A healthy immune system will stop invading pathogens early and swiftly, with just the right level of response. A healthy immune system is constantly encountering microbes, interacting, learning and defending. Here are some good hygiene essentials (to prevent transmission) and daily practices to encourage healthy immune function (resilience for all it does encounter).
Prevent the spread of infection & support your immune system:
Good hygiene is a must - through any cold & flu season, and especially now!
Find COVID-19 specific recommendations from the CDC here.
1) Wash your hands regularly – with SOAP and WATER – for at least 20 seconds, help kids do this too! *Note: soap & water are preferred to alcohol-based hand sanitizer (use it if soap isn’t available)
2) Cover your mouth and nose (with a tissue) if you cough or sneeze – and wash your hands afterwards!
3) Avoid touching your face (eyes/nose/mouth) with unwashed hands.
4) Stay at home if you’re feeling sick (!) – self-isolation means: don't go out, don’t share drinks/food/utensils and disinfect commonly touched surfaces/objects to reduce spread. In Ontario, call 1-866-797-0000 or take this virtual assessment if you have symptoms and are unsure if it's the COVID-19 virus - hopefully testing will become more widely available.
5) Get sufficient deep sleep: at least 7 hours/night. Sleep is restorative – while you’re sleeping, your body repairs the wear and tear it has endured during the day. If you wake up often, or get less hours of sleep, your body will not have enough time to repair, build and strengthen the immune system. More sleep support.
6) Exercise daily: All movement will stimulate lymphatic flow, allowing your body to clear out the gunk that you encounter throughout the day. Exercise strengthens the adrenal glands, heping you cope with stress more efficiently, balance cortisol, and sleep better. Too much strenuous exercise will increase stress on your body and may reduce your immune health. Get fresh air with your daily movement - during the COVID-19 pandemic, this may mean opening a window, using a backyard, or safely distancing during a walk or run.
7) Reduce stress: Stress on your body can come from emotional, physical and physiologic causes. Inflammation is a marker of stress and will distract your immune system from defending against infection. Try meditation or yoga.
8) Eat a variety of mushrooms (shiitake, white button, cremini, portobello, etc) and antioxidants (colourful vegetables - broccoli, kale, peppers, spinach, collards and more - see my post on antioxidants) in your diet to boost your immune system and reduce inflammation.
9) Supplements and herbal recommendations require individualized support. Immune supporting herbs in formulas (supporting deep immune function by acting as immune modulators - not immune stimulants) are great tools to help your immune system function optimally. These wonderful herbs are not helpful during an acute illness. Please read cautions on labels before purchasing or book an appointment to make sure a product is right for you. In the transition to fall and winter, and sometimes straight through the winter, I like to recommend "Change of Season Soup" - herbs that come from Traditional Chinese Medicine and support the body's immune functions.
What might a healthy immune response feel like?
Nothing: you may not notice your body's response if you are eating and sleeping well, getting exercise daily
Evening tiredness: occasionally, not daily, feeling a bit more tired than usual earlier in the evening, or maybe even a tickle of a sore throat or ears, could clue you in to your body actively at work - this resolves with a good night's sleep!
Fever: this is a helpful response if not overly high and short-lived - mostly seen in children to crank up the core temperature and kill of the invading pathogen (our cells are more resilient to increased temperatures). This response should be proportional to the infection, and you should not regularly be having a fever.
Quick bounce-back: after a good night's sleep, you feel refreshed, or after about 7-10 days (depending on the particular pathogen - this is average) of using a lot of tissues/coughing/feeling tired/feeling achy, you generally are ready to get back to all your usual activities and have no lingering symptoms.
Signs of an under-responsive (over-burdened) immune system:
Frequently sick: when an infection is going around in the community, you always pick it up right away, and often have more severe symptoms than others
Lingering symptoms: after an initial 7-10 day infection, your symptoms drag on (runny/stuffy nose, or chronic cough) and may be followed by more severe infections (ie. bronchitis, pneumonia)
Constant fatigue / low energy: something is keeping your energy low, your body doesn't have the energy it needs to mount the appropriate immune response
High stress / anxiety: your cortisol is spiked and you're in "fight-or-flight" too often - you are likely having difficulty winding down to sleep at night (or you're crashing too early)
Inflammation: can present in so many ways - most chronic health conditions have underlying inflammation! (learn more about lung inflammation)
Are you at risk of complications from an acute infection?
Learn more about immune function & book a visit for individualized care
If you're over 65, have diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, lung conditions or otherwise weakened lung function (including asthma), your immune health may be compromised.
For more tips, including customized herbal and supplement recommendations, book an appointment with Dr. Natalie Senst, ND.
All naturopathic visits are available virtually to Ontario residents during the COVID-19 pandemic, as of March 2020. Depending on the current situation, in-person clinic appointments may be available (subject to a screening questionnaire).