First and foremost, I hope you all are safe, healthy and surviving ok right now! Unless you have been living under a rock recently (which honestly I wouldn’t blame you for!), I am of course saying that because of a certain virus (that I am not even going to name because frankly I am tired of hearing its name) going around that have most of us just a little bit freaked out to say the least. Going on day four of being quarantined and working from home, I have decided to really limit how much of the news I am taking in mostly to retain some of my sanity and hope that this will pass relatively quickly. All the coverage did get me thinking though, it would be a great time to write a post dedicated to our immune systems and how we can maybe help them out just a little especially in a time like this. Even without the imminent threat of a serious and potentially life-threatening respiratory virus upon us, we are constantly being barraged by germs, bacteria, infections and all around yuckiness that in most cases our wonderful and amazing bodies fight off for us, a lot of the time without us even knowing it’s happening! Our immune systems are so incredible that they can even sometimes sense cancer at its very earliest stages and fight it off all the while we were none the wiser we were ever in danger! Pretty amazing, right? So let’s take a slightly more in depth look at what are immune system is comprised of, how it works and how we can lend it a helping hand!
What exactly is our immune system? A VERY basic overview….
Our immune system is a pretty incredible and very complex system that is made up primarily of our:
- Bone Marrow
- White Blood Cells
- Lymph Nodes
It is charged with the incredible task of fighting off infections, bacteria and diseases of all kinds from the common cold to the Big C, aka cancer. Basically, it attacks anything foreign to our bodies that just shouldn’t be there. Turns out we encounter literally BILLIONS of germs each day and our immune systems are so good at their jobs they can distinguish the good from the bad (not all germs are bad apparently!) by sensing tiny little “danger cues” at the molecular level.
The first line of defense for our immune system is actually our skin (the largest organ in our body). Along with our skin, our corneas, mucous in our respiratory and GI tracts and mucous in our GU (genitourinary) tracts also provide physical barriers and have immune functions to help fight off the bad germs that are trying to make their way in. Germs primarily get in through our eyes, nose and mouth (which is why not touching your face right now is being so heavily stressed!). Luckily, like I mentioned above the mucus in our noses, tears in our eyes and even saliva in our mouths all have immune fighting properties to try to kill whatever germs have made it that far.
If one of these bad germs, viruses, bacteria, etc. do happen to make it past these first lines of defense, the rest of our immune system jumps into action to try to eliminate them before they makes themselves at home in our bodies, starts to reproduce, and then causes all kinds of havoc. Apparently, our bodies are perfect breeding grounds for bad germs to multiply so stopping them before they can take hold is critically important to our health. In a VERY high-level, brief overview of what then happens if a bad germ, aka. Antigen, to call it by its proper name, does make its way into our bodies, our immune system quickly reacts by making antibodies to destroy it. And if that wasn’t enough, our immune systems even have their own memory so the next time that same antigen attacks, they can jump into action even quicker because they remember how they fought it off the last time. If you have ever wondered how vaccines work, it is by exploiting our immunes systems ability to remember. Basically, each time you get a vaccine you are being injected with a very small amount of the very virus you are hoping to protect yourself against so that your immune system becomes familiar with it and develops a plan around how to fight it. Pretty interesting stuff, right? The human body is truly amazing the more you learn about it!
So how can we give our immune systems a boost?
Just like with so many other things health and wellness related, our immune systems can be helped or hurt by the choices we make and the lifestyle we live. So what are some things that we are either doing or not doing that affect the strength of our immune system and its ability to respond when we need them:
Oh boy, this is a big one! We all know of course that when we are sleeping our body is hard at work repairing itself. Well sleep also does wonders for our immunes systems basically by giving them a break. Because there is very little other activity going on in our bodies while we are sleeping, our immune systems have a solid period of time to solely focus on fighting that virus, infection or disease that is trying to invade. To get a bit more technical with it, while we are asleep our immune systems release a protein called cytokines. These proteins not only promote sleep itself, but also serve to stimulate production of cells that help with tissue development, growth and maintenance as well as helping to regulate inflammatory processes. And as someone with an inflammatory disease, I can tell you how important helping our bodies fight inflammation is! Not getting enough sleep has been shown over and over again to trigger our brains to release a stress hormone that leads to more inflammation in our bodies which again is no bueno for disease development and progression. For some tips on how to get more/better sleep check out my post “Zzzzzzzz…..”
Fueling our bodies properly can go a long way in helping fight of viruses, diseases and bad bacteria. While it is always a good idea to eat nutrient-rich foods, it is especially important in a time like this in order to help your body remain as healthy as possible and your immune system strong. You can actually ward of illnesses by making smart food choices, think eating that side of spinach instead of the french fries that are calling your name. Some of the major food categories to be focusing on to strengthen your immune system are:
Citrus – This seems like probably the most obvious food group to reach for when thinking about helpful foods to be consuming at a time like this. Citrus fruits and veggies are full of Vitamin C which we all know is a miracle worker in fighting off illness. Vitamin C works its magic by inhibiting histamine release in our bodies and reducing inflammation at the same time. And histamine, just in case you weren’t aware, is that nasty little substance that causes our runny noses, itchy eyes and yucky congestion we tend to get with allergies and colds. Another huge benefit of Vitamin C is that it increases the production of white blood cells. Those are the guys that actually fight off infection. Load up on citrus foods like oranges, grapefruits, lemons limes, leafy greens like spinach and kale and even bell peppers.
Seafood/Shellfish – Unlike citrus foods, seafood may not be the first food group that comes to mind when you think about immune boosting foods but it’s a great option! Let’s start with shellfish….besides being pretty darn tasty in my opinion (I am from Maryland and we are all about our crabs here!), a lot of shellfish if full of zinc! I have actually been swearing by zinc for a lot of years and make sure to start popping zinc lozenges at the first sign of a cold. Zinc, just like Vitamin C, helps our immune systems in the creation of white blood cells, which again are essential to fighting off infections. And if that weren’t enough, Zinc also increases the number of cells that are used to fight off cancer and help with wound healing. Good choices in shellfish to reap the benefits of Zinc are crabs, mussels and oysters. You can also find zinc in items like frozen fruits and veggies, squashes and root vegetables as well as proteins like beef and lamb.
As far as other seafood is concerned, varieties like mackerel, herring, and another one of my faves, salmon, are great sources of omega-3 fatty acids which give our immunes systems a nice boost in strength as well. Omega-3’s, which are also found in nuts, specifically walnuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, tofu and even avocados, to name a few, also go a long way in combating inflammation in our bodies. And just like the zinc in the shellfish, the Omega’3’s in seafood also aid in white blood cell production, more specifically the production of a type of cell called macrophages, which can seek out and destroy harmful bacteria. Most nutritionists actually recommend getting two servings a week of fatty seafood in general…maybe aim for an extra serving this week!
Seeds and Nuts – Both of these food choices, not only make for a great snack in place of less than healthy potato chips or again our beloved french fries, but they are packed with a healthy serving of Vitamin E which is an extremely powerful antioxidant. What makes Vitamin E so crucial right now, it is works wonders in fighting off respiratory infections, which as we all know by now is exactly the type of virus, that again I refuse to mention by name, is. Vitamin E is crucial to how your immune system functions and is also a fat-soluble vitamin meaning it needs fat for it to be absorbed. Nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds and sunflower seeds are all full of healthy fat along with Vitamin E which makes them the perfect vehicle for our bodies to absorb this oh so important vitamin. Peanuts and hazelnuts are also really good sources, as well as our beloved avocados and other dark leafy greens. So grab a handful of nuts when you are feeling a salt craving come on or whip up some guac to add to those salads, burgers and tacos!
Yogurt – With so much of your immune systems work going on in the gut, it is essential to keep this particular part of your body in good working order. Yogurt can go a long way in keeping your gut happy with the live, active cultures most brands contain. These cultures work by stimulating your immune system to fight off potentially harmful diseases and they help to keep your digestive tract clean and free of harmful bacteria. Yogurt also contains probiotics which further help your immune system by producing antibodies that fight off illness, disease and infection. My only caution with yogurt is when picking one, watch out of the ones that have a lot of added sugar. Greek yogurt is a great option as it is a good source of probiotics as well as Calcium and Vitamin D. Vitamin D itself is also very good for the immune system as it is thought to also boost our bodies disease fighting responses.
Other really great food options to give your immune system a boost are garlic, some spices like turmeric and ginger, green tea, oats and barley and even mushrooms. Try to incorporate some of the above suggestions into your meals as a great and natural way help your body ward off all the yuckiness around us, especially right now!
You guys I know this would be a good time to just stay in bed all day, eat a tub of ice cream and just not face the world. I have had moments where that’s exactly what I want to do, but continuing to move our bodies, getting as much physical activity as we can and not letting the stress and anxiety we are all feeling overwhelm us will also go a LONG way in keeping us healthy. Exercise, even just brisk walking, has been linked to an increase in our bodies production and circulation of T-cells (or to get technical about it, T-Lymphocytes) which are an integral part of our bodies immune systems. The more these cells get around our bodies, aka circulate, the more quickly they may be able to identify and fight bacteria, germs and pathogens that are present but shouldn’t be there. Exercise may also help to flush out our respiratory systems and airways which can get rid of the bad bacteria that may have made it in.
Another excellent reason to incorporate or continue to incorporate exercise into your new daily routine, is it’s a huge stress reliever. I have talked many times before how starting and maintaining a regular exercise routine has basically eliminated my panic attacks and drastically reduced my daily anxiety and that is coming in even more handy right now as we are all feeling a bit unsure and anxious about the immediate future. My regular workouts have been literally saving my mental health over the past week or so in that they give me an outlet to get out that built up anxiety and frustration but also they give me something positive to focus on. Exercise of course has been shown to increase the release of “happy” hormones like endorphins and decrease the release of stress hormones like cortisol.
I feel so fortunate that I decided two years ago to sign up for the at-home programs that I do to this day because all of the gyms in my area are closed for an indefinite amount of time. I have been able to continue working out as I always have and again it is the one thing keeping me sane right now! If you guys are finding it difficult to workout while your gyms are closed or are just looking for something that will keep you sane and healthy during this difficult time let me know and I can get you set up with the programs I am doing. Also check out my WORKOUTS page on this blog for FREE trial workouts and/or a free 14-day trial in which you can access a wide variety of the programs I regularly do. Here is the link to access the 14-Day Free Trial. If you need any guidance about which program might be best for your or if you want a virtual workout partner let me know as well…I would be happy to help!!
As we navigate the craziness around us right now and our “new normal” it is so important to take the best care of ourselves that we possibly can to not only keep ourselves healthy but all those around us as well. While we may not be able to control everything that is happening currently, we can take control of our physical and mental well-being. Hopefully the info and tips I provided here on how to give our immune systems a helping hand will be useful in weathering this storm and coming out on other side stronger and ready to jump back into normal life. Please let me know how you are all doing and just remember, hang in there, this too shall pass! Sending lots of love to you all….