by FCF athlete Maia Kurnik
MPH, Registered Dietitian, ACSM-Certified Exercise Physiologist
Faster than a speeding sneeze cloud (ew)! Stronger than your boss’ germy handshake (remember handshakes?). Able to stop a stampeding rhinovirus with a single cell! Protecting you in planes, trains, and automobiles…
It’s your IMMUNE SYSTEM! *Trumpet fanfare*
Your immune system is a silent superhero – defending your body against infectious bacteria, viruses, parasites, and other invaders right this very moment. An impressive collection of tissues, cells, and proteins, your immune system wields physical shields, as well as chemical and guerilla warfare, to keep you healthy. It’s the hero we deserve and the hero we need during a global pandemic.
Your body is well-equipped to fend off most bugs that would seek to make you sick, but it could use a little extra help from a trusty sidekick armed with the following five immune-boosting habits:
1. Wash your hands and avoid touching your nose, eyes, and mouth.
Seriously. Just do it. Many diseases, not just COVID-19, are spread by not washing our hands. Our skin forms a physical barrier against harmful bugs, but our eyes, nose, and mouth are weak points in that armor where viruses and bacteria can enter. Handwashing can reduce respiratory illnesses, like colds, by 16 percent to 21 percent in your community1,2.
Pro tip: Sing “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” the “Alphabet Song,” or “Happy Birthday” twice through while annihilating your germy foes with warm, soapy water. As Kanye West says, “Every superhero need his theme music.”
2. Get enough sleep.
Experts agree that most adults need at least seven to nine hours of sleep per night3. Studies show people who don’t get enough quality sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus like the common cold4,5. Furthermore, getting enough sleep can help you recover faster if you do get sick6. To make your Fortress of Solitude more conducive to sleep, avoid electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime, finish exercise and your last meal three-ish hours before bedtime, and develop a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine7. This is especially important for my swolemates trying to get those gains. Your body releases growth hormone in the deepest stages of sleep, which is critical for building muscle mass. Get enough Zzz’s to hit those Kg’s.
3. Manage your stress.
Chronic stress is your immune system’s kryptonite. Stress weakens your immune system by reducing the number of white blood cells available to fight off infection8. Meditation and deep breathing help to counteract the effects of stress by reducing cortisol, a stress-related hormone, and improve mental focus10,11.
Try this simple, one-minute meditation: In a comfortable seat, breathe in for four counts, pause, and breathe out for four counts. Repeat the cycle and notice where you feel your breath – your nose, your chest, your belly.
Now is the time to make stress management habits into a regular practice. Like your glutes, these habits work better the more you use them. Journaling, yoga, petting cute dogs, listening to music, breathing, connecting (virtually) with loved ones, exercise… pick a few that feel good and make them a daily habit. In addition, set down social media, turn off the news, and unfollow your weird uncle who keeps posting inflammatory BS. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life, honey.
4. Nourish your body.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get as a dietitian is, “What specific food can I eat to ________?” But, just as Captain America couldn’t defeat Loki and his Chitauri army alone – he needed the whole Avengers team – no single food is super all on its own. Similarly, individual nutrients from a variety of whole foods work together to defeat bacteria and viruses. Meet your own Immunity Avengers12:
- Brightly colored fruits and veggies provide vitamins A and C, in addition to dozens of other phytonutrients and antioxidants. For the most benefit, eat from the entire rainbow of colors each day.
- Protein is a necessary building block for your body’s defenses. Food-forms of protein are best, and most of us can get by without shakes, bars, or powders. Eat a protein-rich food at least 2-3 times each day.
- Zinc is an immune-boosting superhero found in oysters, chicken, beans and peas, almonds, cashews, yogurt, and oats13.
- Stay Hydrated to keep every component of your physiology running well. How much is enough? Drink ‘til you pee nearly clear.
The goal here is progress, not perfection. It’s a weird time right now, so your eating habits might feel a little off, or you might notice yourself snacking more than usual. That’s very okay, and very human. Focus on one or two small ways that you can nourish yourself well today.
5. Trust in the power of lifestyle habits, not supplements.
Put down the “immune booster” supplement. While it could help, it’s no match for the evils of poor nutrition, chronic stress, and not enough sleep. Here’s the truth: not all supplements are created equal, and very few are tested for safety and efficacy. Instead, make handwashing, quality sleep, stress management, and solid nutrition daily habits. With these powers combined, your immune system can shine like the superhero it is!
- Rabie T and Curtis V. Handwashing and risk of respiratory infections: a quantitative systematic review.Trop Med Int Health. 2006 Mar;11(3):258-67.
- Aiello AE, Coulborn RM, Perez V, Larson EL. Effect of hand hygiene on infectious disease risk in the community setting: a meta-analysis.Am J Public Health. 2008;98(8):1372-81.
- Watson NF, Badr MS, Belenky G, et al. Joint Consensus Statement of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society on the Recommended Amount of Sleep for a Healthy Adult: Methodology and Discussion. Sleep. 2015 Aug;38(8):1161-1183.
- Cohen S, Doyle WJ, Alper CM, Janicki-Deverts D, Turner RB. Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169(1):62–67. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2008.505
- Ibarra-Coronado EG, Pantaleon-Martinez AM, Velazquez-Moctezuma J, et al. The Bidirectional Relationship between Sleep and Immunity against Infections. J Immunol Res. 2015 Aug; 678164
- Imeri L and Opp MR. How (and why) the immune system makes us sleep. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2010 Mar; 10(3):199-210
- “Healthy Sleep Habits.” Sleep Education. American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Web. 10 Oct 2018. http://sleepeducation.org/essentials-in-sleep/healthy-sleep-habits
- Sorrells SF and Sapolsky RM. An Inflammatory Review of Glucocorticoid Actions in the CNS. Brain Behav Immun. 2007 Mar; 21(3):259-272.
- Vitlic A, Lord JM, Phillips AC. Stress, ageing and their influence on functional, cellular, and molecular aspects of the immune system. Age (Dordr) 2014; 1169–1185. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4082590/
- Vago DR and Silbersweig DA. Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Front Hum Neurosci. 2012; 6:296 Available from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296/full
- Eckberg DL. The human respiratory gate. J Physiol (2003); 548(2): 339-352.
- “Protect Your Health with Immune-boosting Nutrition.” Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Web. 17 Oct 2018. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/protect-your-health-with-immune-boosting-nutrition
- “Zinc.” Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Web. 17 Oct 2018. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/