- Wash your hands!
- Keep your distance from people you suspect to be sick. Right now…that’s everyone.
- Exercise! Just don’t be a crazy person and push yourself to the point of near-death.
- Avoid nicotine, alcohol, and excess stress.
- Fruits and veggies make you healthier, happier, and more resistant to all diseases.
- Sleep! It’s your body’s recovery mode.
- Drink enough water to make you pee mostly clear, every 2-4 hours.
- Vitamin C might help up to a point, but it’s vastly overrated. Mega-doses will only give you diarrhea.
- Vitamin D, on the other hand, is incredibly underrated for many aspects of health, and can be supplemented if you don’t get out much.
- Multivitamins are generally good to make sure you’re not deficient in any random micronutrients although most healthy people don’t need them as much as they think.
- Herbs and dietary supplements might help, but focus on the basics first.
JT here, again.
We’re in a pretty unusual situation these days, what with the whole “unprecedented global pandemic” thing going on. There are a couple things everyone can and should be doing to minimize potential exposure, namely social distancing and self-quarantine whenever possible, but what else can you do? How can you reduce your chances of getting sick throughout the year? Well fear not gentle reader, for here are some science-backed strategies you can use to keep your immune system firing on all cylinders.
This should go without saying. Our hands are the primary means by which we interact with our environment. Chances are, most of the time you get sick it’s because your hands touched something icky and didn’t get thoroughly washed before you touched something delicate. Like your face. You’d be surprised – and perhaps slightly horrified – just how much you touch your face without even realizing it, as the various mucous membranes located on/around/inside the face make it a pretty common infection region.
Washing your hands means more than just throwing water on your fingers and calling it a day. Wet your hands, lather soap and scrub all surfaces of your hands/fingernails/wrists, rinse thoroughly, and dry off. It should take at least 20 seconds, which is roughly the length of time as the chorus to “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees. [“whether you’re a brother or whether you’re a mother you’re stayin’ alive…stayin’ alive…feel the city breakin’ and everybody shakin’ when you’re stayin’ alive…stayin’ alive…ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive…ah, ah, ah, ah, stayin’ aliiiiiiiii-iiiiiiii-iiiiiiiii-iiiiiive…”]
If that song now gets stuck in your head every time you’re at the bathroom sink…you’re welcome! Fun fact: “Stayin’ Alive” also has the perfect tempo for performing chest compressions during CPR (100 bpm). Who knew that song was so aptly titled?
Anyway, this link here from Harvard Medical School has some good tips for preventing infection through basic hygiene. Here are some bullet points:
- Wash your hands whenever they’re exposed to dirt, pets, bodily fluids, raw meat, or sick people
- Cover your mouth & nose with a tissue (or the front side of your elbow) whenever you cough or sneeze
- First aid: Wash and bandage all cuts, and get serious cuts (or bites from animals or humans) checked out by a doctor
- General grossness: Don’t pick at scabs, don’t squeeze pimples, and don’t share eating utensils or dishes with other people unless you’re okay with sharing whatever diseases they may have
This one is near and dear to my heart. There is a great body of evidence showing that exercise improves immune function, and while personally I’m a fan of hard workouts with lots of heavy lifting and breathing, remember that it is possible to have too much of a good thing here.
What does “too much” mean? For our purposes, it just means “don’t exceed your body’s ability to recover.” If you have to rebuild half the muscle fibers in your legs while churning out additional lymphocytes to fend off a cold, it’s not going to end well for you. There is a common notion that intense exercise weakens immune function, but this is false…up to a point. The immune system is perfectly capable of upregulating its function and distributing needed cells to peripheral tissues, but as with all things there comes a point of diminishing returns.
Whatever your workout style of choice, try to keep your training volume (total workload, for non-exercise-geeks) from getting out of control. Don’t expect to stay healthy if your idea of exercise means a bootcamp session, bro-split chest & tris, a CrossFit “hero” WOD, and a 10k run back-to-back. You should feel GOOD at the end of a workout, even if you’re tired. It’s totally fine to strain and sweat and push the envelope, but if you frequently collapse in an incoherent heap and are debilitatingly sore…you’re overdoing it. (This is good advice in general, really.)
Don’t smoke, drink, or get too stressed out
Don’t do it.
Don’t do it.
(On second thought…this may be more difficult to avoid while in quarantine, so at least try not to do it too much.)
Chronic stress keeps your body in a sympathetic nervous state (aka fight-or-flight mode), which interferes with digestion and general recovery. Try to find healthy outlets for stress, like cardiovascular exercise, yoga, meditation, or a good ol’ fashioned “scream into a pillow until you collapse on the bed” sesh.
Eat your plants
This means lots of fresh fruits and vegetables (frozen is just as good). Foods to eat more of include tomatoes, garlic, berries, apples, leafy greens, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli. Multiple studies and literature reviews have shown reductions in all-cause mortality from increased consumption of these and similar foods; one particularly relevant study showed reduced risk of upper respiratory tract infection among pregnant women who ate more fruits and vegetables. Additionally, breakdown products of dietary fiber (found in fruits and veggies) help control the body’s immune response and maintain homeostasis.
More fruits and veggies = more resistance to disease. Mom was right!
Eat enough protein
Protein gets a lot of attention in the fitness community since you can’t build muscle without it, but it’s also very important for T-cell production and immune function.
“Enough” protein is something of a controversial topic, but recommendations from health and sports scientists range from 0.5 g/lb/day (half a gram of protein, per pound of bodyweight, per day) if you’re just sitting around, up to 1.0 g/lb/day or more if you lift lots of heavy stuff on the regular. And don’t worry, high protein diets do not cause adverse reactions in healthy adults that do resistance training. If you’re worried about eating too much protein, go lift something and give your body something to do with all those amino acids.
Pro tip: Make sure that you get SOME kind of protein at each meal, preferably low in saturated fats (fish, lean cuts of meat/poultry, egg whites, legumes, nuts/seeds, low-fat dairy) for the sake of your cardiovascular system. I personally don’t do well with legumes or dairy, so I eat quite a bit of the other things listed – lots of fish, chicken breast, hemp protein, and egg whites.
Sleep is HUGELY underrated in its ability to keep you healthy and happy in pretty much every way. For our purposes here, it has a big part to play in immunity – getting lots of sleep reduces risk of infection and improves ability to overcome infections in progress. What’s more, prolonged sleep deprivation increases the risk of all kinds of maladies including Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and diabetes.
Get your Z’s.
Proper hydration levels are important for basically every homeostatic function. Immune regulation, cognitive processing, athletic performance…all of it requires good hydration. You should aim to pee every 2-4 hours while awake, assuming you don’t have any issues with your urinary tract. If you’re running to the bathroom more often than that, maybe cool it a bit with your Hydroflask.
One zombie idea – a notion contrary to all evidence but that stubbornly refuses to die, like flat-earthers or anti-vaxxers – is that super-high doses of vitamin C knock out viruses like Mike Tyson. This isn’t true.
Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble vitamin; the body will absorb as much as it can and then excrete the rest. If you go WAY overboard, you will get very uncomfortable diarrhea. Remember, ascorbic ACID…it’s not fun.
That said, if you want to supplement up to a gram or so per day you’ll most likely be fine, and there’s a chance it might help your overall health if you don’t currently eat lots of fruits or veggies. Probably best to work on that though…it’s pretty low-hanging fruit as far as health goes (ah ah ahhhh! …not sorry).
Vitamin D, it turns out, does much more than help your bones absorb calcium – it’s also integral to protein synthesis and preventing atrophy of skeletal muscle. Not only that, there are vitamin D receptors on all immune cells, and deficiency makes you more susceptible to autoimmunity as well as infection.
If you aren’t getting out in the midday sun on a daily basis, supplementing up to 5000 IU vitamin D3 can be a safe way to avoid deficiency. (Some people advocate higher dosages, but I’d get bloodwork done and ask a doctor first. Don’t take potentially dangerous medical advice from strangers on the internet.)
“I heard [insert herb/supplement here] does a lot to boost your immune system! What do you think?”
Most herbs and other dietary supplements have not been validated through high-quality research to actually reduce incidence of viral infection. That’s not to say they DON’T work, merely that we can’t say for sure that they DO. (Science!)
A multivitamin is a good idea to cover your micronutrient bases, but many trials have failed to establish a benefit for preventing disease if you don’t have any actual nutrient deficiencies – in other words, if you eat a healthy and varied diet with lots of different fruits and vegetables, you probably don’t actually need a multivitamin. You might just end up with expensive pee, but at least it likely won’t hurt you.
Also, anything with a large amount of phytonutrients (greens powder, dark hemp extract, herbs and spices) will have either a neutral or positive effect on inflammation and immunity, though evidence for that is limited.
And hey, if you try something random and it works…go for it! At the end of the day, efficacy is king. But remember, always start with the basics: Hygiene, sleep, exercise, and healthy lifestyle are your go-to’s for keeping the bugs away. They will always outperform whatever fad your aunt Gertrude shared on Facebook.
Until next time:
Get your Z’s, eat your greens, do some exercise, and wash your hands!