Health is not just an absence of illness. At the very least health includes a well-functioning immune system, our bodies’ first defense against pathogens that cause disease. This includes COVID-19, the coronavirus.
We are all constantly exposed to bacteria, viruses, and parasites even if we wash our hands twenty times a day. If our immune system is working well, it creates a barrier that stops the antigens from entering the body altogether. This is the first line of defense. If this fails, the second line is for the immune system to produce white blood cells, chemicals and proteins that find, attack and destroy the antigens before they can reproduce. If that fails, the immune system destroys the antigens as they multiply. If the antigens are able to multiply a lot you will feel lousy as your body fights the disease in earnest. You will have unpleasant symptoms. A large part of your energy will go towards your immune system’s battle. You will be sick.
I don’t know about you, but I want to stay at defense levels one and two. And this is more than possible, even with the coronavirus. Don’t get me wrong—handwashing and not touching your face does reduce the amount of pathogens that make it to your immunity barrier, but it doesn’t eliminate them entirely unless you live in a special isolation bubble. To be healthy, you also need your immune system functioning robustly. The following suggestions (to do before you become sick) may strike you as common sense, but, to paraphrase Voltaire, in the middle of a pandemic common sense is sometimes not so common.
- Walk. Walking is a miracle remedy that, among its many wonders, boosts the immune system in a dramatic way. Other physical activities are also good, but if you’re reluctant to go the gym or yoga class due to exposure concerns, a brisk 30-minute walk won’t require you to get close to others or touch anything. To keep the immune system on high function you need 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day. Not three hours on a weekend. 30 minutes every day.
- Cut out sugar. Yes, this includes donuts. Sugar is addictive and hidden in every nook and cranny of the standard American diet. High blood sugar suppresses your immune system. Even food items that say “healthy” often have added sugars. Read labels and don’t buy anything with more than 2 grams of added sugars per serving. Don’t drink anything with added sugar or high fructose corn syrup. If this seems like agony, give yourself permission to have one tiny sweet thing a day. But really, once you cut added sugars out of your diet, your taste buds will recalibrate and you’ll find many things in a healthy diet are naturally sweet and satisfying.
- Don’t binge drink alcohol. Remember that alcohol is addictive and toxic to the human body. I’m not saying don’t drink at all—I like my wine, too—but treat it with the caution it deserves. Three drinks in an evening impact the immune system. Five drinks in an evening really mess up the immune system.
- Cut out junk/fast food. An unhealthy diet generates a cascade of negative biological effects that extend over a surprising period of time. One of those effects is a messed up immune system. If you want to be healthy, you have to eat for nutrition, not for convenience, not for emotional comfort, and not to satisfy cravings for salt/fat/sugar. But this doesn’t have to be a sacrifice. Healthy foods cooked with healthy fats can be delicious, truly.
- Stop smoking. Smoking damages immune response and especially increases susceptibility to pneumonia. This is one of the reasons that COVID-19 is killing so many more men than women in China—men are fifty times heavier smokers there.
- Sleep enough, at least 7 hours a night. Any less and your T-cells are affected. T-cells are especially important for your immune system to effectively fight viruses. Ways to get more sleep—go to bed 30 minutes earlier, cut out caffeine and alcohol, exercise during the day, sleep in a cool, dark room without electronics, don’t have cats that wake you up in the middle of the night like I do.
- Sweat/steam—Isak Dinesen said the cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears or the sea. Fifteen minutes in a sauna will increase white blood cell count and stimulate your immune system. If you feel chilled or a little off, it really can head a virus off at the pass.
- Avoid wood fires except in high efficiency wood stoves or fireplace inserts. Breathing wood smoke is surprisingly bad for you, and wood-burning fireplaces tend to create a lot of smoke, both indoors and out. Among other things, the chemicals in wood smoke impede pulmonary immune response and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections. Also a good idea to avoid car and diesel exhaust.
- Don’t get chilled. Don’t go outside with wet hair. Don’t allow your feet to remain wet. This is different than don’t go out in the cold or don’t walk in the rain. Proper clothing will keep you warm and dry. But if your body temperature drops, key immune system proteins are impaired, making it more likely for viruses to replicate. Dry your hair! Change out of wet shoes/wet socks as soon as you can! (Yes, I know I sound like your mom. I still say these things to my adult children.)
- Listen to your body. Sometimes, if you feel a bit off–on the verge of coming down with something—if you give your immune system a boost right then you can kick whatever’s looming. A nice walk might work, or a hot bath, or an early bed. Or some form of tonic or pick-me-up might appeal. Some things I’ve found that work for me (your mileage may vary): chickenbone broth with lemon and cayenne, cherry bark syrup, fire cider vinegar, three roots tea (licorice/ginger/turmeric). What works for you? Put it in the comments!
- Healthy food. Brightly-colored veggies, berries, mushrooms, and garlic all have immune boosting properties.
- Reduce stress.Chronic stress hammers the immune system. Reduce the impact through meditation, exercise, counseling and/or social support. Just to note: chronic fear creates chronic stress. Wigging out about the corona virus is not what you want to spend your day doing.
- Increase happiness/kindness. Depression and loneliness suppress the immune system, happiness and kindness boost it. For ways to decrease your unhappiness and increase your happiness read this.
- Get out in sunlight/nature. Huddling inside obsessing on the internet is not good for your health. Being outside in nature and sunlight is.
Your health is not random, nor is it predetermined. You have immense influence over it. Don’t just stock up on toilet paper and hand sanitizer—take active steps to bolster your body’s built-in, sophisticated disease-conquering mechanism. Most healthy people under 70 who are exposed to the coronavirus either don’t get sick or are ill just a few days. If the horse is already out of the barn in your area (i.e. the virus has already been circulating for weeks,) for your family’s sake and for your community’s sake, you want the virus to bounce right off you if you’re exposed to it. In this way you won’t fill a hospital bed or need a ventilator or require drugs that might be in short supply. In this way, you can take care of family members who fall ill. In this way, you can go shopping or prepare meals or mow the lawn for a neighbor in need. Plus, being healthy, you’ll feel great! Taking time for your health is not selfish, it’s how you can actively contribute to the greater good. If schools end up closed in your region, feed your kids healthy food and let them be active. If playgrounds seem a risk, take them on bike rides and hikes in nature. It will be good for you all!
Note: This is not medical advice. If you are ill, consult your health care provider.