Maintaining a healthy immune system is incredibly important right now for obvious reasons. Whilst it’s hard to target a single system of the body (because everything is interconnected), there are certain things which have been proven to improve immune system functioning, some of which you’d probably expect, and others which may surprise you. As a Yoga Therapist, my job is to help my clients improve whatever they’re working with by addressing the whole person and their lifestyle, rather than taking a sticking plaster approach – yoga therapy is a true holistic system ie it deals with the whole. These suggestions will have a positive impact on overall health, and most importantly help you to maintain strong immunity at a time when you need it most.
Reduce and manage chronic stress
Chronic stress is the big bad wolf for your immune system. Acute stress, on the other hand, is fine. In acute stress – the short sharp shock kind – your sympathetic nervous system activates its stress response, you respond as required ( for example, you sprint to get a child out of the way of an oncoming car), and then the job is done, the relaxation response of your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, and you return to a state of homeostasis (balance). Short, controlled bursts of acute stress (such as HIIT workouts and cold showers) can actually be beneficial in increasing mental and physical resilience. Chronic stress, however, is another story. When we’re repeatedly exposed to stressors and cannot respond – can’t do what our bodies are primed to do ie fight or flee – we get stuck in a feedback loop of constant fight or flight state. In this kind of prolonged stress, we don’t return to homeostatis.
Why’s that bad? Well apart from feeling horrible, when fight or flight kicks in it’s all about dealing with the immediate threat. All resources are directed to that, and the ‘slow burn’ functions like digestion, cell repair and yup, you guessed it, immunity, are dialled right down. That’s fine if it’s all over quickly, but if we get stuck there, it’s pretty devastating for all of our systems. The trouble is, our primal stress responses don’t know the difference between an oncoming car, or a hypothetical situation that you’ve imagined through worrying. And you’re not going to physically respond in the same way to the worry, as you are to the car.
It’s therefore crucial to our immune health that we develop strategies for managing chronic stress. Obviously I’m going to suggest yoga and meditation! Simply talking to a trusted friend, mentor or therapist can also be a big relief. And one of the other best ways is….
If you find yourself getting caught up in anxious thoughts, break that feedback loop by doing what your body is primed for and move. Anything at all, jumping jacks on the spot, vigorous hoovering, dancing, it all works to disperse the stress hormones and free you from the effects of chronic stress.
Working out just got harder with the current restrictions, but there are tons of streamed online classes to join in with, so we have to get creative. There are all sorts of things you can substitute for weights – the old ‘can of beans’ idea might be too light, but bottles filled with sand or soil, and bags of rice or salt are great. Lots of workouts use your own body weight, and if you have a small child they usually think it’s the best fun in the world being bench-pressed! Take advantage of the fact that we’re still allowed out to walk, cycle, or run. Stick some favourite upbeat tunes on and dance round the house (guaranteed mood elevator!) Daily exercise is great for all systems of the body, including immunity, the trick is to find something you like and so will stick with. I’m challenging my limits 5 days a week with F45 HIIT workouts on Zoom, and I love this fun but tough dance workout.
Getting enough quality shut-eye is crucial for a strong immune system, and good sleep hygiene is vital. I know it’s tempting to lie in bed scrolling your phone or to go straight to bed after watching TV, but if you have anything other than blissfully perfect sleep no matter what you do, then you’re not helping yourself. Having at least half an hour with no screens before you turn out the light is a smart move.
Eating a diet rich in antioxidant foods means that you reduce chronic inflammation in your body, and that’s huge for helping your immune system. We also need to make sure we get enough vitamin C and zinc for good immunity, and vitamin D has also now been shown to play a major role in the immune system. Refined sugar is a surefire way to suppress your immunity, so cutting back on that is a good plan. I’m not a nutritionist so I’m not qualified to tell you what to eat – plus we’re all different – but I’ve had a keen interest in optimal nutrition for many years. Personally my diet comprises 70-80% fresh vegetables and fruit for all those vitamins and antioxidants; and to boost my immunity (amongst other reasons) I supplement with flaxseed oil, turmeric (hugely anti-inflammatory) and the adaptogens maca and ashwagandha. There’s lots of information out there about the benefits and contraindications of these, so do your research and see how you can optimise your own diet for stronger immunity.
Obviously this is a major bummer right now, because we’re tribal creatures and we tend not to do well without contact with others. Immunity suffers when we feel lonely – even introverts need some community, so, get it where you can. If you live with others, great. Cuddle them as much as they’ll put up with J If not, stay in touch with at least one other human via the many means available to us (thank EVERYTHING for the internet!). Maybe consider taking in one of the many animals who have been given to shelters by people who can’t support them. I can’t have a full time animal because sooner or later the world will reboot once we’ve switched off and back on again and I’ll be touring, but we’ve applied to care for foster kittens. The shelters usually cover vet care, food, litter and even bedding if you can’t manage it, so you really do just need to provide time and love.
So far so obvious? Let’s get a little more unconventional and talk about…
There’s a lot of scientific evidence that taking cold showers has a whole host of benefits such as alleviating depression and anxiety (yes really! Check out this article in Psychology Today) and providing a big boost to immunity. Scientific studies have found that taking a cold shower increases the amount of white blood cells in your body. These blood cells protect your body against diseases. If you’ve heard of the Wim Hof method you’ll be familiar with this idea – here’s a great podcast with him describing his work. Amongst his extraordinary achievements is learning how to take control of his immune system (a feat previously thought impossible) using a combination of cold exposure and a specific breathing method, so that he – and a group of other volunteers using his method – were able to be injected with a pathogen and monitored for symptoms. Compared to the control group, followers of the Wim Hof Method showed a stronger immune response and fewer symptoms related to the pathogen.
Personally I’ve been having cold showers for about ten years (if the weather is cold I have a warm shower then finish with at least a minute of cold blast) – it takes a bit of getting used to and I recommend starting at your feet and working your way up – but I do always feel incredibly invigorated afterwards and whether it’s coincidence or not, am very rarely ill.
And finally, let’s talk about…
You know all those antioxidants we get from the right foods? What if there was a totally free, limitless supply of them that you can get anywhere? What if, you were standing on it?
A bit of science. You may have heard of free radicals – they’re a chemical by-product of our bodies’ normal metabolic processes, and we also take them in from environmental pollution. They are atoms with an electron missing. That’s bad news for us because they scavenge our bodies’ healthy cells and steal electrons from them, which creates chronic inflammation, which as we know is horrible for the immune system. Our friendly anti-oxidants are atoms with an electron to spare, which they kindly donate to the scavenging free radicals, thus protecting our cells from being robbed. Planet Earth has, all over her surface, be it land or sea, a limitless supply of available electrons. When we make bare skin contact with bare earth (or sand, grass, rock, or wild water), we ‘plug in’ to this supply and are instantly protected from free radicals, as they have an ‘all you can eat’ supply of what they want and leave our tissues alone. Which means goodbye inflammation, hello upgraded immunity. Protection is instant, healing of damaged tissues begins after about 20 minutes.
Now, depending on where you live, it may not be practical to spend your life barefoot (and modern houses are generally insulated to the point where being barefoot indoors has no effect). But – again, depending where you live – your house probably has an earthing system. (If your plugs have 3 pins, you have an earth.) The earth system is simply a piece of copper wire which is connected to the earth outside, and there are earthing products available which take advantage of this. You can buy a mat or bedsheet which has a metal press-stud which attaches to a cable with a plug on the end. The live and neutral pins are plastic and have no effect, and the earth pin is metal (you don’t need to have the power switched on for this to work, it uses the earth line, not the electricity). And so when you plug your sheet or mat in and touch it, you are earthed. You are getting all those electrons flowing to you via the earthing system, protecting you and boosting your immunity. At my home we have two pads (for at our desks) and an undersheet (which still works through a cotton bedsheet). Just to geek out a bit more, I’ve metered the voltage between me and the earth pin when I’m not on the sheet, and with just one bedside lamp switched on, it reads seven volts. (The more electrical goods you have, the greater the electro-magnetic fields surrounding you and so the higher the voltage). When I touch the sheet, the reading instantly drops to zero, which proves the flow of electrons. My husband was sceptical at first, but when he suddenly started sleeping better, even he had to admit that there was something in it.
I hope all of that gives you some ideas of how to boost your own immunity and protect yourself, and of course, I’ll be continuing to offer yoga practices and guided meditations on Insta and Facebook to support you through this time. Wishing you health and happiness, from my heart and home to yours.