Katherine Plumhoff of Hello Giggles spoke with experts about the current environment’s effects on our immune system. Living during a pandemic has not only changed our routines, but it has also caused a lot of people to work out less, soak up less sun, eat worse food, increase screen time, lessen physical touch, and overall become more stressed. What does this new reality do to our immune system?
For some, Dr. Lucy Bruijn, a family physician of Methodist Medical Group in Memphis, TN, argues it may be better. Those who are more introverted have found less stress being at home, as opposed to being at an office every day. The extended time at home may also mean more sleep since a commute has been eliminated.
“Our immune systems are so individualized and depend on individual characteristics and external factors,” says Dr. Bruijn. “But it’s fair to acknowledge that our immune systems are under stress due to the rapid changes in our daily lives brought on by this pandemic.”
But even introverts may be feeling extra stress due to balancing their jobs, financial issues, and family responsibilities all while going through a global pandemic. The medical experts in this article all agreed that our immune systems may not be thriving right now and that’s okay. Here’s a look into what’s happening and how we can help ourselves.
”It’s fair to acknowledge that our immune systems are under stress due to the rapid changes in our daily lives brought on by this pandemic.”
Dr. Lucy Bruijn
To thrive, our immune system needs nutritious foods, plenty of sleep, and exercise. Dr. Daryl Gioffre, a chiropractor and nutritionist and the author of Get Off Your Acid. says “lifestyle factors…play a major role in the response of our immune system in fighting any pathogen, whether it’s the coronavirus, influenza, or even the common cold.”
If you’ve found yourself drinking more alcohol, sleeping less, and eating more processed foods, you could be “driving up inflammation and lowering your immune system’s ability to fight any foreign invaders,” says Dr. Gioffre.
Some ways to strengthen your system would be making good choices like working out regularly, getting fresh air, eating a balanced diet, sleeping well, and keeping stress in check. Dr. Gioffre suggests “reconnecting with loved ones, catching up on projects you put on the back burner, and making better choices to move towards a healthier lifestyle.”
Before the pandemic, our normal lives contained things like browsing at a store, eating out, and using public transportation. These are all times we’re exposed to viruses and bacteria, which is actually usually a good thing.
Naturopath Dr. Mary Shackelton of Holistica Integrative Care in Boulder, Colorado explains that bacteria and viruses “may not produce any illness but help to keep our immune systems ‘awake’ and up-regulated,” she says. “When we see viruses and bacteria out in the world in our normal lives, our immune system is busy making antibodies to these exposures. This is a type of fitness for our immune response. By sheltering in place, we are not getting these normal exposures,” says Dr. Shackelton.
Well, how do you help combat this? Dr. Shackelton recommends washing your hands with soap on a regular basis versus spraying them down with hand sanitizer every few seconds. She also suggests “eating for your microbiome,” or eating plenty of fruits, veggies, and fermented foods to “help feed the thousands of beneficial bacteria in your gut microbiome that are helpful as a first line of immune defense.”
Spending all your time away from the sun leaves your immune system suffering. Dr. Michael Smith, internist and author of The Supplement Pyramid says “Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because when our skin is exposed to sunlight, it makes vitamin D from cholesterol,” says Dr. Smith. “And vitamin D plays a significant role in regulating the immune system. High vitamin D levels are associated with a decreased risk of seasonal viral infection and acute respiratory infection.”
Dr. Bruijn. suggests that beyond helping your immune system, exposure to sunlight can boost your mood and regulate your circadian rhythm to help foster a healthy sleep-wake cycle.
According to Dr. Bruijn, going outside for at least three times a week for 15 minutes can increase your vitamin D levels. Those with darker skin may need to spend closer to 30 minutes outside. If you are unable to get outside safely, consider taking a supplement.
“Some degree of stress is actually healthy because it helps us keep moving through life,” says Dr. Bruijn. “Cortisol, a stress hormone, is usually anti-inflammatory and helps us with our immune response.” But in a pandemic, where we’re experiencing constant high levels of stress, our bodies release more cortisol, which, according to Dr. Bruijn, “can lead to a weakened immune response. Our bodies, when exposed to too much stress (aka cortisol), can become pro-inflammatory with increased production of certain molecules called inflammatory cytokines, which can lead to increased risk of infections and other diseases such as cancer and heart disease over time.”
So what can be done about this? “It’s hard to tell yourself not to stress when things are stressful. This alone can lead to more stress,” says Dr. Rand McClain of Regenerative & Sports Medicine in Santa Monica, CA. He suggests making a list of things that you enjoy—like music, movies, people, activities—and try to engage in at least one thing from the list every day. “Accepting what cannot be controlled and being proactive with what can be is helping to support your immune system.”
While this information is helpful in noticing and improving our detrimental habits, it is not the time to beat yourself up if you cannot follow the rules regularly. It is a unique, challenging time. All you can do it take it one day at a time.