All day we hear about avoiding exposure to COVID 19. Stay inside, wash hands, wear a mask, stay away from other people. Those practices might help prevent exposure, but is there another way to prevent infection? Can we also strengthen our immune systems to fight off COVID if it comes to us? Actually, we can do a lot.
Food — The right foods boost your germ-fighting capacity. According to Healthline.com, citrus fruits, red bell peppers, spinach and broccoli are full of immunity-building vitamins. Garlic, turmeric, and ginger have disease-fighting chemicals that are used all over the world. Nuts and seeds (e.g. almonds and sunflower seeds) pack the most life force into the smallest quantity of food. Tropical fruits such as papaya and kiwi also seem to fight off infections.
Medical News Today has similar list, which includes blueberries and dark chocolate at the top. All these foods are high in nutrients such as vitamins A, B, C, and E, and compounds such as antioxidants and flavonoids that help bodies work better.
There are also foods to avoid. Refined flours and sweet sugary things gum up body’s disease-fighting cells. Cured and burned meats, and a number of chemical additives can sap germ-fighting strength.
Eating well in times of shortages or closures requires some planning. There are great ideas in this article by my associate, dietitian Amy Campbell. Of course, if we have no money because of job loss, or if food is not available, we will need other practices which are beyond the scope of this article. But farmers’ markets, discount stores, community supported agriculture and food banks can make food more affordable. Sharing with neighbors might put food on everyone’s tables.
Supplements can help, especially if we can’t get a variety of healthy foods, which will be a problem during the shutdowns and the depression. Harvard Medical School’s newsletter recommends zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and various vitamins.
Substance use — The Centers for Disease Control says, “Smoking harms the immune system and disrupts its balance.” It might be hard to quit smoking at such a stressful time, but it’s one thing you can do to prevent COVID. Smoking also makes people more vulnerable to the lung damage by which COVID kills.
Alcohol might be OK in small amounts, but overdoing it leaves one vulnerable to infection. It might also make you stupid, so you don’t take anti-COVID precautions you would usually take. The same might be true of other drugs such as cannabis. Use them in moderation, but not in ways that expose you to unnecessary risks.
Sleep time is when the immune system gets to work. When you’re awake, the body and mind are too busy to give attention to fighting disease or healing damage. We need to sleep; it’s medicine. Hopefully, you have a comfortable, quiet place to sleep, but whether you do or not, the ideas in this article from my diabetes column might help.
Like the rest of us, the immune system needs motivation to work well. Why, exactly, should your immune system fight? Do you have goals, connections with others, sources of pleasure and of support, people to protect, or another reason to keep going? On some chemical level, in my holistic opinion, the immune system knows how much we want to live. If you can’t identify such a reason — which could be as minimal as taking care of a plant or enjoying an occasional sunset — see if you can think of a couple of good ways to make life more enjoyable.
Moderate exercise also helps immune cells function. I’m not sure how people are supposed to exercise when the playgrounds and gyms are closed, but there are a lot of things you can do inside — exercise programs online, household objects you can use as weights. And we can still get out and walk, run, or bike if the police haven’t stopped that where you live. Having a dog to run is a good justification for being outside.
This may sound ridiculous in the current moment, but try to reduce stress. Actually, if you’re not working, you’ve already relieved a major source of stress, but fears about the future and loss of one’s sense of safety are major stressors. Exercise and prayer are two great stress reducers. Social support is, too, so try to connect by phone or online if you can’t do it in person. Of course, physically meeting people is still better if you can. Animals are also great stress relievers, and you can see other approaches here. Humor and laughter have immune and stress-reduction benefits shown in many studies. So, try to find some reasons to laugh. Even in hard times, people do funny things.
Keep warm — Although some scientists call it an old wives’ tale, Grandma’s advice to put on another layer and have a hot cup of tea works for me. Now some studies have confirmed that coldness contributes to respiratory infection by suppressing the immune system. Hard for homeless people to keep warm, but if you can, do. Helping others keep warm by donating blankets or clothes is a great way to share.
Even with the strongest immunity, it still makes sense to avoid infection. Hand washing, avoiding sneezes and coughs (and covering your ow) and keeping hands away from your face still make sense. But by eating right, getting sleep and exercise, touch, and laughter, we can greatly reduce our risk of COVID and other infections.