This isn’t a post about washing your hands and staying away from crowded places. You know all that – it’s reiterated in countless articles all over the media. This post is about how you can boost your immune system. While it is not possible to be entirely immune to the Coronavirus (as it is a novel virus), you can lessen its impact and speed your recovery by boosting your body’s own defences. Keeping your immune system healthy will also help you to avoid catching other nasty viruses and bugs.
First off you are going to have to stop buying in to the fear. It really serves no purpose and actually undermines your immune system. Biologists know that a good immune system relies on the parasympathetic nervous system functioning well – and this happens when you relax. Think of that dreamy feeling you get after a yoga session. That is the parasympathetic system doing its thing. (The parasympathetic system is also associated with the gut and good digestion, which we will get to later).
When you are in a state of high anxiety or fear, however, the body presses the override switch and your sympathetic nervous system takes over. This is the system that is designed to keep you safe from physical danger: releasing adrenaline, raising the heart-rate and readying the muscles for a flight or flight response. The trouble with the sympathetic nervous system is that it isn’t only triggered by physical danger – it responds to that worry thought or fear just as if a lion had walked into the room. And when the sympathetic system is in dominance, the parasympathetic system doesn’t get a look-in, which means your immune system is compromised. In my view it’s best to avoid the doom and gloom media reports and the fear-mongering. You know there is a nasty virus, you know you need to take precautions. Instead focus on the positive things you can do for your health.
Feed your biome
These days the buzzword in biological research is the microbiome – the community of bacteria that live in your gut. Research is showing that all manner of illnesses are affected by the sort of crowd you are hosting there. You can feed your biome to encourage the good guys, which will subdue the bad ones. But what has this got to do with the coronavirus? It turns out that our microbiome programmes our immune system. Simply put, a healthy microbiome means a healthy immune system. Your microbiome loves the fibre found in fruit and vegetables and researchers recommend you eat as much variety as you can. Fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut and kombucha also go down well. It’s possible to buy prebiotic and probiotic supplements from health food shops, though researchers say that changing your diet to include more fibre is more effective (and cheaper!)
Another relatively new finding is that the immune system is compromised when there is inflammation in the body. You can combat inflammation with anti-inflammatory foods such as ginger, garlic and turmeric. One way to incorporate all of the above advice is to embark on a gentle cleansing diet for a couple of weeks. I am currently on a 21-day ayurvedic cleanse myself, where the main ingredient is kitchari. This vegan diet has mung beans and rice to provide all the protein your body needs as well as plenty of vegetables to provide a variety of fibre. It is flavoured with garlic, ginger, turmeric and other spices that serve to lower inflammation. Not only will this boost your immune system, it will improve your mood, too. Since the microbiome is linked to your parasympathetic system, when your gut is happy – so are you! (See my previous post, Cleanse the body, ease the mind.)
You probably know already, but I’ll just mention it – alcohol and excessive amounts of coffee suppress the immune system, so you’ll probably want to stay off those. Curiously, findings also show that too much sugar (think of those sugary drinks and snacks) has a similar immunocompromising effect.
Keep your lymph moving
Another element to consider is exercise. The body is designed to move, in fact your lymph system – the network of vessels that carry lymphatic fluid around the body – can’t function properly if you are immobile. This is because the lymph vessels don’t have a pump (like the heart that moves the blood around) and must rely passively on the movement of muscles and changes in posture in order to move around. Lymphatic fluid transports lymphocites around the body – the infection-fighting, virus-bashing heroes of the immune system. So daily movement of some kind, from jogging to yoga or even just taking the stairs instead of the lift, is vitally important to keep your lymph circulating efficiently.
Other things that assist your lymph system include drinking plenty of water, especially lemon-water; dry brushing and massage. Naturopaths recommend avoiding dairy products, too. This finding is more controversial, but in my experience it is true. I find that if I have milk after a long time without it, I notice an increase in phlegm (sorry if that is TMI !) or chestiness. Why not try going dairy-free for a week and see for yourself?
The mind-body connection
So we know that the stress reponse causes a surge in adrenaline and a switching off of our parasympathetic system, which in turn lowers our immunity. Apart from not buying in to fear, what else can we do? We can cultivate a calm state of mind through yoga and meditation. Even just sitting and practising a four count in-breath, followed by a pause and a four-count out-breath, followed by a pause and repeated for several minutes, will go some way towards relaxation.
But yoga can offer even more. There are asanas (poses) that specifically work on the immune system, targeting the thymus gland (the primary lymph organ of the immune system), the vegas nerve (which is the main conduit of the parasympathetic nervous system) and the lymph system. Postures such as the supported fish, the supported bridge and the waterfall are inversions of the body that assist the movement of lymphatic fluid.
You can also stimulate the thymus by gentle tapping (just above your sternum) and you can activate the vegas nerve, which runs through your voicebox, by chanting. A deep breath and a gentle ‘Om’ on the out breath is a marvellous way of ending a yoga practice. I have written about ‘Om’ (perhaps the greatest of all mantras) and 17 other easy mantras in my book ‘Essential Mantras for Everyone’. Check it out – it’s now available from Etsy as well as Amazon.
In a nutsell
Eat a vegan diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables, garlic, ginger and turmeric. Drink plenty of water. Keep moving. Practice yoga. Find a mantra to chant. That’s it! Try it for a couple of weeks and see how you feel. Hopefully it will keep you well – and happy – this flu season.