Like most of us, I’m doing my best to stay healthy right now. I’m social distancing and washing my hands almost obsessively. I’m trying to eat as many vegetables as possible to ensure I'm getting health-supporting nutrients that I'm not exactly taking in via all the stress baking.
It’s also not surprising that I’ve been bombarded with news over the past few months about how to bolster my immune system. I can’t scroll through my Instagram feed without seeing some influencer bragging about an immune-boosting smoothie or a supplement company promoting pills with elderberry and citrus.
Let's take a step back though. Immunity has a PR problem right now. The whole idea that you can power up your immunity in some quick-fix way overnight (and, you know, avoid a cold or flu...or Covid-19) isn't actually how it works.
Think of immunity like in American football terms: if you’re the star quarterback of your life, your immune system is like that super-jacked lineman whose number-one job is to protect you from all directions. And, separately (but still in that sports realm!), just like how strategic leadership can whip a team into shape, you can train your system to more efficiently pick off any opponent—bug, virus, germ—that comes your way. But that conditioning takes time and dedication.
So, taking a last-minute, reactionary approach to immunity is the opposite of how you should think about it, says Nicole Avena, PhD, visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University. Immunity is a marathon, not a sprint. Because of that, there isn’t any fast and easy way to immediately amplify yours. “You’ve got to take an all-in, holistic approach if you’re going keep your immune system in fighting form,” says Avena.
Recalibrating your immunity for the long game comes down to the classic health habits you hear time and time again: sleep, stress reduction, and sweating it out. The key is doing all of these to at least some degree and not expecting one to be the ultimate cure-all. “You won’t make your immune system healthier in a week by pumping yourself with vitamins because someone close to you is sick,” says E. John Wherry, PhD, director of the Institute for Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania. “But you absolutely can help your immunity by making certain lifestyle changes.”
In particular, you should focus on these immunity-optimising habits that all ladder up to those wellness pillars.
Nail Your Sleep Routine
Sleep—specifically getting at least seven hours most nights—might be the Most Important Thing. “The best data we have about how to improve immunity is on getting the right amount of good sleep,” says Wherry. People who got six hours of shut-eye a night or less for one week were about four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to a virus compared to those who got more than seven hours, according to a study published in the journal Sleep. (The risk of getting sick was even higher for those who snoozed less than five hours a night.)
“Everything you do when you’re awake—eating, digesting, working, walking, exercising—prompts your body to release inflammatory cells,” says Rita Kachru, MD, section chief of the clinical immunology and allergy division and assistant professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Sleep gives your body a break from all of that.” Don’t get hung up on one crappy night of Z’s (or give yourself too much praise for one amazing one, for that matter); focusing on long-term, consistent good sleep habits is the way to go. Your building blocks, right here.
“If my sleep schedule gets off track, I recommit to consistent wake-up and bedtimes—even on weekends.”
—María de la Paz Fernández, PhD, a sleep researcher and assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior at Barnard College of Columbia University
“I try to go outside every morning at the same time for 30 minutes or so. Morning light provides the most benefit in terms of avoiding circadian rhythm disruption. If I can’t do that—or on cloudy days—I put four lamps around my favourite chair and sit in the light for up to an hour.”
—Mariana Figueiro, PhD, director of the Lighting Research Center and a professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
“I make sure to have magnesium-rich foods—like spinach, beans, or nuts—in my dinner. Magnesium helps the body and brain relax, which also helps your sleep feel more rejuvenating.”
—Mikka Knapp, a registered dietitian-nutritionist
“I make sure the temperature in my bedroom is about 65 degrees, which may seem a little cool but is associated with falling asleep faster and sleeping better throughout the night.”
—Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a sleep researcher and co-author of Sleep for Success!
“I’ve learned to improve my sleep hygiene, but I’ve also learned that my sleep will be what it will be, and trying to strive for sleep perfection is more exhausting than rolling with the flow of sleep troubles.”
—Megan Roche, MD, epidemiology researcher and Strava running coach
Sharpen Your Stress Reaction
It’s well established that stress prompts the release of cortisol, that fight-or-flight hormone that enables you to run for your life. When cortisol is high, your immune system isn’t as active, says Daniel M. Davis, PhD, professor of immunology at the University of Manchester in England; your body sends all of its resources to the thing it thinks is most likely to kill you, and away from other stuff, like your protective network.
Don’t stress? I’ll just give up now, you’re thinking. Stay calm and try this: instead of attempting to eliminate negativity, refine the way you cope (with the genius advice ahead!)—which will make the blues more manageable and mitigate that cortisol response, Davis says.
“I am a huge believer in the power of gratitude. It’s not woo-woo or weird—it works and we have the science to back it up. I start and finish my days by identifying three specific things that I am grateful for.”
—Joy Lere, a psychologist
“When I’m really stressed, I hyper-focus on today’s goals: what I need to get done today, and a few things I want to get done. Just today. I shared this with a physician I work with and he laughed and said, 'Win the day.' I love how he rephrased what I do, and that's my new mantra.”
—Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and executive director of Innovation360
“Confess any secrets you’re keeping! I know it sounds silly, but research has shown that keeping secrets can prompt you to release more of the stress hormone cortisol, which puts you in a stress state that weakens your immune system. Call your best friend or a therapist and take the weight off your shoulders.”
—Patricia Celan, MD, a psychiatry resident at Dalhousie University in Canada
“One of the most useful things I do to keep stress in check is to stay in the present moment as much as possible. When I find myself worrying about the future and go down a dark rabbit hole of all the terrible things that can go wrong—like what if someone I love gets sick?—I name what’s true right now: in this moment, my family and friends are healthy. It’s a simple way to take control of my thoughts rather than allowing my thoughts to send me into a stress tailspin.”
—Beatrice Tauber Prior, PsyD, a clinical psychologist
Working out creates inflammation in the body, but it’s the good kind, says Wherry. “It’s a little counterintuitive, because exercise actually disrupts your body’s homeostasis,” he says. But when your sweat session is finished, your bod goes back to its status quo—keeping your immunity on its toes in that brilliant way, he says. Research backs this up: people who exercise regularly develop more T cells (those destroyer white blood cells) than their sedentary peers, a recent study found. It also helps modulate the stress hormone cortisol, which, when raised, leads to inflammatory activity.
Some experts agree that overtraining (you know, that feeling when you’ve been pushing yourself too hard and you’re feeling it) can hinder immunity. So if you’re an everyday athlete, moderate exercise on a consistent basis is the end zone to aim for.
“I am a runner, and when I start to feel like I’m out of my regular exercise routine, I sign up for a race. It gives me a goal to strive for so I stay on track with my training.”
—Jennifer Haythe, MD, a critical care cardiologist at Columbia University Medical Center
“I am to get 20 to 30 minutes of movement every day. Consistent, moderate exercise allows your body to recover and build immunity quicker than over-exercising or not exercising at all.”
—Lisa Ballehr, DO, an osteopathic physician and Institute for Functional Medicine certified practitioner
“I use a fitness band to track my sleep and heart rate and based on this, I modify my activity accordingly. For example, if I'm very well rested one night, I'll push myself harder when I exercise the next day. If I haven't slept well, I'll do a low-impact workout and focus more on mindfulness the following day. Using a fitness tracker keeps me accountable when it comes to sticking to healthy lifestyle habits that I know will help my immune system.”
—Ian Braithwaite, MD, an emergency physician at The Royal London Hospital
“I try my best to still move on the days I don’t feel like it. But I also don’t try to push my body to the limit if I’m not up for it, because I know that’ll just deplete my immune system.”
—Kym Niles, certified personal trainer
“I am to go for a moderately paced walk for 30 to 60 minutes every day. This is the most basic and beneficial immune-boosting exercise that anyone can do.”
—Kristen Gasnick, board-certified physical therapist
“Rather than sitting at my desk for long periods of time, I set my alarm to move every hour. Sometimes, that movement will be a 30-minute run. Other times, it will be a quick series of yoga poses or a few basic stretches.”
—Jenn Randazzo, registered dietitian
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