After several weeks of isolation, do you know how strong your immune system is?
As businesses reopen in phases and people start to congregate in public again, medical experts worry about how the typical American’s immune system will cope.
It’s a tricky question, said Bernadette Judge, a San Diego-based registered nurse. It all depends on your overall health, before and during quarantine.
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“If you were at home, eating fairly healthy and exercising, your immunity should be the same,” Judge said. “It’s all about diet, exercise, sleep and people being more aware of things they can do to keep their immunity up.”
Immune systems aren’t only important when we’re sick, she added. Their condition affects how our bodily processes function, like regulating blood pressure or cholesterol levels.
Judge, a consultant for Nupeutics Health, has listed five ways to naturally boost our immune systems as we transition back into the world after coronavirus-induced lockdown measures.
It was clear when COVID-19 began spreading in the U.S. that many people didn’t know proper hand hygiene, Judge said.
Two months later, she’s noticing that many people don’t know how to properly put on a face mask or gloves — if they’re wearing any personal protection equipment at all.
The skin on our hands is a great barrier and contains healthy bacteria that helps fight off viruses, which is why a good soap-and-water regimen is one of the strongest lines of defense, she said.
Wash your hands frequently, especially after using the restrooms or touching commonly-used items such as door handles or shopping carts.
Eight or more hours of sleep every night is more than a recommendation — it’s the foundation of a strong immune system.
Dr. Rizwana Sultana, assistant professor of sleep medicine at the University of Texas Medical Branch, said sleep is important because it helps with T-cell function and production. T-cells, also called lymphocytes, protect the body from pathogens and cancer cells.
Simply put, T-cells will protect us from getting sick if we come into contact with COVID-19, Sultana said. And if we sleep better, we will boost their production.
“If you’re sleep-deprived, there are more chances for you to get the flu, a cold or COVID-19,” she said. “People are using more stimulants in the form of electronics; light is a cue for our bodies to stay awake or asleep, so if you’re exposed to light at nighttime, you will be more awake at night.”
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With more people working from home than ever before, Sultana said our body’s natural circadian rhythm is off-balance. A lack of routine is disrupting our sleep schedules, she said.
Rather than going to bed at a reasonable time and waking up to start the day, many people are staying up late and remaining in bed for longer than normal. People are also taking more naps out of boredom, not necessarily sleepiness or fatigue.
Choose a bedtime that will provide you with at least eight hours of restful sleep, she said. And dim your bedside lamps once the sun goes down.
Sultana recommends turning off the TV and any electronics, including your cellphone, a full hour before you plan to be asleep. When light enters our eye, it tells our brain that it’s not time to sleep yet, she added.
Take that hour to do your nightly routine: brush your teeth, perform your skincare routines, read a book or do meditative breathing.
Stress and alcohol work in tandem to create inflammation, which negatively affects our immune system, Judge said.
“It’s crazy how much people are drinking because it will kill your immune system,” she said. “But people who are afraid to go outside with the possibility of coronavirus out there, they feel that it’s OK to get a buzz each night.”
Drinking too much alcohol does more than throw off our immune systems; it affects our sleep and gastrointestinal tract which can put our bodies in fatigue mode, she said. When we’re tired, we up our intake of stimulants, like caffeine, which sets off a new chain reaction of negative events in the body.
For light and moderate drinkers, it is smart to select one day a week to drink an alcoholic beverage. And try to keep it to one glass, said Amy Jo Palmquest, a dietitian and personal trainer from Washington state.
Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Drink alcohol, soda and other sugary beverages (including juices) in moderation.
Stress on its own wreaks havoc. When combined with fear and anxiety, both of which are common feelings during a global pandemic, the body creates hormones that promote inflammation, affecting our immune system’s cells.
“When stressed under normal circumstances, the body releases cortisol,” Judge said. “With chronic stress, the body gets used to the cortisol and doesn’t know how to function outside of that state.”
Stress will start to break down all our bodily systems, which is why a bacteria and virus can go in and cause major infections. Judge said our bodies are “too busy” fixing other ailments from the stress breakdown to fully acknowledge a new infection.
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Chronic stress can also cause an increased heart rate and blood pressure.
Judge recommends reducing mental and emotional stress by exercising, clearly communicating your needs and talking through challenges with people you trust.
“Trust your body to tell you when something is wrong and reach out to a health care professional,” she said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry, but do your due diligence. Nothing is small.”
Lastly, a well-balanced diet will work wonders, Judge said.
A well-balanced meal according to the USDA’s MyPlate guidelines is 50 percent vegetables, 25 percent starches like vegetables, potatoes or bread, and 25 percent protein.
As for caffeine, a woman who weighs 180 pounds or less should not have more than 250 mg of caffeine in a 24-hour period. This is equivalent to three 8-ounce cups of coffee. For a man who weighs 200 pounds or more, the limit should be 300-350 mg of caffeine or four cups of coffee.
The cups should be spread during the day: early morning, late morning and early afternoon. It’s important to not drink caffeine too late in the afternoon.
Less caffeine consumption will lead you to have more restful sleep, which aids in a stronger immune system.
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