4 Easy Ways to Build Your Immune System
Immune health has been all the rage lately, and rightfully so. With the Coronavirus circulating, it is more important than ever to keep ourselves healthy and if we do happen to get infected; having a healthy, robust immune system will help us avoid ending up in the hospital. There are many interventions that can help immune function, some are well known like taking Vitamin C, but I am going to focus on some that are completely free. That’s right, you don’t even need Amazon to have access to these remedies.
1. Mindfulness Meditation. Studies show that after an eight-week meditation trial period participants had lower Nf-Kappa Beta. For those of you who haven’t been following the biochemistry of disease, having high levels of this stuff is bad and low levels of it is good. The fact that these participants showed reductions means that their immune systems were working more effectively.
For starting a meditation practice, I would recommend using an app. Calm, Headspace and 10% Happier are all great options (See, still no Amazon necessary). For those who don’t want to use an app, you can start by finding a comfortable seat, somewhere you can rest your back but can hold your head up. Holding the head up is important because you want to stay awake during meditation. Once you are comfortable, start to focus on your breath, and let it flow as naturally as possible.
The first few times you do it, it will not feel natural but that is OK. As you are focusing on the breath, notice if your thoughts start to wander. Your thoughts are going to wander, and if they don’t during your first meditation try, you should quit your job and become a monk. The key to mindfulness is noticing that you have started thinking (about food, sex, work, your favorite TV show), and just bring your attention back to your breath. That is the essence of mindfulness. You are supposed to think, it is like doing bicep curls for your brain. Each time you bring your thoughts back to your breath, that is a rep.
2. Sleep. It has been established that sleep is another important factor in keeping a healthy immune system. But did you know how important light is in getting good quality sleep? The answer: very important. Light regulates our circadian rhythm, which basically tells us when we should wake up and when we should go to sleep. Our immune system functions in this way as well. If we don’t sleep, the natural rhythms of our immune system don’t happen. This results in an overactive immune system, which is just as bad as an underactive immune system.
I’m sure you’ve heard about the cytokine storms, which are caused by an overactive immune system. Light modulates all of this. Getting good quality light in the morning (sunlight not artificial light), and avoiding bad light a few hours before bed will help you sleep better and help your immune system stay in alignment. “Bad” light is the highly concentrated blue light that comes from our phones, TV screens, and even LED lights. This kind of light tells our bodies that it’s time to be awake, which throws our circadian rhythm off.
To combat this, the most important thing is to get sunlight first thing in the morning. Actually, you don’t even need sunlight, just light from outside. First thing in the morning, open up your window and let some of that natural light in. Even better, you can actually go outside (I know, crazy right). The simplest way to eliminate blue light at night is to turn off all of your screens a few hours before bedtime. For people who need to work or like to watch TV at night, there are a few options as well. An app called f.lux modulates your computer’s light, making it darker and warmer, so you are being exposed to less blue light. If you want to go the extra mile, there is a company called Truedark, which makes red tinted glasses, blocking out all of the blue light and other junk light, and allows you to use the screens later without the strain.
3. Eat Your Veggies. You should avoid gluten, dairy, soy and processed food like the plague. These are all inflammatory foods and unless you are eating organic, the pesticides they come with add even more inflammation to the mix. These foods cause reactions in the body similar to that of a foreign invader. And who has to deal with that reaction? You guessed it, your immune system. The more taxed your immune system is from dealing with what you eat, the less resources you have to fight off the real invaders.
I want to focus on gluten especially. Gluten releases a protein called zonulin, which regulates the cells lining the gut. When there is excess zonulin these cells become dysregulated. This is called a leaky gut. A leaky gut allows proteins from your food into the bloodstream, which the immune system treats as a foreign invader. This can cause the body to attack itself, because 70% of the immune system is based in your gut. An extreme oversimplification, but that is the basis for autoimmune diseases. Having an autoimmune disease is a major contributor to complications of any viral exposure. When you eat, you are not only feeding yourself, but you are building your immune system. If you build your immune system with high quality veggies, fats and proteins, you build a strong immune system. If you build it with processed foods and oils, gluten, dairy, and soy, it will likely become dysregulated.
4. Light to Moderate Exercise. There is a term called hormesis, which is a stressor that helps us build and grow. That is the main point of exercise. It is a small controlled stressor that makes us stronger. Other types of exercise actually boost the immune system. Taking a walk in the forest has been shown to increase natural killer cells (an important part of your immune system especially when it comes to killing viruses). Another important component of exercise is the ability to stimulate nitric oxide production, which plays a huge role in cardiovascular health. Studies show that exercise increases systemic nitric oxide in the body. In building the immune system, light to moderate exercise is the way to go. While the theory that prolonged intense exercise leads to infection has been proven faulty, the immune system does take longer to recover and strengthen. If you have trouble sleeping, stick to light exercise.
The lymph system is our body’s “waste tract” where all the things we don’t need get moved through and out of the body. Walking is the most effective way to increase lymph flow and stimulate that system. Exercise helps increase circulation throughout the body (nitric oxide plays a role here). Our white blood cells (a part of the immune system that helps to fight infection) get circulated throughout the body and are able to neutralize infections more effectively. Other types of gentle exercise to consider are Yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and stretching.
With these four strategies, you can improve your immune health for no cost at all. Implementing one will help with the others. When you exercise, eat healthy, and meditate, you are likely to sleep better. If you focus on sleep, you may have more energy to exercise. All of the body systems are connected; improve one and you improve the others.
Stay safe, healthy, and strong!
Jacob Appleton was a member of the varsity tennis team at Kingswood Oxford starting in 6th grade and captain of the team his sophomore, junior and senior years. He became ill the beginning of the fall season of his sophomore year at UConn. He will tell you that although his illness turned his world upside down, it was a blessing because it allowed him to learn the power of food as medicine, the importance of self-care and how supporting his genetics enabled him to jump start his healing.
Jacob is currently pursuing a certification in genetics.