As news of the novel coronavirus — dubbed “COVID-19” by the World Health Organization — makes headlines as it spreads through China and the rest of the world, most attention has been directed towards prevention and quarantine. While properly washing your hands and avoiding crowds is a good idea if you live near an area that has reported cases, it’s important to also take steps to boost your immune system in case you actually come in contact with the virus so the body can effectively fight back.
The immune system is designed to fight off infection and disease. It has a number of ways to detect and destroy anything it recognizes as foreign to your body, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites or unhealthy cells such as cancer cells.
Viruses need the cell machinery in order to produce their own proteins. They are intracellular parasites that can only replicate inside cells, which is one of the reasons they’re not considered to be alive. The most effective mechanisms of the innate response against viral infections are mediated by interferon and by the activation of natural killer (NK) cells.
The strength of the immune system varies from person to person and, what’s more, from day to day because its ability to fight off infection fluctuates depending on many factors. Here are a couple of things you can do to keep your immune system in check during the COVID-19 outbreak.
With all the daily headlines sowing doom and gloom about the novel coronavirus, it’s easy to stress over it. Some are so panicked that they’ve begun stockpiling basic goods and food. It’s a good idea to be prepared for any major emergency — and this includes a viral outbreak — however bear in mind that stress hormones tax the immune system, making its response to viral infections less effective.
In short supply, the stress hormone cortisol can boost immunity by limiting inflammation. But, once it crosses a certain threshold, too much cortisol in the blood opens the door for more inflammation. Stress also negatively impacts the production of lymphocytes — the white blood cells that are the body’s first line of defense against infection — putting you at risk of viral disease.
During this particularly stressful period, try not to panic because you’ll only make matters worse. Remember, the effects of stress are cumulative, meaning even ordinary, day-to-day activities can eventually lead to more serious health issues.
“We already know that, for the vast majority of people that are already healthy, this is really more of an inconvenience to a lot of them than something that can be fatal or life-threatening,” said Dr. Caroline Sokol, an immunology researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital.
To relieve stress, take breaks when you feel burned out and try to practice some relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, meditation, or positive thinking.
Exercise but don’t go overboard
Regular exercise promotes cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and offers protection against diseases. Exercise also improves blood circulation, allowing immune system cells to move through the body more freely and do their job more effectively.
Although scientists have yet to establish a direct link between exercise and immune system health, it’s reasonable to presume that moderate regular exercise can help prevent disease by promoting overall health.
However, intense exercise can cause inflammation in the body that may send the immune system into overdrive. So, try not to take things overboard especially during times of seasonal viral outbreaks.
Eat a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables
The immune system is the body’s natural defense system, and like any army, its warriors need sustenance. It’s rather well established that people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases.
Although there are have been few studies that tie the effects of nutrition directly to the development of infectious diseases, there is evidence pointing to the fact that various micronutrient deficiencies — such as those of zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E — can alter the immune response in animals.
Make sure you eat a balanced diet with fruits and vegetables in order to receive the right proportion of micronutrients.
Smoking tobacco has several effects on immune system health, such as:
- greater susceptibility to infections such as pneumonia and influenza;
- more severe and longer-lasting illnesses;
- lower levels of protective antioxidants (such as vitamin C), in the blood.
Get enough sleep
Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus.
When we sleep, the body releases proteins called cytokines while sleep deprivation decreases their production. Cytokines are paramount during times of infection or inflammation. What’s more, the production of antibodies and immune cells is reduced when you don’t get enough sleep.
The optimal amount of sleep for most adults is between 7 and 8 hours. However, school-aged children and teenagers might need up to 10 hours of sleep.
A note on supplements. Although you’ll find bottles of pills and herbal supplements claiming to promote immunity or otherwise boost the immune system, there is no evidence that they actually bolster immunity.