Now more than ever, health is not simply a priority, it’s the priority. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us are taking precautions to avoid becoming sick. There are standard guidelines: wear a mask, keep our distance and maintain strong hygiene practices. But what are you doing to build your health? What are you doing to create a solid foundation that can positively influence your immune response to this virus?
The concept of “building immunity” consists of more than just taking supplements and vitamins and hoping for the best. Lately, it seems that more and more people are supplementing with Vitamin C and D, zinc tablets, echinacea and elderberry—as if these are miracle defenses that have been right under our noses all along. Too many people today are relying on the latest (often misleading) “hack” rather than focusing their energies and attention on taking care of the major pillars of their health: in particular, rest, movement, fuel, and stress metabolism.
Focusing on these four elements of our health will not only give us a solid foundation to live our best lives but will also help our immune response when confronting viruses and disease.
- REST (Specifically your sleep patterns): Engaging in restful, restorative, non-medicated, non-alcohol-induced deep sleep can be one of the best ways to balance your immune system. We’ve discussed sleep before in Sleep is your Superpower, specifically how to get more of it. Additionally, a recent article in the Oxford Royal Society Journal dives into the specific effects of sleep deprivation, especially on disfunction of two key areas—the Suprachiasmatic Nuclei (SCN) and how it regulates one of the brain epicenters for sleep and repair and the body’s HPA (hypothalamic/pituitary/adrenal axis system), which can be linked to elevated cortisol levels, elevated blood pressure, poor tissue repair, decreased concentration, and negative moods. The critical takeaway in this article, and in many other studies on this topic, is that you need restful sleep for your body to continue to function normally.
- MOVEMENT (Specifically your purposeful movement): Much more than just exercise, purposeful movement combines high-intensity physical motion with Aristotle’s concept of telos, “an end goal,” in mind. Immediate positive effects of purposeful movement include post-exercise (rebound) hypotension, in which your post-workout blood pressure decreases to a point below where it had been before the workout started. Your body will also release natural pain-relieving and mood-enhancing chemicals (including dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin) after a session of purposeful movement. A recent article in the Journal of Sport and Health Science describes the compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system, allowing for better immune regulation.
- FUEL (What you consume): There are many articles out there making claims about the relationships between food and health benefits that rely on miscellaneous and random data. Let’s narrow it down to a very simple and straightforward concept: when you put garbage in, you get garbage out. To build up your body’s defenses, choose fresh, natural (organic when possible), non-processed foods. During the pandemic, many people have turned to alcohol to ease their stress and to help cope with changing circumstances. Remember that alcohol can actually blunt your immunity, so it’s important to be smart and disciplined about any level of intake. Alcohol ruins our deep sleep patterns, which are essential for cellular rebuilding and growth. Many of us know what a hangover feels like following a night of over-indulgence. Studies have shown that refractory increases in anxiety and depression can also arise from even low levels of alcohol consumption.
- STRESS METABOLISM (Specifically how the people and situations around you affect your metabolism and overall health): We know that our minds and bodies are connected and that emotional and physical pains are damaging to both body and mind. As we spoke about in Learning to Metabolize Stress, stress can be good or bad. At its best, stress helps us survive. At its worst, it destroys us from the inside out. Now more than ever we must pay attention to the key areas that will help us metabolize our stress. It’s important to create the right environment for ourselves and our loved ones. Make sure to have a good support system in place—and to participate in that system. The amount of physical and social intimacy you allow into your life has a direct effect on your physical health, particularly your immune system. If you are depressed, even mildly, or feeling lonely or otherwise chronically stressed, your immune system becomes compromised. Learning to mitigate, repair, and recover from stress will improve our quality of life and, in turn, help us achieve more positive health results.
Life can be demanding—it is relentless and unyielding at times, especially during life events that feel out of our control. We cannot expect perfection, nor should we. In the same way, we can—and should—expect progress. Instead of stock piling vitamins and supplements, focus on these four pillars and how you can spend a few moments each day creating the habits that will ultimately improve your health. As Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Very few people have experienced the kind of pandemic we are living through today. So, we are all figuring it out as we go. Yes, keep practicing standard health safety guidelines while the medical establishment works toward a vaccine; but, at the same time, be sure to invest time and energy building your health. A strong immune system will always be your best defense.