6 Ways to Boost Your Immune System

I flew to San Francisco the first week of March right as the first cases of COVID-19 were cropping up on the west coast. I hesitated before I flew out. A friend from work recommended I not go. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m a sober, non-smoking, vegan. I really think that my risk of having a poor outcome even if I am exposed, is pretty low.” I felt that my immune system was supercharged; there were many changes I made to my lifestyle to feel that way. I also realize that unless you watch videos by Dr. Greger on nutritionfacts.org or interviews with Dr. Barnard, you aren’t likely to know about some of the science behind boosting your immune system and how increasing your plant intake can improve your health.

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It’s ironic that what has made me feel like a bit of an outcast over the last two years may be my superpower. I’ve ducked out of networking events that had an open bar and ice sculptures laden with crab legs and shrimp. I’ve turned down invitations to barbecues with whole hogs and Miller Lite on tap. Four years ago, I’d have been the first to the bar and had my plate overflowing with succulent roast pig. I admit I smirk a bit when people lament on Zoom or Facebook that they will be drunks by the time we get back to “Normal”. I wonder if it’s a veiled cry for help as we all cope from the stress of cabin fever, strained relationships or isolation.

Here are 6 ways to boost your immune system:

Stop smoking.  I’ve quit smoking several times in my life and I know that it’s incredibly difficult. At this point, I’m close to twenty years without a cigarette and I remember the turning point well. My five-year-old son came out to the front porch where I had my evening smoke to say, “I can’t wait to grow up and smoke just like you.” Yes, to this day, I believe this was orchestrated by family members, but regardless, I quit within a week. For good. As Dr. Michael Ford, an internist, wrote: “COVID-19 is a novel respiratory disease that can damage the lining of the air sacs in the lungs. In severe cases, COVID-19 affects breathing, and patients may even need ventilator support. And those with lung disease are more vulnerable. If you’re a smoker and need a reason to quit, let this pandemic be your reason.” Quitting smoking is the number one thing you can do to boost your immune system as a modifiable risk.

Be Sober Curious.  I love this new phrase on embracing sobriety. I spent many years trying to modify my drinking to no avail. If you’re not willing to drop it completely, try at least reducing the quantity. As written by John Murphy in MDLinx, “Adding stress isn’t the only strike against drinking alcohol during this infectious pandemic. Alcohol use, especially heavy use, also weakens the immune system, which may reduce the body’s ability to cope with infectious diseases and potentially lead to a greater susceptibility to pneumonia (a severe complication of COVID-19).” In home-bound schedule less days, it can be easy to start moving your alcohol consumption to an earlier and earlier start time. Think about alternatives like seltzer and lime or mocktails by Seedlip. Knowing that you are boosting your immune system with each additional hour of sobriety bolsters your health and may motivate you to leave alcohol behind.

Sleep more.  My boyfriend Roy is a sleeping champ. I think he gets 9-10 hours of sleep a night. I get closer to 7 hours of sleep (which is good for me) but it’s made a difference in my ability to cope and, I believe, it’s improved my health. “Sleep is when the magic happens; it’s when the whole system of the body is revitalized, Dr. Ford says. Scientists are still discovering all the ways sleep improves our health, but the REM (rapid-eye movement) cycle of sleep is particularly important. For instance, people with sleep apnea — a disorder in which an individual awakens right before entering the REM cycle of sleep — have higher rates of memory problems, mood disorders, heart disease, and possibly cancer.” Getting enough sleep can boost your immune system.

Reduce stress.  That’s a tall order in the middle of a pandemic. I find that meditating every day helps center me; connecting with friends and family helps ease the isolation. “Cortisol, the stress hormone, reduces the activity of the immune system. Stress can also impact our sleep. When you’re anxious and you’re turning things over in your mind and can’t stop thinking about them, your sleep will be negatively affected by that,” says Dr. Ford. Having a coach is another way to reflect on your anxiety and concerns and reduce that stress. Think of ways to reduce your stress to bolster your immune system

Plant-based. My reflections around feeling like an outcast for being a vegan are not an illusion. Matt Ball of One Step for Animals wrote that “The only group viewed more negatively than vegans were drug addicts.” So you might end up feeling like an outcast, but the upside is your health can improve. Meat and dairy add to inflammation. As Dr. Greger wrote: “Foods that may be especially helpful include apples, tea, cocoa, gluten, kale, and Ceylon cinnamon. Chronic diseases are associated with inflammation and include heart disease, cancer, obesity, and arthritis may be prevented or even possibly reversed by a plant-based diet, whereas chicken and eggs may play a pro-inflammatory role.” I have been able to get off all my medications and avoid statins by embracing a plant-based diet. Don’t feel like you have to take all meat and dairy out of your diet. Start with meatless Mondays or just having it on weekends. I think you’ll find that your tastes will change.

Get outside.  I think this is twofold. Get out in nature and get some movement. “We see that people who are aerobically fit tend to get sick less often than people who don’t exercise regularly,” Dr. Ford says. I know there are some stay at home orders that limit getting outside but at least get some movement indoors. I’m able to kayak, bike and walk where I am and I can tell you that I feel 100% better when I get outside and get active. Even if it’s a 5-minute walk, it’s going to help your immunity.

This is a long list and can be overwhelming in such anxious times. Try just one thing. Smoke one less cigarette today, take a 5-minute walk outside, try a plant-based evening meal or try a 5-minute meditation. It’s all good for you. Your body is a temple. It needs to be honored and can be rebuilt one brick at a time. What do you want to do to boost your immune system?

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