As we near the end of summer, if you live in a seasonal climate, the trees become bejewelled with vivid orange and red hues, the air becomes freshly crisp, and all of nature prepares for a restful slumber until the first blossoms of spring return. As the environment around us begins to beautifully hibernate, other less-pleasant elements begin to emerge: colds and the flu. This year, especially as we still battle to stave off the second-wave of the Coronavirus pandemic, doing everything in our power to promote immune health will greatly benefit us as individuals and those whom we love in our families and communities.
In addition to following the safety protocols recommended by CDC such as social distancing and washing your hands regularly, there are other steps that we can take to help our bodies battle viruses, bacteria, and infections. While we all have a general idea of ways to boost the immune system such as eating vegetables and fruits, maintaining proper hygiene, exercising regularly and taking vitamin C, in this post I want to explore three less discussed elements of immune health that are powerful and important pieces of the larger immune system puzzle. As no part of our body exists in isolation of any other system, it is important to put into practice holistic protocols that address our bodies as an entire cohesive organism rather than as a compartmentalised sum of our parts. This is why we will discuss how stress and emotional health, the lymphatic system and gut health all play an important role in immunity. It has been a stressful year full of uncertainty and anxiety for many of us (to say the least), so I hope that implementing some of these practices help you feel more at ease (and more healthful) as the cold weather approaches and the country faces the possibility of a second COVID wave.
1. Stress Management and Emotional Well-being:
It's not an over-exaggeration to say that stress is a killer. In our high-paced and highly competitive society (which is now further compounded by the soaring unemployment rate and sinking economy, yikes!) our system is constantly flooded with stress hormones such as cortisol. Stress is a perfectly natural and very useful physiological reaction, when we experience a healthy and helpful stress response, known as eustress, we become more alert and are able to respond to environmental stimuli in a beneficial way. However, when stress becomes chronic and we are consistently overwhelmed by circumstances and our life's stressors, our body becomes locked in this fight vs. flight response.
To simplify a very complex process, the overproduction of stress hormones throws our bodies out of balance. We become fatigued, exhausted, and emotionally drained. We lose some of our bodies ability to optimally function and to effectively fight off pathogens (if you want to review a detailed meta-analysis on stress and immunity click here).
So, how does one combat stress as a means of promoting proper immune system function during flu-season and a global pandemic? Well, there is no specific formulae that will give a certain result for everyone as stress is a mostly subjective experience contingent on your particular circumstances, life events, and relationships.
BUT...there are general protocols that you can adopt and personalize to help mitigate the immune repressing response caused by chronic stress and here are two ideas:
o Talk to Someone!
While this may seem obvious, the stigma surrounding speaking to a professional therapist or counselor can prevent us from taking action and implement an immensely helpful tool for our well-being. There is no shame in admitting that you're a human being with emotions and that those emotions can have benefits for our lives or consequences for our health if ignored. Also, there are plenty of options available in terms of getting counseling that can help customize it for your specific needs which will help solidify it as a long-term practice (if you're trying to adapt someone else's therapy needs and protocols as your own, chances are you won't get results and thus, you will abandon the process). Some people really enjoy speaking with a therapist one-on-one and with Tele-health services becoming more prevalent due to the pandemic, you won't even have to leave your house.
Other people may respond better to group therapy or support groups. Other people may find enough help from connecting to others through groups on social media. Regardless of which modality you choose to best suit your needs, talking to someone can be a simple and powerful tool to mitigate stress, feel validated, and gain some valuable insight on how to manage the stress and its impact.
o Experience “Flow” Regularly
What is “flow”? I was first exposed to the concept of flow while studying Positive Psychology as an undergraduate. It’s a topic that I will feature in a blog post all on its own, as it a very important concept that has invaluable benefits for overall health. For now, we will look at experiencing flow as becoming deeply engaged and focused on an activity that brings you pleasure. Ever notice that when you are participating in a hobby or activity that you really connect with, time seems to fade away? That can be seen as “experiencing flow”.
When we set aside time in our schedule to mindfully engage in activities that bring us joy, we are not only promoting emotional well-being but we are giving our bodies a break from fighting stress. In a field called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), studies are being done on the specific effects of stress and happiness in relation to genetic expression. It seems that a great way to help combat stress and receive the immune boosting benefits that come from feeling happy is to carve out time to participate in things that genuinely bring you joy and meaning.
So, STOP scrolling through social media when you have free time and instead paint that picture, read that book, cook that meal, play that sport, play that instrument…do whatever it is that allows happiness to flow through your life and deep within your cells.
2. Support Your Lymphatic System
What is your lymphatic system? It is a system, similar to your heart’s circulatory system that pumps lymph fluid containing white blood cells, water, proteins, salts and lipids throughout your body via a system of lymph vessels, lymph nodes and organs such as the thymus gland, spleen, adenoids and tonsils. The lymphatic system is critical for filtering your blood, filtering bacteria and viruses, removing cellular waste and impurities in the body and fighting infections.
So, yeah…when it comes to immune health, your lymphatic system is a huge piece of the puzzle. While your circulatory system has your heart to effortlessly pump blood through your body for you, your lymphatic system needs a bit more help because it lacks a pump. The prime way to get lymph flowing through your body is to MOVE your body! So exercising regularly and prioritizing movement every single day is absolutely critical to keep this system functioning properly and keep your body in peak shape to fight pathogens, the flu and even COVID-19.
An unfortunate consequence of the lock-down that helped flatten the curve during the first wave of the pandemic was the closure of gyms and the need to stay isolated indoors. I know that I can speak for the majority of my clients, myself included, when I say that my quantity and quality of movement dramatically decreased during this lock-down phase. This is why it is essential to prioritize a movement practice as the colder weather comes and we are spending more time indoors. Stationary bikes, virtual classes, or hiring a coach can be great ways to move your body and get your lymphatic fluids flowing. However, when we are limited with time and equipment and space, a full fitness practice can be difficult so here is an additional protocol to support your lymphatic system:
o Dry Skin Brushing
Dry skin brushing is the practice of using a brush to rub over your skin as a way to move the lymph fluid through your body and promote detoxification. It is a practice that you perform one to two times per week prior to showering that exfoliates your skin and helps lymph drainage. Simply take a dry skin brush (you want the bristles to be made from natural fibers and to be rather firm as you are trying to have an impact on what’s occurring under the skin) which can be found on Amazon or Etsy and firmly but gently rub your skin in long strokes towards your head. Typically you want to give over each area two to three times and use a clockwise motion on your belly. I personally love dry skin brushing as I find it helps mitigate inflammation I face from a chronic health disorder and it has the added benefit of exfoliating my skin. It can feel like a nice self-care ritual that allows me additional time in the shower.
As a professional in the fitness and wellness field, I don’t view movement and self-care practices as a luxury but rather a fundamental right that every person should be able to access. While it is unfortunate that our healthcare system is more foundationally a “sick-care” system, these are small actions that we can take to help prevent sickness. Move when you can and try to prioritize it as best as you can. We are overwhelmed with work, with children, with projects, with relationships and obligations and that is all the more reason to ensure that you are regularly exercising and taking care of your body (which will reduce stress, which will boost your immune health, which will ultimately make managing your life much easier).
3. Support Your Gut Health
Our gut is commonly referred to as our “second brain”; however, it was actually our first brain. Before we evolved to become these civilized (debatable term in 2020 for a lot of the population right now) creatures capable of higher-cognitive function and reasoning, we evolved from much simpler organisms that lacked these neurological capabilities and were driven by impulses created in their guts. Your gut is lined with over 100 MILLION nerve cells and is in constant communication with your brain. Your gut is also responsible for producing a large portion (some scientists say as high as 90%) of your bodies Serotonin which is the neurotransmitter that stabilizes our mood and helps us feel happy (which as we discussed earlier is critical for immune health). Much of how we feel on a daily basis and how we interact with the world stems from how our gut is functioning. When we have an imbalance in the gut flora (the bacterial microbiom) we allow opportunistic pathogens to disrupt the balance causing inflammation and even tears to the lining of the gut itself, known as “leaky gut syndrome”. This is a topic that I will write a whole separate post on because it is so important on every level for our physical, emotional, and even spiritual wellness so stay tuned for that.
For now, consider that around 70% of your immune system is housed in your gut. Optimal digestion is critical for proper absorption of nutrients and for stimulation of the development of T-cells, which are responsible for proper immune responses to pathogens. What we eat heavily impacts our body’s ability to fight infections and pathogens. We all know that adding in more vegetables, fruits, and whole foods while cutting down on heavily processed foods can help to boost immune health (if you want some recipes, check the recipes tab on my website) so I won’t belabor you with stressing the importance of whole foods. Rather, here are some ways to promote gut health that may be new to you:
o Mindful Eating
It is not just what we eat but how we eat that affects our body’s ability to digest food. Digestion begins in the mouth with our digestive enzymes kick-starting the digestive process. If we don’t thoroughly chew larger food makes its way down the esophagus, which makes it harder for our stomach to metabolize food, which makes the gut’s job harder, which makes nutrient absorption harder and so forth. It’s a domino effect. When you sit down to eat, make it a self-care ritual when you can properly chew and thoroughly enjoy your food. Set the intention that what you are eating will promote healing and balance in your body (while this may sound a little “hippy-dippy”, intentions matter for all aspects of wellness).
While there are occasions when we need to eat on the go or when we’re too busy to have a proper meal, prioritize what and how we eat can have a tremendous benefit to our gut health and therefore our immune health.
o Eat Probiotics Because Absorption Matters
When there is inflammation or dysfunction in our gut, our ability to properly absorb nutrients, and even medication, decreases. The NIH even found evidence through a study that shows those who received the Flu Vaccination but also took a broad spectrum antibiotic (which kills a lot of good gut flora while killing the harmful bacteria) were less protected against the flu virus than those who were vaccinated and did not have the gut imbalances that resulted from the antibiotics. When there are imbalances in our gut flora, we will not effectively digest nutrients and will have a compromised immunity to pathogens.
Probiotics help to restore the healthy flora in our gut, especially if you do have to take antibiotics make sure to try and rebalance your gut with healthy foods afterwards.
While there are probiotic supplements that are available at stores and online, probiotics are naturally occurring in plenty of yummy foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, pickles, yogurt, kefir, Poi, kombucha, and miso soup. These foods are great and delicious and you can easily experiment with making some of these foods from scratch like pickles or kimchi.
In review for today, our immune system does not stand alone and we can provide a lot of support to help optimize our immunity through various simple and accessible protocols and daily practices. While this is a brief discussion of some of the many things that you can do to help protect yourself this flu season, I want you to leave with an understanding that you are not powerless in the face of everything that is occurring. It can be anxiety inducing for many of us, especially those of us who are immune compromised or who have immune compromised family members, to think of facing this upcoming flu season while COVID-19 is still a concern. But you are powerful and the choices that you make on a daily basis, no matter how small they may seem to be, can have a deeply powerful effect on your health and the health of those around you!
So remember to prioritize your emotional health, support your lymphatic and digestive systems if you want to hack your immune system this autumn and set yourself up to power through this winter season, regardless of what is happening.
Be well, Warriors!