Weathering this coronavirus pandemic is tough. Day to day life is so different, and there are a lot of questions and unknowns—concerns about health and finances to trying to get all the things done, from work to homeschooling and beyond. But as hard and scary as it is, looking for little silver linings every day is important. In a world with a lot of things we can’t do at the moment, finding and focusing on things we can do gives us strength. Now, with more hours at home than ever, there’s never been a better time to practice self-care, health, and healing to support your immune system.
3 essentials for supporting your immune system
By now, we all know coronavirus is highly contagious. If you contract covid-19, the strength of your immune system will play a crucial role in the severity of your symptoms and how your body responds. The good news is, there’s so much we can do now to help our immune system operate at an optimal level. As an applied functional medicine practitioner, Precision Nutrition Coach, and personal trainer, here are my top three recommendations for how to stay well and boost your immune system as coronavirus spreads.
- Get enough sleep
- Calm your nerves
- Eat a healthy, immune-promoting diet
1. Get enough sleep
While we sleep, our body is hard at work repairing all of the systems required to make our body run optimally. Suboptimal sleep increases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and decreases the number of cytokines we have available to fight infection.
Aim for at least 7 hours of sleep a night. It’s key to helping boost your immune system as coronavirus spreads. To help promote good rest, turn screens off an hour before bedtime and keep the lights on low if reading or journaling are a part of your nightly routine. Darker environments promote the creation of melatonin, a hormone that helps with sleep, as well as immune regulation.
If you have a hard time falling or staying asleep, try cutting off caffeine by 12 p.m. Exercising regularly and ensuring you have a good diet (more on that below) ensure you have enough energy to get through your day without the need for extra caffeine. But, if you really need that mid-afternoon pick-me-up, steep a cup of green tea. It has antioxidants and can help bridge energy slumps, without as high of a dose of caffeine as coffee delivers.
Have the best intentions but just can’t shake your insomnia, no matter what lifestyle changes you’ve made? Talk to your healthcare provider or drop me a line if you’re having a hard time sleeping. Stress, nutrient deficiencies, and hormone issues all play a role in suboptimal sleep and can be identified and improved.
2. Calm your nerves
Stress lowers our immune system, by design. This survival mechanism originated when we were running for our lives from a saber-tooth tiger and kicked in to give our cells enough energy to deal with life-or-death situations.
While stress increases blood sugar, blood pressure, and metabolism for quick energy, the tradeoff is that it down-regulates your immune system, reproductive system, and digestive system. We are no longer running from saber-tooth tigers, but our bodies can’t tell the difference from the stress from our busy, modern lives—especially now, during the pandemic.
To reduce stress, aim at least 20 minutes of exercise a day, ideally outside to get some vitamin D from the sun (which supports the immune system). It doesn’t really matter what kind of exercise or movement you do, so choose whatever makes you happy. Exercise has the double benefit of increasing the immune system as well as helping to reduce stress.
Box breathing is a great way to calm nerves as well. Breathe in for five, hold at the top for five, breathe out for five, and hold at the bottom for five. Slowing the breath helps get us activate the parasympathetic “rest and digest” nervous system. (And it can be done anytime, anywhere!)
Also, consider starting a gratitude journal or practice. Each day, think of three things you’re grateful for. Involve the whole family or your loved ones by reflecting on this around the dinner table (or virtually). I’m a fan of—and encourage my clients to use the Calm app. It lets you access a master class by positive psychology author Shawn Achor. He shares his personal gratitude practice: emailing a different person you’re grateful for every day for 21 days. (Plus, this is also a great way to stay connected during social- distancing guidelines.)
3. Eat a healthy, immune-promoting diet
A high-sugar diet feeds viruses and lowers your immune system, due to inflammation. (Processed carbs without substantial fiber count as sugars, too.) As much as possible, eat a whole-food diet with plenty of lean protein, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats (olive oil, coconut oil, avocado/avocado oil, fish oil, flax). Also include fiber-packed carbohydrates like quinoa, oats, and legumes.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon, flax, chia, and more, help fight inflammation to support a healthy immune system. Avoid fats high in inflammatory omega-6 fats, found in vegetable oil and the many processed foods that contain vegetable oils.
Key nutrients that help promote a strong immune system are vitamins A, C, D, and zinc. Orange-colored foods like carrots and sweet potato are high in beta carotene, which converts into vitamin A. Vitamin C can be found in citrus fruits, berries (also high in antioxidants to fight inflammation), and dark leafy greens like spinach and kale. Vitamin D is best sourced from the sun, but is also high in fatty fish like salmon, as well as some mushrooms like shitake. Meat and poultry are high in zinc, as are nuts and seeds.
An immune-supportive meal plan + personalized advice
Curious about how your immune strength stacks up? Take my online immunity assessment through rachelrotabi.com. I’ll email you personalized feedback on ways you can bolster your immune system.
I’ve also partnered up to put together an awesome (free!) immune-boosting 7-night meal plan, packed with the key nutrients discussed above. Bonus: it’s also autoimmune-protocol (AIP) friendly.
Putting tips into practice for how to boost your immune system as coronavirus spreads
I always remind my clients: implement changes and tools one at a time to prevent overwhelm. The changes are more likely to stick. Working on these three foundational habits (one step at a time) will set you up not only for your best health now, but also long-term.