Want a defense against COVID-19? Strengthen your immune system.

Your immune system is an intricate, codependent structure of white blood cells, antibodies, complex proteins, networks, and organs. Some parts of the system act as literal barriers, preventing viruses and bacteria from reaching organs like your brain, while others hunt and remove invaders from your body. 

Though your immune system is effective against many disease-causing germs and viruses, it requires time to familiarize itself with the enemy. In many scenarios, it must be able to recognize an illness-causing pathogen as a danger before it can be removed from your body. This is typically only possible once you’ve developed specific antibodies after having been sick or receiving a vaccine. Here are some important words to know when understanding how your immune system works.

  • Pathogens: Microbes that can infect the body and cause illness.
  • Antigens: Proteins found on the surface of pathogens.
  • Antibodies: Healthy proteins that can recognize and bind with specific antigens. 

When an antibody recognizes the antigen of an invading pathogen, it binds itself to it tightly. Once attached it acts as a beacon, signaling other elements of the immune system to attack the invader. 

Immune system limitations against COVID-19

It’s important to know that a strong immune system will not prevent you from contracting COVID-19. 

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is a novel pathogen, meaning those who contract it have no existing antibodies to mount a defense. For that reason, it remains imperative to continue practicing social distancing, good hand hygiene, and cough etiquette.

However, developing a strong immune system while you’re healthy can sustain your body as it familiarizes itself with the new virus in the event you get sick. Taking steps now to boost your immune health can also help you fight other common bugs such as cold or flu viruses.

More research is necessary, but it’s believed that quality exercise and activity, nutrition, emotional and psychological wellbeing, and lifestyle choices can benefit your immune system. Here are tips, tricks, and myth busting facts to help you feel as healthy as possible.

Boost your immune system through exercise and physical activity

“Moderate intensity physical activity is associated with better immune function, lower levels of anxiety, and perceived stress,” says Liz Joy, MD, senior medical director of Wellness and Nutrition at Intermountain Healthcare. Here are five ways to get more physical activity in your day.

  1. Keep moving: The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend 150-300 minutes per week of moderate intensity aerobic physical activity, and 2 sessions per week of muscle strength training. Fit in 2, 5, 10 or 20 minutes, however and wherever you can. Every active minute counts! 
  2. Try indoor activities: Put some music on and walk briskly around the house or up and down the stairs for 10-15 minutes 2 or 3 times per day. Dance to your favorite music, jump rope, do an exercise video or a live or recorded exercise class, or use home cardio machines. 
  3. Try outdoor activities: Walk or jog around your neighborhood, spend time in nature, go for a bike ride, garden or do yard work, or play active games with your family. Staying physically active outdoors is one of the best ways to keep your mind and body healthy. In many areas people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with others. Visit parks that are close to your home, prepare before you visit, stay at least 6 feet away from others don’t use playgrounds, and wash your hands when you get home. 
  4. Try muscle strength training: Download a strength workout app to your smart phone, such as the 7-Minute Workout (no equipment necessary, Android, iOS). Do a strength training video or online/recorded exercise class. Find ways to do simple muscle strengthening exercises around your house such as: Squats or sit-to-stands from a sturdy chair, Push-ups against a wall, the kitchen counter, or the floor. Try lunges or single leg step-ups on stairs. If watching TV, get up periodically and do a lap around your place or complete an active chore such as throwing clothes in the laundry, doing the dishes or taking out the garbage. Feel productive after just one show! 
  5. Try Yoga: Deep breathing and mindfulness can also reduce anxiety. Avoid crowded spaces and maintain physical distancing of at least 6 feet and be sure to wash your hands when you get home.

RELATED: Staying active while you’re staying home

 

Moderate-intensity physical activity is associated with a healthier immune system, but high-intensity, high-volume training may suppress immune function, especially if you’re unaccustomed to it. Remember to balance your workout program. 

Healthy lifestyle practices

Getting quality sleep, eating nutritious meals, and managing your stress are meaningful ways to elevate your immune system. 

Sleep is one of the most important health behaviors for optimal immune function, mental and physical health, and quality of life. 

The CDC and American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends 7 or more hours of sleep for adults, 8-10 hours for teens, 9-12 hours for school age children, 10-13 hours for preschoolers (including naps), and 11-14 hours for toddlers (including naps) in a 24-hour period.

In times of stress and uncertainty it becomes even more important to engage in strategies that can help manage stress such as regular exercise, healthy meals, relaxation/mindfulness, self-care and connection (within the COVID-19 guidelines for social distancing). Each of these health behaviors are associated with better sleep. 

Engage in some type of mindfulness/meditation practice regularly to reduce the effects of stress on the body’s immune system. Consider daily meditation using an app like Headspace or try Intermountain’s daily online live guidance at:  Online Mindfulness Schedule 

RELATED: Managing stress and sleep

Enhancing your immune system through food

Nutrition is a critical component of your immune response. “Just like poor nutrition can deteriorate your immune system, quality nutrition can be the foundation for strength,” says Charlotte Hunter, a registered dietitian at the LiVe Well Center in Salt Lake City. “Balanced nutrition, can enhance your ability to resist infections and remain healthy." Modest amounts of a combination of these 5 essential vitamins and minerals will keep your body healthy. 

  • Vitamin C has antibodies which help fight against bacteria and infections. Try consuming more oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, strawberries, red bell peppers and tomato juice to get your fill of Vitamin C.
  • Vitamin D is used to fight off infections as well as works to maintain strong bones. Find Vitamin D in salmon, mushrooms, fortified milk, cereals and breads. 
  • Vitamin A helps to regulate the immune system and protects against infections by keeping your tissues and skin healthy.  Vitamin A can be found in foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots and spinach. 
  • Vitamin E is another essential antioxidant whose job is to fight cell damage. Plant based foods such as nuts and peanut butter are filled with vitamin E.
  • Zinc works as an antioxidant and boosts the metabolism along with helping to heal wounds.  Meat, shellfish, beans/legumes and nuts/seeds are high zinc foods.

While it’s generally considered safe to take a multivitamin, there’s little evidence to suggest that taking high doses of certain vitamins and minerals individually will decrease your chances of getting sick. The best approach to preventing illness is to eat a diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, heart healthy fats, and lean proteins to provide your body with the best variety of nutrients. 

Ideas for healthy snacking

Struggling with having too many tasty snack options while working from home? Here are some tips to help keep calorie consumption down.  

  • Have more fruits and vegetables on hand at home. Pair fruits and vegetables with filling dips such as hummus, yogurt or guacamole.  
  • Don’t skip meals. Start the day off with a hearty filling breakfast to get you going for the day. Take a break from work to sit down and enjoy a lunch filled with vegetables, protein and whole grains.   
  • Keep less healthy snacks out of reach and out of sight. Freeze your baked goods to make them less accessible. Put the candy in the garage or basement to reduce reaching for them mindlessly.  
  • When craving savory snacks find an alternative to chips. Consider nuts and seeds, whole grains or even beans like the recipe for roasted, seasoned chickpeas:
    • 1 can of chickpeas tossed in olive oil, curry powder, and paprika.
    • Bake at 375 for 25 minutes or until crispy. 

While you may not be able to completely avoid getting sick, a strong and healthy immune system can be your first line of defense. Focusing on your immune health can also help take the edge off your symptoms if you do get sick.