immune response to viruses from vaccinations, such as against the influenza virus, was diminished after 6 days of restricted sleep.
Also, try to incorporate more whole foods into your diets, such as colourful vegetables, fruits, fermented foods, nuts, seeds, and legumes rich in nutrients and antioxidants. The range of colours in vegetables will each provide a different nutrient that is important for the many metabolic processes in the body, and these metabolic processes can produce important defenders that may give you an upper hand against harmful pathogens. Antioxidants help fight free radicals, which cause inflammation in the body if they are built up inside the cells. Meanwhile, the fibre from plant foods and fermented foods can feed your gut microbiome to improve the range of bacteria in the gut, which helps to support the immune system. With a healthy gut microbiome, your digestion will also improve, and hence the body can absorb more nutrients to strengthen your immune system.
Healthy fats such as salmon, oily fish, olive oil, and avocados can significantly reduce inflammation and improve your immune system. For example, the healthy fats in olive oil and omega 3's in salmon are high anti-inflammatory and can protect against type 2 diabetes while also decreasing inflammation. Anti-inflammatory foods can also help the immune system to fight 'bad' bacteria and pathogens from invading the body.
It is also important to limit sugar intake to reduce the likelihood of obesity or type 2 diabetes. For example, according to an observational study in around 1,000 people, people with obesity who were administered the flu vaccine were twice as likely to still get the flu than individuals without obesity who received the vaccine. Therefore, it is recommended that adults who consume around 2000 calories should only eat 25g of sugar maximum per day. In addition, a reduction in sugar intake will also aid in weight loss and decrease inflammation, which helps reduce the chance of type 2 diabetes and lead to a healthier life.
Hydration is one of the best tools to support the immune system. However, apart from the consequence of thirst, dehydration is a very dangerous result that may occur. Dehydration can cause a decrease in physical performance, focus, mood, digestion, and heart and kidney function. These complications can increase your susceptibility to illness. If water seems too bland, try de-caffeinated teas but beware of the sugar content as it can add excess calories to your diet.
Exercise is crucial in maintaining a strong immune system. Moderate exercise can reduce inflammation and regulate the immune cells. In addition, studies indicate that even a single session of moderate exercise can boost the effectiveness of vaccines in people with compromised immune systems. Therefore, it is recommended for adults to exercise by walking moderately, biking, running, swimming, or hiking for more than 150 minutes each week (around 20-30 minutes each day).
Last but not least, stress levels are important to regulate. Often, hiking in nature can help individuals release stress and clear the mind, which helps to reduce stress. Long-term stress promotes inflammation, as well as imbalances in immune cell function. In fact, children with prolonged psychological stress can suppress the immune response and increase the likelihood of illnesses. Therefore, it is encouraged that everyone takes a few minutes each day to journal, meditate, draw, or other mindfulness practices to reduce stress and feel happier!