Optimizing Your Immune Defenses During the Pandemic

Don't let the news distract you from the many ways you can fortify your health.

Posted Jun 23, 2020

A silver lining of the COVID-19 pandemic is the reminder about the fragility of health. Although the philosopher Lao Tzu advised us that “health is the greatest possession” some 2,500 years ago, health in the modern world is often taken for granted. Amidst the demands and distractions of daily life and unconscious of the biological systems that work tirelessly inside us each day to fend off disease, wakeup calls are sometimes necessary.

Most wakeup calls that we experience about our health are personal (i.e., affecting only us) and short-term, such as acute injuries and illnesses. They also tend to be ignored or quickly forgotten. COVID-19 is a rare example of a societal-level wakeup call that is simultaneously reminding millions of people about the precarious nature of health over a prolonged period.

Another common source of health complacency in the 21st century is that we often assign responsibility for our health to others. In a millennium so prosperous that people can now argue healthcare should be a “right” akin to life and liberty, advanced medical technologies make it easy to rely on physicians – the white-coated knights of the medical profession – to protect our health. Even in the face of a new threat such as COVID-19 – an event dramatically revealing the limitations of the U.S. healthcare system – some still believe the only strategy is to wait for the development of a vaccine. History casts doubt on this as a foolproof strategy, however. Various coronaviruses, for example, already cause up to 30% of colds each year; no effective vaccine for them has been developed. Like flu viruses, the COVID-19 virus also mutates and these mutations could affect the level of protection offered by a vaccine. Therefore, even while we wait and hope for an effective COVID-19 vaccine in the months ahead, it is important to consider the methods we have in the present to maximize our disease resistance.

Fortunately, we do not need to rely entirely on vaccines or government policies to protect ourselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. In terms of disease protection, no medicine or N95 mask compares to the strength of our own immune systems. You and I are living testaments to the resilience and adaptability of the immune system, surviving countless encounters with hostile microorganisms across our lifetimes. Your immune system can be compared to a powerful military force, with many weapons at its disposal. Yet this army can and often is depleted by our lifestyle habits. An unhealthy lifestyle causes our immune system to function like an army without tanks or planes, compromising its ability to protect us from COVID-19 and other biological threats. Although lifestyle habits that strengthen our immune system should always be important, the pandemic can be a potent motivator to improve our habits in the following areas:

Image by Pexels from Pixabay
Source: Image by Pexels from Pixabay

1. Sleep – As sleep expert Matthew Walker from UC Berkeley coins it, “Sleep is Mother Nature’s best effort yet at immortality.” Sleep is vital to every dimension of health, including our immune system. Controlled studies, for example, show that people getting less than 7 hours of sleep are nearly 3 times as likely to develop a cold compared to those getting 8 or more hours. It is helpful to consider sleep as a type of skill that can be improved through knowledge and practice. With millions now working from home or still waiting to return to former employment, it may seem as if people should be able to get more sleep in 2020. Unfortunately, this is not true for most people. Even though greater time at home may afford more opportunity to sleep for some, the COVID era has disrupted sleep regularity for even more. When we lack external regulators such as jobs and appointments, it is important that we create internal regulators for ourselves to maintain our sleep schedules. Lacking an early morning reason to wake up, it is tempting to stay up late and sleep in; changing your mindset to appreciate that you’re sleeping to strengthen your body’s defenses can give you a more compelling reason to stick to a sleep schedule.

Social connection. The size and quality of your interpersonal relationships is a powerful buffer against infectious disease. In a classic study titled “Social Ties and Susceptibility to the Common Cold”, participants with the fewest social connections showed 4.2 times greater susceptibility to developing cold symptoms relative to those with the most social connections. Notably, this effect was observed under carefully controlled disease exposure conditions. Across the lifespan and even across different mammalian species, research shows that isolation weakens the immune system. Alternatively, social support and higher quality relationships protect us against illness by strengthening the immune system. Stay-at-home guidelines helping to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have had the unintended effect of increasing isolation and loneliness for many. It is critical during these challenging times that we make effective use of technological and personal protective equipment resources towards the goal of maintaining our relationships.  

Exercise – Surprisingly to some, exercise has much stronger benefits for the immune system than for weight loss. For example, a 2020 study published in the journal, Cell, showed that a single session of exercise altered the activity of nearly 10,000 molecules. These changes included molecules involved in energy production, tissue repair, and immune system function. Decades of previous research already demonstrated activation of immune system activity during exercise, reduced risk of infectious disease among regular exercisers, and less severe symptoms and shorter disease half-lives among regular exercisers when ill. COVID-19 policies created significant barriers to maintaining regular exercise habits. Many curtailed their exercise programs this year, hoping the pandemic would be over quickly and they could resume former routines. This hope appears increasingly unlikely. We may need to instead turn the page on former routines for the foreseeable future and develop sustainable alternatives. Thankfully, we have plenty of help. In mere months, an entire online exercise industry has emerged to provide technology-based classes, online trainers, home exercise programs, and apps to help people track and share their progress.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Improve your microbiome – Your gastrointestinal tract contains a staggering 10 trillion+ microorganisms commonly called the microbiome. Once thought to primarily affect digestion, research shows that the tiny organisms making up the microbiome play a crucial role in the development and function of the immune system, including risk for infectious diseases. 2020 research studying links between COVID-19 and the microbiome further suggest links between microbiome health and COVID-19 symptom severity, suggesting that strengthening the microbiome could lower the risk of serious COVID-19 complications. Fortunately, improving the microbiome doesn’t require medicines or supplements. Eliminating sugars and processed foods, consuming more vegetables, fruits, and products from organically raised animals, along with quality sleep and regular exercise, could markedly improve microbiome health for most people.

Vitamin D and vitamin D. Vitamin D functions as a hormone in the body that is linked to many important functions, including immune system activity and risk for respiratory infections. Research in 2020 indicates that vitamin D deficiencies are very high among those dying from COVID-19. Vitamin D deficiencies are also common in the general population, particularly during the fall and winter months when sun exposure is low. Combined with previous evidence from randomized controlled trials demonstrating reduced risk of (non-COVID-19) respiratory infections among patients receiving vitamin D compared to placebo, this suggests that every person should be striving to maintain a normal vitamin D level through prudent sun exposure, fortified foods, and dietary supplements during the pandemic.