The role of our immune system is to defend our body from harmful bacteria and viruses that can make us unwell. On the whole, it does a remarkable job at keeping us healthy, and despite the many claims that are often promoted at a time such as this, it’s important to know that there is no ‘magic pill’ that can boost our immune system on its own. Indeed, it is a variety of lifestyle choices that can keep both our complex immune system and our general health at its optimum.
So what’s the best approach? In this post we’ll look at six ways you can help keep yourself and your immune system as healthy as possible both during the lockdown and beyond.
Eating a balanced diet rich in whole grains, fruit and vegetables ensures we are stocked up on the vitamins and minerals needed to support our immune systems. Studies have indicated that vitamin C, found in oranges, peppers, and green vegetables for example, can help strengthen the epithelial barrier that protects us from pathogens and bacteria, and is a powerful antioxidant.
There are also links between impaired immunity and deficiencies in vitamins A, D, E and zinc. Eating a well rounded diet including lean protein, whole grains, and fruit and veg of different colours, should keep you sufficiently stocked up on these important nutrients without the need for supplementation.
For the time being, however, it may be more difficult to get hold of the fresh produce you are used to. Now is a good time to experiment with food and make use of the ingredients you have in the cupboard, or with cuts of meat or sources of protein you wouldn’t usually think of using. There are plenty of websites to help you make the most from what you have, including the BBC’s Eat Well for Less, or @beatthebudget on Instagram.
Keep on Moving
Regular exercise is important for all areas of our health, but we are now beginning to understand the beneficial relationship between exercise and our immune system. Although the mechanisms are still to be determined, it seems likely that regular exercise improves immune regulation by increasing the circulation of important immune and anti-inflammatory cells around our bodies. It has also been shown to delay the deterioration of the immune system that would naturally occur as we get older.
During this period of lockdown it is even more important to structure some exercise into our daily routines to ensure we are keeping ourselves as fit as possible. A mixture of cardio, resistance and mobility based exercise is ideal to keep our heart and lungs healthy, maintain muscle mass and keep our joints moving freely. Where possible, getting out for a walk, run or bike ride once a day is great for both our physical and mental well being (remembering to maintain at least 2m distance between others, of course!). Keeping on top of the gardening (if you have one) has also been shown to improve dexterity and strength, with specific chores such as mowing,digging and raking being particularly good calorie burners.
Indoors, we can utilise technology to take part in one of the thousands of workouts available online for all ages and abilities, with YouTube being a good place to start. The NHS also has some excellent resources to try, from aerobic exercise videos to flexibility and strength training guides for older adults.
As with any new forms of exercise, we would always recommend building up slowly and only doing what you are comfortable with - anything is better than nothing! It’s ok to ache, but if pain persists then ease back a little. Try and find something you enjoy as you are much more likely to stick to it!
Make Time for your Mental Health
These are unprecedented times and we will inevitably be feeling more anxious than usual. Our routines have changed, we are unable to meet friends and family, and we are worried about our health and that of our loved ones. It is important to realise that, although what we are feeling is a completely valid response to the situation we are in, there are things we can do to reduce our levels of anxiety and stress, and in turn help reduce the impact on our immune systems too. Research suggests that stress can have a detrimental effect on our immune systems and increase inflammatory processes which, over time, can lead to chronic disease.
Keeping to some kind of routine, albeit different to what we are used to, can help keep our day structured and maintain a sense of normality. Getting up at roughly the same time each day, planning a set time for work, exercise, meals, and down time, and going to bed at a reasonable hour, will all help.
Breathing exercises have been shown to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps return a sense of calm and relaxation to the body. The 4-7-8 breath exercise involves breathing in for a count of four, holding for a count of seven, and breathing out for a count of eight, repeating the process for three rounds. It is the ratio of the breaths rather than the timing of each that is important, with focus on exhalation taking twice the number of counts as inhalation.
Staying connected to friends and family can also help with feelings of isolation and loneliness. If you have access to it, using the video capabilities on your device through FaceTime or the Zoom app can help increase the feeling of connection by seeing their facial expressions. Where safe to do so, talking to neighbours over the fence or from balconies, as we’ve seen in Italy, can instil a sense of community and remind us that we’re all in this together. Indeed, there are those in the community who require extra support, and showing kindness and practical support to others not only helps those less fortunate, but has been proven to increase our own sense of purpose and well-being. If you’re able to help, have a look at the Covid 19 Mutual Aid website to see if there’s a local volunteer group in your area.
Get to Bed
It is now well established that regularly getting a good night’s sleep has a positive effect on our general health and indeed our immune systems specifically. While we sleep, our bodies produce proteins known as cytokines which help target infection and regulate inflammation. Recent research also suggests that sleep may improve the ability of important immune cells (known as T-cells) to attach to their targets, helping us fight off infection more effectively.The ideal amount of sleep is 7-8 hours (for adults), although generally if you wake feeling rested and perform well during the day, you’re likely getting the right amount. If we are regularly getting less than optimal amounts of sleep, we may be putting ourselves at greater risk of illness.
As mentioned previously, sticking to a routine of getting up and going to bed at the same time each day can help regulate our body clock and ensure we fall asleep easier each night. Research suggests that exposing ourselves to light in the earlier hours (between 8am and 12noon), and regulating light exposure in the evening (from phones and screen time), can help regulate the body’s internal ‘circadian’ clock, and thus help us nod off easier. Try turning off any screens two to three hours before bedtime, or consider using one of the many blue light filtering apps available to download for your devices.
Treat yourself (but not too much!)
Since the introduction of the lockdown, people have looked for different ways to unwind and escape from the pressures of the new situation we are in. Understandably, we may want to ‘treat’ ourselves for getting through another day, whether that’s by binge watching a new series on Netflix, or indulging in a glass or two of vino. In fact, since social distancing measures were introduced, it is estimated that alcohol consumption in the UK has increased by a whopping 61%.
Whilst alcohol in moderation is generally safe, it’s important to be aware of the risks that come with excessive drinking, including on our immune systems. Drinking to excess can make us increasingly prone to infection and illness, and can slow down how quickly we can recover should we fall ill.
NHS guidelines advise both men and women not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. For reference, a standard glass of wine (175ml, ABV 11%), contains approximately 1.9 units of alcohol, and a regular can of lager (ABV 4%) has roughly 1.8 units. If you are to drink as much as the 14 units, it is best to spread this evenly over the course of the week, with a number of alcohol-free days included. It’s all about moderation!
Wash your Hands
We’ve never heard so much about the importance of hand washing, and for good reason; studies suggest that improvements in hand washing reduce the risk of respiratory illness by 21% (and of gastrointestinal illness by even more). Yes, our immune systems are incredibly complex and will do their best to fight off any virus they may encounter, but we can help by reducing the risk of coming into contact with any virus or bacteria in the first place.
There is little evidence to suggest that antibacterial soap is of any more benefit when compared to non-antibacterial soap, but what certainly is important is our technique, and the amount of time we invest in the process. Make sure you are washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, ensuring you cover all areas of the hands, including under nails, in between the fingers and under any jewellery you may be wearing. Here’s a handy guide to perfecting your technique.
If soap and water isn’t available then the next best option is an alcohol based hand sanitiser, just make sure it has at least a 60% alcohol content. And remember, even when the risk from Covid-19 has subsided (sooner rather than later we hope!), regular hand washing is always good practice.
So there you have it. Six ways to stay healthy during the lockdown and beyond. We know you might not always get eight hours sleep a night, and you may be partial to a gin and tonic every now and then, but being more aware of your habits and making healthier choices over this period of lockdown should mean you come out of it in good shape! We hope you stay safe over the next few weeks and look forward to seeing you all again soon.