The recent COVID-19 pandemic has left many wondering why illnesses seem to hit some harder than others. People with pre-existing conditions and people who smoke indeed tend to suffer more, especially when it comes to respiratory infections. Still, they're not the only ones prone to viral infections.
Fortunately, there are specific things you can do to strengthen your immune system and make you less susceptible to illness year-round. These include getting adequate sleep, eating healthy, and meditating on the positive.
Sleep Deprivation Can Make You Sick
Your body needs sleep to fight off infectious diseases. Research shows that people who don't get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus. Sleep deprivation can also affect how fast you recover if you do get ill.
Your immune system releases proteins call cytokines while you sleep. In addition to promoting sleep, specific cytokines also need to increase when you have an infection, inflammation, or you're experiencing stress. The less sleep you get, the less of these protective proteins you produce. Infection-fighting antibodies and cells are also reduced during periods of inadequate sleep.
Prolonged lack of sleep also increases your risks for obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. To give their immune system a boost, adults need a good seven to eight hours of sleep each night, while teenagers require nine to 10 hours.
You Are What You Eat
Scientists say people who live in poverty and are malnourished are more vulnerable to infectious diseases. Your body needs a steady supply of many different macronutrients and micronutrients to maintain your immune system. Failing to get those micronutrients—vitamins and minerals—all but guarantees disease.
The five micronutrients that play roles in maintaining the immune system are vitamin B6, vitamin C, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc. According to Harvard Medical School, these nutrients are best sourced from a healthy, well-balanced diet. Here are some of the foods that can help support your immune system.
- Magnesium - whole wheat, legumes, nuts, seeds
- Zinc - oysters, beef shank, Alaskan king crab, turkey (dark meat)
- Vitamin B6 - chicken, cereals, bananas, pork loin, potatoes with skin
- Vitamin C - tomatoes, citrus fruit, sweet peppers, broccoli, kiwi fruit
- Vitamin E - sunflower seeds and oil, almonds, safflower oil, peanut butter
A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, lean sources of protein, and healthy fats from nuts and olive oil can help you stay balanced.
Meditation Changes the Body
A study in the journal Translational Psychiatry found meditation had positive effects on the immune system. Not only did it promote relaxation, but it also shifted gene expression and even boosted mood over time.
The study took blood samples from 94 participants to analyze what genes were expressed before the experiment, directly after it, one month, and ten months later. The participants were divided into three groups, including one group of experienced meditators. All the groups showed shifts in the expression of genes related to stress, inflammation, and wound healing. The experienced meditators had specific shifts in genes associated with fighting viral infections.
Dr. Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, says, "Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself. The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging."
Another study also evaluated the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system. From the research, the authors found that mindfulness meditation:
- Reduced markers of inflammation, which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease
- Increased number of CD-4 cells—the immune system's helper cells involved in sending signals to other cells telling them to destroy infections
- Increased telomerase activity: telomerase helps promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration, which can lead to chronic diseases and premature aging
With everything going on, it can be challenging to carve out time to meditate. But even 15 minutes a day can help keep you on the path of wellness.