Even if we’ve been lucky enough to avoid the worst consequences of the pandemic, life has gotten harder. Many of us simply never expected to homeschool our kids and take care of our older family members all while pulling 12-hour remote workdays… but to our own shock, we’re doing it. And that means we need to stay healthy.
So how do we take care of ourselves first so we can be well enough to care for others? One big piece of the puzzle involves tending to your psychological health, says Dr. KaMala Thomas, clinical health psychologist and psychoneuroimmunology specialist at Orange County Health Psychologists. “We know that uncontrolled stress can really do damage to the immune system through inflammation and increased susceptibility to colds and viruses,” says Thomas.
What you eat can boost your immune system, too. Studies show that foods and supplements that contain certain vitamins and minerals can help lower your risk of illness and fight infection.
Below are some of the best natural immune-boosting strategies. But just to be clear: While these tips can help your immune system function at its best, there is no way to prevent COVID-19 other than social distancing and other hygienic precautions recommended by the CDC.
1. Reduce fear and anxiety
We all experience fear and anxiety at one time or another — and our bodies are prepared to deal with it. The problem is when fear and anxiety linger.
Our natural physiological response to fear (known as “fight, flight, or freeze”) is designed for short-term stressors. But when stress becomes chronic, that response remains activated, which can then be harmful, according to research. So what can we do about it?
“If you can control stress, this will have a positive impact on the immune system,” says Thomas. One study even suggests that happier people have better immune function. Of course, the advice to “just be happy” can feel like it’s easier said than done.
First, try therapy to examine stressful issues and improve your life satisfaction. Our providers at Orange County Health Psychologists offer many types of treatment, from cognitive behavioral therapy to integrative approaches that include powerful evidence-based techniques such as EMDR.
Meditation, or the practice of focusing on the present moment, can also improve mental clarity and promote calm. In fact, more than 200 studies have proven that mindfulness-based therapies, which include meditation, reduce anxiety.
2. Improve your relationships
Those of us who feel lonely may also have lower immune function, says the APA. Like anxiety, loneliness prolongs the fight-or-flight stress response that ends up weakening the immune system.
To combat loneliness, especially during the pandemic, remember that “social distancing” really just means physical distancing. Make an extra effort to reach out to loved ones you’ve lost touch with over email, text, or Zoom. Online groups, such as on Facebook or other social media, also make it easy to get together with others around a common interest. You might even think about scheduling regular outdoor meetings with friends or going for walks in the park or around the neighborhood. And remember, you can also get support via online counseling right from your home.
3. Laugh more
Yup, you read that right. Laughter has been shown to decrease the presence of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. And as we already know, controlling stress is key to improving our immune system.
Not only that, but laughter can promote the function of immune cells and antibodies. While sources such as Harvard Medical School claim the increased risk of COVID-19 in those over 65 is due to a decrease in T cells, laughter has been shown to increase T cells. T cells are one of the main components of the immune system that help us fight off viral infection.
So, don’t wait — it’s time to have some fun! Get the family together and watch funny movies. Spend more time playing with your kids or grandkids. Take regular breaks and find things that make you giggle.
4. Focus on good nutrition
Overall, eating a balanced diet boosts your immune system health — but specific amino acids found in protein will especially help your T-cell function. Foods with lots of protein include meats, poultry, seafood, eggs, beans, nuts, and seeds.
What’s more, research shows that having low levels of vitamin D can increase susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infection as well as influenza. If you think you might be vitamin D deficient, one of the best sources of vitamin D is fatty fish, such as trout, salmon, tuna, and mackerel.
Zinc can also shorten the duration of colds by up to 40% depending on the dosage and what it’s combined with. One study also claims it can reduce risk or shorten the duration of coronaviruses. If you want to add more zinc to your diet, you can take it as a supplement or look for it in oysters, lean meats, fish and seafood, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Finally, if you need more ideas or a customized nutrition plan to help you meet your mental health goals, be sure to see one of our nutritional psychologists: Susan McIntyre, LMFT or Dr. Desiree Delagarza.
Regular exercise has so many benefits, so it’s no surprise that it can help boost your immune system. Not only will it help your immune response, but according to one scientific review, it can also lower your illness risk.
According to the U.S. Department of Health, healthy adults need 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week (or if you exercise moderately to vigorously, then 75 minutes). Obviously, this is hard during a pandemic when most of your day may consist of sitting at home working! But our bodies’ needs haven’t changed, so if you want to stay healthy, you must get moving.
By comparison, kids aged 3 to 5 should be physically active on and off throughout the day, and those aged 6 to 17 should get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per day, says the American Heart Association. If it’s tough to inspire them to get off their screens, try scheduling a daily walk, socially-distanced hike, or even a family living room dance party to get those hearts pumping!
6. Get better sleep
Did you know you could be more likely to catch a cold if you sleep less than six hours a night as an adult? To support your immune system, be sure to get the recommended amount of sleep for your age. Generally, adults should get 7 to 9 hours per night, teens need 8 to 10 hours, and children under age 14 need more than 10 hours.
There are many ways you can improve your sleep. The National Sleep Foundation shares some great ideas, including keeping the room temperature at around 65 degrees (it helps signal to your body that it’s time for sleep) and exposing yourself to natural light (or a lightbox) early in the morning to regulate your circadian rhythm. And if you want to track your sleep in addition to getting better rest, an app might help — check out the ones we reviewed in this post (scroll down to “Apps for Sleep”).
Reach out today — we’re here for you
If you’re ready to start on the road to self-care, these immune system boosters can help — and our team is standing by to support you, as well.
Call our main office at 949-528-6300 or email info@OCHealthPsych.com if you’d like to set up an in-person or online counseling appointment with one of our experienced providers.
You also might be interested in:
- 5 Self-Care Techniques to Encourage Calm During COVID-19
- When Coronavirus Fears Trigger Your Preexisting Anxiety Disorder
- Pros and Cons of Online Counseling
—Written by Ekua Hagan for Orange County Health Psychologists