Increasing Immunity: How Can We Bolster Our Body’s Natural Defence Mechanisms?
As we adjust to a new normal regarding the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are bracing ourselves for a possible second wave of the virus. There’s been some new information since the pandemic began with lessons learned, and scientists are always learning more, with further insights yet to be discovered.
Some things on the other hand are very clear, such as the factors which put people at a higher risk of developing severe symptoms of the coronavirus, or even dying from it. People at a higher risk are:
- Immunocompromised with pre-existing health conditions
- Suffer from respiratory problems
- Older people 65 years and above
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Type 2 diabetes
All of these categories, even biological aging, are profoundly affected by our diet and lifestyle choices.
We have all heard of people who seemed relatively healthy, active, and with no chronic conditions but were severely affected by coronavirus. In the absence of other information, I would suggest that those people were as well immunocompromised through their lifestyle but didn’t know it.
Your immune system can become compromised by dietary, environmental, and lifestyle factors. A compromised immune system can lead to frequent illness — and more suffering whenever illness strikes.
It is my assertion that not enough attention has been given to this subject, but it is something well within our power to control, whereas the arrival of a vaccine or effective therapeutics, is not.
The aim of this article is to raise awareness of how our lifestyle choices impact our body’s natural defence systems, and to also present you with interesting knowledge which you can use to fill any gaps in a holistic manner.
Please note: A lot of the following methods and techniques will be the subject of future blog articles in their own right, where we will explore them in the greater detail which they deserve. However, it’s important to have an overview of them now as they are powerful tools at our disposal which we can use.
Ok, here we go!
The First Line of Defence: Hygiene
We have been hearing this repeatedly for the past months, so I won’t go into washing your hands, touching your face, using hand sanitizers, wearing a mask, etc. We all know these basics by now and are (hopefully) putting them all into practice.
A more interesting question is: why should we be doing this?
Think of your immune system as an army that will go into battle for you many times over your lifetime. An army is most effective when it doesn’t have to fight wars on multiple fronts.
This is the value of practicing good personal hygiene because we want to reduce the potential infection load on our systems. We will never fully avoid coming into contact with viruses and bacteria, but do your body a favour by trying to limit your exposure to pathogens so it can effectively deal with the few which will get through. Your actions can act as a screen or filter before your immune system has to take action.
What is the ‘dirtiest’ object which we carry around and touch many times per day? Our mobile phones of course! We speak at/into them, depositing droplets from our mouths, take them into the toilet, have them out while we’re eating and smear food particles onto them.
Microbes love our phones! Keep that in mind the next time someone asks you to put your number into their phone.
TIP: Don’t forget to clean your phone regularly with a disinfecting wipe!
More Basics: Exercise and Sleep
Keep your immune system, and your body as a whole, healthy and strong by adhering to a regular exercise routine.
Your lymphatic system relies on muscle contraction to pump the lymph fluid through the vessels. So if you don’t exercise, your lymphatic system can become slow or inefficient, the fluid stagnates and toxins build up, manifesting in colds, joint pain, infection and even disease.
A good exercise regime, at its core, will include elements of resistance (weight) training for muscular (and bone) strength, cardio training for general fitness and stretching for mobility.
Avoid training too intensely or excessively if you are a beginner to exercise and/or concerned about your immune system in general, because you’re feeling rundown or similar. Intense training will tax your immune system and temporarily deplete it. In this context, moderation is key with adequate rest days programmed into your schedule.
If we are not sick, then we should be exercising for our health!
Closely related to your immune system (and training) is sleep. There may be nothing so restorative to your immune system as getting more sleep. A review in Frontiers in Bioscience concluded that sleep attenuates oxidative stress (a result of free-radical buildup) that can cause problems in the brain, heart, liver, and more.
Adequate sleep is essential for your physical and mental health, which are intimately connected.
A lack of sleep not only puts physical stress on your body directly, but also indirectly via mental stress. Cognitive function and your ability to regulate your emotions are reduced, altering the way which you perceive the world (often for the worse), adding to your mental stress-load, which also affects you physically by negatively impacting your immune system.
TIP: Develop a routine in the evening which will promote sleep, trying to go to bed at around the same time every day and sleeping for about eight hours, or until you feel genuinely refreshed.
Supporting Immunity with Diet
No health regime is complete if it does not take into account the nature of the food going into the body. This is especially true when it comes to supporting the immune system, as there are some foods and micronutrients which we definitely should include for this purpose.
Generally speaking, a diet which is ‘clean’ and contains plenty of fruit, vegetables and mushrooms will give the kind of support your immune system needs. What do I mean by a clean diet? One that is comprised of whole foods which are not processed, and free of artificial additives. Remember your grandmother’s cooking? Like that.
Let’s first look at the kinds of whole foods we should be eating.
Vegetables, Beans and Lentils. What Else Were You Expecting!?
Green vegetables are rich in folate, calcium, and antioxidants like lutein and zeaxanthin. Folate is especially important for producing antibodies that work to destroy antigens that can make us sick.
Beans, peas, and lentils are full of fiber and resistant starch (carbohydrates not broken down through digestion). The compounds in beans and other legumes can help enhance our gut microbiome, which is important because much of our immunity begins with the health of our digestive system.
Colorful fruit and vegetable produce is rich in phytonutrients—plant compounds that have antioxidants (such as vitamins A, C, and E) or antioxidant-like properties, both of which fight free radicals.
TIP: Include a variety of fruit and/or vegetables with every meal, making them the dominant component.
Mushrooms: Your Underrated Allies
I personally love mushrooms for spotting in the forest, foraging, and eating. They are, evolutionarily speaking, half-way between an animal and a plant, which makes sense as they ‘grow’ like a plant but breath oxygen like an animal. Think about that next time you see one! They are endlessly fascinating and very healthy for you.
Mushrooms have been studied for their immune-modulating and enhancing abilities. There’s so much evidence that mushrooms are good for our immune systems that they’ve even been studied as a potential treatment for cancer. Additionally, mushrooms may increase an important immune-balancing compound called secretory IgA.
Shiitake mushrooms contain lentinan, a type of sugar molecule, according to the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which adds that lentinan may help extend the survival of patients with some cancers when used with chemotherapy. In fact, it has been approved as an adjuvant for stomach cancer in Japan since 1985 since it has anti-tumor effects.
“Lentinan does not kill cancer cells directly. Instead, it enhances the immune system, which may aid in slowing the growth of tumors. Lentinan also kills viruses and microbes directly in laboratory studies,” according to the cancer center.
We now know that lentinan can boost our immune system, but it has a helper, too. Beta-glucan is a sugar found in the cells walls of fungi (among other plants) that also helps boost our immune system. It does this by promoting an immune system response. Lentinan comes from shiitake mushrooms, but beta-glucan is found in many varieties of mushrooms.
Mushrooms also contain polysaccharides, which are good probiotics that feed the beneficial bacteria in your gut, and a healthy gut microbiome is critical for a healthy immune system. See how everything is connected? This is a recurring theme in holistic health.
Note that you should only eat cooked mushrooms to reduce a potentially carcinogenic compound called agaritine.
The cell walls of mushrooms are tough, making it difficult for the digestive system to get to all the nutrients inside them. In addition, mushrooms often contain chemical compounds that can interfere with digestion and nutrient absorption. Sufficient cooking breaks down the tough cell walls, inactivates the anti-digestive elements and destroys many toxins.
Paul Stamets, an expert mycologist who used the Turkey Tail mushroom, alongside therapeutics, to help cure his mother of Stage 4 Breast Cancer, says the following on these types of medicinal mushrooms:
“You should eat mushrooms several times per week. You should eat a variety of mushrooms. These mushrooms have anti-cancer properties, enhancing the immune system, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and they also restrict blood vessels feeding tumours. What drug does that? None. There are no drugs which do that, because these are not drugs. These are functional foods.”
As an interesting side note, Stamets also used psilocybin (‘magic’) mushrooms to cure himself of a severe stutter in his youth, another testament to the power of these organisms, but this is a topic for another blog.
I knew mushrooms were healthy for you but now that I know just how incredibly powerful they are, I will be increasing my own intake and will regularly put them on my shopping list!
TIP: Autumn is almost upon us and mushrooms are already starting to emerge. Consider studying the edible mushrooms which can be found in your area and go foraging. Do take care to positively identify any mushroom which you are intending to eat as some can look a lot like the gourmet varieties, but are instead poisonous and can kill you. Foraging is a skill which must be studied and learnt. When in doubt, leave them be!
Nature’s Dessert: Berries!
Berries of all kinds, including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, are high in phytochemicals and vitamins that may help keep the immune system functioning at its best. The main antioxidant compound in blueberries is called pterostilbene, which has been studied for its ability to lower inflammation and fight disease.
TIP: The warmer months are the time when berries naturally come out and ripen. Why not get outdoors and go foraging for berries? It’s a great way to connect with nature, destress and to get an appreciation for how/where they grow. Some farms will allow you to go and pick your own berries as well. The kids will love it!
Herbs and Spices for Health
The following is a quick-fire list of some key herbs and spices to be aware of:
Turmeric, an Indian spice known for its bright orange color, is rich in curcumin, a compound with known disease-fighting and antioxidant-rich characteristics. Turmeric can reduce inflammation, boost heart and brain health.
Garlic and ginger have potent anti- inflammatory and immune-optimizing properties. Garlic (and onions) are full of organosulfur compounds, the ones which give off the great smells. These compounds have known benefits for immunity and are released when they are crushed or chopped. Onions also contain quercetin, a compound that may have particularly powerful bacteria-fighting abilities, as well as prebiotic fiber that feeds only the beneficial bacteria in our large intestine.
Cinnamon is full of polyphenols and antioxidants, and is a known anti- inflammatory, antidiabetic, antimicrobial, anticancer, and heart-healthy spice.
Hot peppers contain a compound called capsaicin, which is not only responsible for their spiciness but also their remarkable benefits in bringing down excessive inflammation. Some studies indicate that eating hot peppers may even increase longevity.
Echinacea is one of the most powerful herbs for fighting off upper respiratory infections. Studies have shown that taking it at the earliest signs of the cold or flu can reduce the severity of illness. Extracts of echinacea can stimulate immune function, and may even be as effective as the flu drug without potential adverse side effects.
Herbal teas — like ginger, thyme, sage, green, or rosehip — which have also been studied for their catechin andantioxidant content, and subsequent ability to shorten the severity and duration of cold and flu.
Vitamin C, Zinc and Vitamin D Against COVID-19
Vitamin C is one of the best antioxidants for fighting and preventing any virus, including potentially COVID-19. It isknown that vitamin C can reduce the inflammatory response, and may help prevent and shorten the duration of the common cold. It has also been shown to regenerate other antioxidants.
Vitamin C is found in all plant foods, but especially oranges, bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, melons, and strawberries.
Large doses of oral vitamin C may reduce the duration of symptoms associated with the common cold, but self-dosing should commence as soon as cold symptoms appear for the greatest benefit.
Findings from an early study in mice demonstrate that vitamin C mitigates the body’s stress response, thereby improving immunity. These findings suggest that high dose vitamin C might improve immune function, especially during times of mental and physical stress.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that plays critical roles in several physiological processes, including blood pressure regulation, calcium homeostasis, and immune function. See my previous blog article discussing vitamin D and light here.
A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2017 showed how people who had optimal vitamin D levels and who took vitamin D during the winter had lower rates of flu than people who received flu vaccines. People with vitamin D deficiency are 11 times more likely to get a cold or flu. While supplementing with vitamin D can reduce colds and flu by up to 42%.
A lot of evidence suggests that vitamin D is protective against respiratory tract infections. Data from 25 randomized controlled trials from around the world demonstrate that vitamin D supplementation reduced the risk of acute respiratory infection by more than 50%, especially in people with low baseline vitamin D levels.
The latest clinical trial at the Reina Sofia University Hospital in Spain (published August 2020) showed that vitamin D (Calcifediol) seems to reduce the severity of COVID-19 and improves Intensive Care Unit outcomes.
76 patients that were hospitalised with confirmed COVID-19 were all given standard care. Of these, 50 were given vitamin D in addition to the standard care, and 26 were not. The rate of ICU admissions and deaths were monitored.
Of the 50 patients given vitamin D, one required ICU admission (2%), none died, and all were eventually discharged.
Of the 26 not given vitamin D, 13 required ICU admission (50%), 2 died, and 11 were discharged.
Although larger trials with properly matched groups are required to show definite results, this is still very promising!
Supplemental vitamin D might be a viable means to increase our vitamin D to sufficient levels and potentially reduce the risk of complications associated with COVID-19.
The Nutrition board of the Institute of Medicine (USA) conservatively set the tolerable upper intake of vitamin D at a level of around 4,000 IU/day including safe for pregnant and lactating women, which suggests that it is generally thought that, at that dose, toxicity is extremely unlikely.
Zinc is an essential mineral. It plays roles in immune function, wound healing, eye health, and the synthesis of protein and DNA. Previous research demonstrates that zinc inhibits the replication of cold viruses. It is a particularly potent nutrient that supports immunity, so much so that it’s called “a gatekeeper of immune function.”
Excellent sources of zinc are oatmeal, tofu, cashews, sunflower seeds, peanuts, lentils, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, and hemp seeds.
A 2011 review of 13 randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled trials that provided zinc for at least five consecutive days as a therapy for colds, and two trials that provided zinc for at least five months as a measure to prevent colds (involving more than 1,300 people), concluded that zinc (as lozenges or syrup) reduced the duration and symptoms of a cold in otherwise healthy people when given at the onset of symptoms. When given for at least five months, zinc reduced the incidence of colds by 37%.
TIP: Augmenting a balanced diet with good quality supplements for vitamin C, zinc and vitamin D will ensure adequate levels are maintained to help protect against sickness.
Other Key Vitamins and Minerals to Know
Vitamin A, found in orange and yellow fruits, and veggies like carrots, sweet potatoes, and pumpkin, as well as leafy greens.
Vitamin E, highly concentrated in butternut squash, leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and broccoli.
B Vitamins, which you can get from citrus fruits, whole grains, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds, avocados, bananas, spinach, and broccoli.
Folate, found abundantly in leafy green veggies like spinach, kale, broccoli, avocado, and Brussels sprouts, as well as oranges, and bananas.
Iron, rich in tofu, beans, lentils, cashews, dried fruit, chia seeds, pumpkin seeds, and chickpeas.
Selenium, the best plant source of which are Brazil nuts, which can provide more than 100% of your daily needs in just one nut!
Generally speaking, seeds and nuts, like chia, flax, walnuts, and almonds, are rich in disease-preventing nutrients like fibre, healthy omega-3 fats, and micronutrients like vitamin E, iron, zinc, and calcium. Did you notice that broccoli was mentioned a few times there?
TIP: Eating a diet that includes a wide variety of whole plant foods, including legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, and veggies, is a great way to help your immune system stay healthy and in top shape.
Using the Forest and Nature to Increase Immunity
A connection to nature is as vital to our well-being as exercise and a healthy diet. Our health improves with it and suffers without it.
Spending time immersed in nature has been scientifically proven to reduce stress, improve sleep and boost our immune system.
A Japanese experiment by Dr Qing Li showed that a two-hour forest walk bestows the following benefits to our health:
- Average sleep time increases by 15%.
- Anxiety decreases.
- Sleep quality improves (afternoon walks improved sleep more than morning walks).
(The mood of the study participants was measured with a ‘Profile of Mood States’ test.)
The immune function of the study participants also improved, and this was measured by looking at the activity of natural killer cells. Natural killer (NK) cells are a type of white blood cell which attack and kill unwanted cells like viruses or tumours within our bodies. People with higher NK activity show lower incidences of disease.
In another experiment by Dr Li, a group of people spent three days and two nights in a forest, the following observations were made:
- NK cell activity went up from 17.3% to 26.5%, an increase of 53.2%.
- NK cell numbers increased by 50%.
- Anti-cancer proteins also increased: granulysin 48%, granzyme A 39%, granzyme B 33%, and perforin 28%.
NK cell measurements remained elevated for two days after leaving the forest, slightly decreased by day seven, slightly decreased again by day 30, but were still significantly elevated than before entering the forest.
A three-day forest immersion once a month is enough to keep your NK cell activity elevated for an entire month!
TIP: Visit your local forest, nature reserve, or park and take a couple of hours to walk around and explore, leaving your phone on ‘do not disturb’ and not being mindful of the time.
Inhaling the Forest Air for Health
In addition to this, the amazing fragrances of the forest not only smell good, but they also have a beneficial effect on our immune system.
The forest is full of phytoncides: these chemicals come from the natural oils within a plant and form part of a trees’ defence system against bacteria, insects and fungi.
Interestingly, phytoncides also form part of the communication pathway between trees. Yes, trees do communicate with each other by releasing chemicals into the air (and also through their root systems via symbiosis with mycelium) but this is a topic for another time.
The warmer the ambient temperature is, the more phytoncides will be in air, with the highest concentrations at 30 degrees Celsius.
Exposure to natural oils is known to lift depression and help with anxiety. Phytoncides in the air is one of the contributing factors when it comes to feeling relaxed in the forest.
In an experiment by Dr Li, human NK cells were incubated with phytoncides for a period of 5-7 days. At the end of this time, NK cell activity and the presence of anti-cancer proteins had increased.
The effects of phytoncides on peoples’ immune function were also tested. A group of 12 healthy men were put up in separate hotel rooms for three nights, and Hinoki stem (leaf) oil was diffused into their rooms while they slept. Hinoki is a type of Cypress tree which is prevalent in Japan and much loved by the Japanese people.
The following results were observed from the participants:
- An increased number of NK cells and NK cell activity.
- Enhanced activity of anti-cancer proteins.
- Significantly decreased levels of stress hormone.
- Increased hours of sleep.
- Decreased scores for negative emotions.
TIP: Buy some good quality Hinoki oil (stem is preferable to wood) and have it diffusing in your bedroom while you sleep. Not only will it bring the amazing smell of a Japanese forest into your home, it will also serve to boost your immune system!
Stress Will Suppress Your Immune System
Stress is also known to inhibit our immune function and stressed people are frequently ill.
The human body responds to mental stress by releasing hormones called corticosteroids, triggering the body’s fight or flight response. Chronic activation of these hormones can impair immune function, increasing susceptibility to infection and disease.
The forest is also your ally when it comes to reducing stress and promoting mental well-being. Research on phytoncides has shown that they stimulate a pleasant mood, significantly lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and increase heart rate variability. Phytoncides suppress sympathetic nervous activity (associated with stress) and increase parasympathetic activity, bringing our nervous system into balance.
One study, at the department of Psychiatry at Mie University in Japan, has shown that the citrus fragrance of d-limonene (a terpene which makes up part of the phytoncides released by trees) was more effective than anti-depressants for lifting mood and ensuring emotional well-being in patients with mental health disorders. That’s just one study. There are many more pointing to the positive mental effects of essential oils.
Another way the forest helps us to decrease stress (and increase our natural immunity) is through microbes, in particular mycobacterium vaccae. It is a harmless bacterium that we breath in which also makes us feel happier. The forest air is full of m. vaccae, which mainly resides in the soil.
An experiment conducted by Dr Mary O’Brien at the Royal Marsden Hospital illustrates the power of m. vaccae. When lung cancer patients were injected with m. vaccae it was found that it significantly improved their quality of life. The patients became more positive, exhibited higher energy levels and better cognitive function.
The experiment was repeated on mice at Bristol University to understand why people became depressed when they were sick. The injected mice behaved as though they were on anti-depressants and the neurons that were activated were those associated with the immune system. This suggests that there is a close connection between our immune system and our emotions.
TIP: Soil stimulates our immune system and a boosted immune system makes us feel happy. A great reason to go for a run in nature or to get your hands dirty while gardening!
Meditation Will Strengthen Your Immunity
Meditation has a long history and is becoming more and more popular in the West for its many health benefits, both physical and mental. There are a growing number of scientific studies to back these benefits: mental clarity, anti-anxiety and actually lengthening your lifespan, to name a few.
One of the first and most immediate effects which you will notice when you start meditating on a regular basis is a decrease in, or improvement with, symptoms associated with anxiety and stress. In our modern society, we go about our everyday lives with our noses constantly buried in some sort of electronic screen or device. This serves to increase stress and decrease immunity.
Meditation is a chance for your waking mind to do nothing for a short time, and this is much more important than you may think.
A study of over 3’500 adults showed that meditation helps to reduce stress. Another study showed that meditation helped control job-related anxiety in high-pressure work environments by demonstrating that a meditation program reduced anxiety in a group of nurses. Still another study showed that meditation literally reduces the density in brain tissue associated with anxiety and worrying!
TIP: Allow an extra 10 minutes in your morning routine to sit quietly and meditate before going to work. This will set the tone for the rest of the day and allow you to manage any stress a lot better. Give yourself another 10 minutes at the end of the day, before bed, to meditate and reconcile the day’s events. This will relax you before bedtime and promote better sleep.
Fasting to Increase Immunity
Fasting is an ancient technique used by our ancestors to purify their bodies and to achieve altered states of consciousness. These days, in addition to this, fasting is being shown to repair damaged cells within our body, and even to eliminate damaged cells (including cancer cells) which are beyond repair thorough a process called autophagy. This serves to increase our immune systems and even fight off Alzheimer’s.
Research suggests starving the body kick-starts stem cells into producing new white blood cells, which fight off infection.
Scientists at the University of Southern California say the discovery could be particularly beneficial for people suffering from damaged immune systems, such as cancer patients on chemotherapy. It could also help the elderly whose immune system becomes less effective as they age, making it harder for them to fight off even common diseases.
The researchers say fasting “flips a regenerative switch” which prompts stem cells to create brand new white blood cells, essentially regenerating the entire immune system.
Fasting for as little as three days can regenerate the entire immune system, even in the elderly.
Scientists found that prolonged fasting also reduced the enzyme PKA, which is linked to ageing and a hormone which increases cancer risk and tumour growth.
One study examined the effects of calorie restriction on the activity of memory T cells in mice. The research discovered enhanced T cell protection against infections and tumors when an animal’s caloric intake was reduced by 50%.
Intermittent fasting of 14 to 16 hours can boost the immune system, help control blood sugar, as well as reducing weight, belly fat, blood pressure, cholesterol and systemic inflammation, among other benefits.
Like with most things in life, you can have too much of a good thing. Too much fasting can have a detrimental effect on our immune system, so balance is the key.
There are many different ways to do a fast: juice, fruit, water. Strictly speaking though, fasting calls for zero calories during the fasting period.
The fasting protocol which I personally like to use is twofold:
- A strict fast once per week (usually Mondays, to balance out any potential excesses which may have occurred during the weekend) commencing from my last meal on Sunday evening and finishing at my first meal on Tuesday morning. During this time I do not consume any food, only drinking sugar-free liquids such as water, tea and coffee. During periods of intense training I will consume amino acids in order to preserve muscle mass. As an interesting side note, I find my mental clarity is also greatly increased during this time, and meditation is enhanced. Training is not an issue during this day.
- Intermittent ‘fasting’ (or time-restricted eating) for the remainder of the week. This involves choosing an eight-hour window during which you may eat, and not consuming any calories for the remaining 16 hours of the day. I prefer eating between 10:00 and 18:00, but you should pick a window which best complements your lifestyle.
I will leave one day per week as a ‘free’ day where there are no restrictions, because life is to be enjoyed after all. Again, balance is the key with everything.
If you like to count your calories, then you can think of your calorie intake scaled to a weekly basis, instead of daily.
Yes, you will get hungry, especially during a strict fasting day, but it’s not the end of the world and you will be fine. Do not dwell on the feeling of hunger, but instead drink water or a hot tea. The initial hunger pangs will subside to a dull background sensation after a few hours.
TIP: Mentally speaking, there is a big difference between being busy, stressed, running around hungry and not having time to eat; compared with consciously deciding at the start of the day that you will not eat for a period of time. Setting your intentions for the day makes a big difference.
If you are unsure, do your own research and check with your doctor to see if fasting is right for your particular circumstance.
Make Yourself Cold to Get Yourself Strong
Our ancestors also practiced cold exposure as a way to keep their bodies strong, with this tradition carried through to today in many parts of the world. Like with most ancient techniques, they did not have scientific studies to back up their assertions on what they intuitively knew to be true. These days science is catching up and we now have the data to show why limited exposure to cold strengthens our immune systems.
We are not physically designed to be at a perfectly comfortable temperature all of the time, and this is one of the downfalls of our modern lifestyles.
In the same way we become physically weak if we do not subject our bodies to stress via exercise, our bodies actually suffer and become weaker if we do not subject them to moderate amounts of temperature stress, leaving us more susceptible to getting sick during the colder months.
This process of stress, recovery and adaptation is called hormesis.
Cold water immersion activates the body’s natural healing powers that can relieve the symptoms of many medical conditions and promote a sense of health and well-being. When practiced on a regular basis, cold water immersion can even provide long-lasting changes to your body’s immune, lymphatic, circulatory and digestive systems that enhance the overall quality of your life
Cold water immersion causes your lymph vessels to contract, forcing your lymphatic system to pump lymph fluids throughout your body, flushing the waste out of the area. This then triggers the immune system’s white blood cells to attack and destroy any unwanted substance in the fluid.
Cryotherapy promotes the development of a healthy immune cell population, including cytotoxic T lymphocytes, which play key roles in protecting the body from cancer.
One clinical study looked at the effects of six weeks of cold water immersion (14 degrees Celsius for one hour) on the immune system. Participants had increased levels of IL-6, CD3, CD4, CD8 and activated T and B lymphocytes, suggesting a more active immune system.
In simpler terms, cold exposure improved the value of factors associated with white blood cell activity, and hence immune function.
Other benefits of cold exposure:
- Taking cold showers has been shown to lead to fewer sick days at work.
- Assists with calorie burn by increasing metabolism.
- Fights inflammation with moderate exposure (but too much will increase the inflammatory response).
- Anti-aging effects have been shown in insects, mice and rats, with possibly similar effects in humans (more research is required).
- Elevates your mood.
- Relieves muscle soreness.
- Enhances body’s response to insulin.
- Antioxidant effect by increasing levels on the antioxidant glutathione.
If cold training and its benefits interests you, then I recommend exploring the work of Wim Hof aka ‘The Iceman’.
TIP: Work on building up a tolerance to the cold in the shower before going for full immersion in cold water. Have a spotter with you if swimming in open water or if fully submerging yourself in cold water. The cold causes cardiac stress and full immersion can sometimes cause a loss of consciousness, depending upon the individual. Speak to your doctor and do your research if you are uncertain about anything with your personal circumstance.
From Cold to Hot
There is evidence which demonstrates that sauna use promotes mild hyperthermia, which in turn, induces a wide array of beneficial physiological responses. These responses reduce oxidative stress and inflammation, and activate cellular defense systems such as heat-shock proteins, which provide protection against many diseases.
“While there is no evidence to suggest that sauna use has a direct effect on acute COVID-19 infection, it could be argued that sauna use promotes broader changes in our immune function that may bolster defense in a contextually beneficial way.” – Dr Rhonda Patrick
In fact, data from a 2017 study suggest that sauna use reduces the risk of developing certain chronic or acute respiratory illnesses, including pneumonia, by up to 40%.
Sauna use also reduced the incidence of common colds in 25 participants who used the sauna one to two times per week for six months compared to 25 controls who did not. It’s noteworthy that it took three months before sauna use had a protective effect.
The mechanism by which frequent sauna use reduces the incidence of pneumonia and colds is unknown, but it may be related to modulation of the immune system.
One of the protective adaptive responses to heat stress is the production of heat-shock proteins.
Heat-shock proteins are a conserved class of proteins with critical roles in maintaining cellular homeostasis and in protecting cells from stressful conditions. Heat shock proteins increased by ~50 percent after 30 minutes in a 73 degrees Celsius sauna in healthy young men and women. Once activated, heat-shock proteins can remain so for up to 48 hours.
This suggests a direct role for heat shock proteins in regulating the innate immune response, which plays an important role in the body’s ability to fight off a disease that it has never been exposed to before.
TIP: Taking a sauna directly after training helps with muscle development due to the stimulation of human growth hormone being released. In fact, taking a sauna whilst being injured and unable to train can help to preserve muscle mass due to the same mechanisms. If you don’t have access to a sauna, try running a hot bath.
Scientists are predicting a second wave of COVID-19 infections come Autumn or Winter, and some places have already experienced a second wave after relaxing quarantine protocols. No matter where you live, or how severe your second wave will be, if it comes at all, the time to start getting your body prepared is now. Even if coronavirus was never a problem for you, the information which has been discussed will serve you well to improve your general health.
It is worth noting that a lot of the techniques discussed above have synergistic effects when used in combination, such as meditating in the forest, or exercise and cold exposure, for example.
It has been speculated that COVID-19 could become a permanent fixture of our lives, like the flu, and could reoccur seasonally. We cannot avoid being exposed to viruses and bacteria. It’s a part of life and bacteria actually make up a large and essential part of our bodies. A better strategy would be to optimize our immune systems by looking after our health, as it’s our first line of defence, rather than relying on something like a flu vaccine.
Let’s bolster our immune systems by eating well, exercising well, sleeping well and including some lifestyle changes which will only serve to help us live a higher quality of life!
A Final Thought on Wearing Masks
Just as the State and Church are separated in most countries because there is no place for religion in politics (and history is replete with examples to show this), there is similarly no place for politics in healthcare.
Politics is full of opinion, optics, broken promises, spin, tribal behaviour and lying in order to achieve this side’s or that side’s ideological ambitions, often with little regard for the actual will and wellbeing of the people who elected the politicians to begin with. Mix in some simplistic black-and-white thinking with little room left for nuance, and you do not get favourable conditions for administering healthcare.
Healthcare on the other hand is (should be!) based on science and learned experience, with an honest and objective interpretation of the data, which was also obtained in a scientifically sound way. Unfortunately, sound data and its unbiased interpretation is not always easy to come by but should always be strived for.
Most of you reading this on your electronic devices are fortunate enough to be living in a First World country, with all the individual freedoms that come with it. Our everyday lives would seem like a holiday to millions of other less-fortunate people in the world, yet it’s often taken for granted, myself included.
Our freedom and individual rights rely on the social contract which requires us all to live and work together, to elevate our communities as much as we can while we pursue our individual ambitions. This is not mutually exclusive. We all need each other to survive in our highly specialised societies. We rely on each other to produce the food, perform the essential tasks and do the jobs which we simply cannot do all on our own.
Our freedom and individuality must be tempered with a sense of civil duty, in order to do what is in the best interests of our communities as a whole, especially for those who are most vulnerable. Ideally this would not only apply to managing a pandemic.
If you don’t like wearing a mask because you wish to show that you are not one of the sheep, not someone who can be easily controlled, and someone who can think for themselves, then I get it. I like to think of myself in a similar way. However not wearing a mask during a global pandemic and potentially infecting the old and/or weak is not the way to do it. Find a smarter way.
It is not hard to find examples of countries who took the pandemic (and mask-wearing) seriously, and those countries who did not. The examples speak for themselves.
At the end of the day wearing a mask is not about giving up any rights but rather about other people, loved ones and strangers alike, whom our actions can affect and harm. Our societies simply do not work if we all act as a collective of individuals, interested in only our own comfort, rather than a community acting as a team with a common purpose.
Wearing a mask is not so uncomfortable and goes a long way to stopping the spread of an infectious respiratory illness. Having a ventilator down your windpipe on the other hand, or seeing it happen to a loved one, would be quite the discomfort.
Wear a mask. Just in case. Until we get all the information on the virus.
Dr Qing Li, Shinrin-Yoku: The Art and Science of Forest-Bathing
Aubrey Marcus, Own the Day, Own Your Life
Ocean Robbins, Smart Immunity: How Diet and Lifestyle Can Help You Stay Healthy in the Time of COVID-19