We talk a lot about avoiding a threat like COVID-19. You likely know avoiding gatherings, social distancing, washing hands, not shaking hands, not touching your face and wearing masks and personal protective gear are important.
But your body is designed to protect you from outside threats. Your immune system is a highly organized and mobile unit, designed to fight to protect you.
Unlike other parts of the body, the immune system is difficult to visualize. After all, you know what the heart looks like and where it beats. But your immune system is just that: a system. It involves a variety of cells and messages between them. Plus, it’s something that patrols your entire body.
Think about it as any kind of protect-and-defend system – it just happens at a microscopic level. It goes through a very similar process as societal defense mechanisms.
And like the city police, state police, FBI, etc., there is a lot of redundancy built into the system, designed to help you. Your skin serves as the first, outer shield to your insides. Even protection for your ears – that’s what wax is for – nose and lungs have filters and cilia that act like brooms, trying to make sure bad stuff from the outside stays outside.
Once inside, or against an inside renegade like a cancer cell, this defense system goes into action. It’s what rushes in when you scrape yourself. When you have a cold or are sick from a virus, your immune cells recognize some nasty stuff causing problems and send in other immune cells to fight them. The result of that fight is what you see or feel – coughing, runny nose, inflammation, fever and things of that sort.
You also might see it when you cut yourself or twist an ankle. Redness or swelling are a result of those immune cells identifying a problem and sending in cells to heal the area. Ultimately, it’s what heals you.
Yet when we talk about vibrant longevity, it’s not just about how your body handles the flu or a bum joint. It’s much more about how your immune system handles the major threats that if not defeated, will kill you, like MERS, SARS, COVID-19 or a cancer. Strengthening your immune system is key for keeping you young inside.
It should be noted your immune system, after you turn about 50, loses some of its juice. It is less able to identify and attack invaders, which is the reason self-engineering your immune system is vital and you should do all you can to keep it in top shape.
Tips for self-engineering your immune system
• Quality sleep: Poor sleep is associated with decreased immune function and decreased rate of vaccines working, for that very reason. That means not only getting at least 7 hours of sleep, but also making sure it’s quality sleep. Good sleep hygiene, meaning no screens in the bedroom and not eating for a few hours before sleep, is crucial to making sure you get rest. Getting great sleep for several days prior to a flu shot boosts its success in protecting for influenza viruses.
• Manage stress: One of the major threats to your immune system is chronic stress, which causes a cascade of hormonal responses that weakens your immune function over time. And while we’re of the belief there’s no such thing as total stress relief – stress is simply a byproduct of living a fulfilling life – we believe there are ways to self-engineer the effects that negative and chronic stress can have on the body. Of course stress management can take many shapes and forms, and you should engage in those activities that work for you, as long as they’re healthy – a nightly assembly line of martinis does not qualify. Meditation, deep breathing, social connections by phone or video chat in this time of “social distancing,” and at least 10 other techniques have been shown to increase immune function.
• Enjoy healthy food: Vegetables are nature’s best protective medicine – they’re fortified with so many good-for-you compounds and nutrients. When it comes to preventing or fighting enemies of longevity, if there’s one thing you can do to help reduce your risk, it’s to make a conscious effort to cover more of your plate with veggies and fruits. Make them great-tasting, and it helps to avoid red and processed meat, simple sugar, syrups and carbs that are not 100% whole grain. The best approach is to diversify your portfolio of fruits and vegetables – think leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, berries and citrus fruits.
This will help improve the chances that all your micronutrients – vitamins A, B, C and D, and minerals like zinc and selenium – are covered. It’s also a good idea to supplement with half a multivitamin-multimineral supplement twice a day (morning and night) to ensure all of your bases are covered. Taking it for several weeks prior to a flu shot is another way to boost the flu shot’s success in protecting you for influenza viruses.
• Move, move, move: Any movement is great, but increasing progressively over time can boost immune functioning. Note, though, that over-exercising is associated with decreased immune function. Training by running continuously for more than two hours, or biking more than two hours continuously, would classify as over-exercising, as doing more than two hours of exercises continuously causes inflammation and depresses your immune system.
• Cut out toxins: This includes vaping, smoking cigarettes and consuming too much alcohol.
• Cover your cough.
• Get vaccines.
• Wash your hands.
Yes, you get to engineer your immune system so it can help you ward off the current headline threat, as well as the big longevity stopper – cancer. Take the opportunity.
Dr. Michael Roizen writes about wellness for the Cleveland Jewish News. He is chief wellness officer and chair of the Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic.