Updated: Apr 7, 2020
The date is Monday 6th April and as I write this at the beginning of the third week of quarantine in the United Kingdom the nation is struggling to cope with the COVID-19. This is a challenging period for everyone. We are all facing issues new to us and with long-lasting effects. In a time like this, it is easy to feel like there is nothing we can do. This is not the case.
Aside from following government guidelines regarding social distancing and quarantine, the most important thing we can do is to STAY HEALTHY. I cannot stress this enough. In the decade or more that I have been a personal trainer, this point has never held more importance than it does now.
A healthy body is a strong and resilient body, and whilst there are no ways "boost" your immune system beyond its natural capacities, being fit and healthy allows all your bodies systems to work optimally. It is certainly possible to "boost your immune system" if your immune system isn't working properly because of your dietary and lifestyle choices!
So, here are 6 tips to help keep you healthy and resilient during this period:
Exercise affects our health and immune system in a multitude of ways. In terms of overall health, exercise helps to:
reduce the risk of coronary heart disease
reduce the risk of type-2 diabetes
reduce the risk of certain types of cancer
reduce the risk of osteoarthritis
reduce the rate of cognitive decline
maintain a healthy body weight
This last point is especially important as "coronaviruses can cause more severe symptoms and complications in people with obesity-related conditions" (1).
increasing the flow of antibodies and white blood cells around the body
reducing stress levels
activating innate antiviral immunity
raising core temperature
The exercise guidelines in this situation are simple. Any form of exercise which raises your heart rate, core temperature and breathing rate is recommended. If it is sunny, get outside and workout (whilst government recommendations to do so remain in place). Go for a jog or cycle, try hill sprints, do a workout in your garden or park. If you require a programme or online coaching see how we could help.
A word of warning - Do not overdo it. Overtraining can actually suppress the immune system due to the increase of, and prolonged exposure to, stress (4).
Eat Real Food
I have written extensively on the subject of nutrition and the importance of eating a natural diet. Whole, natural foods provide us with proteins, fats, carbohydrates, minerals, vitamins and other health-promoting compounds which allow the body to function optimally.
In the current climate, there seems to be a shift towards eating dried foods such as pasta, bread and rice which, while cheap and non-perishable, may not be the healthiest option. I do understand that many families are facing financial difficulties and in extreme situations, people must make do with what they can.
Just because our financial situation may limit what we can buy, we can still strive to eat the healthiest diet possible within our budget. Root vegetables, canned fish, organ meats, seasonal fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds are all affordable and packed with nutritional goodness! As always, avoid refined foods such as sugars, trans fats and refined carbs.
The good news is that, from what I have experienced at least, supermarkets still seem to have good supplies of fresh, healthy foods. Another added bonus is due to the reduced number of shoppers, there seems to be more food discounted - perfect for saving money.
Sleep is one of the most important human functions, and one of the most mysterious. What we do know, however, is that adequate, quality sleep is vital for human health and plays a part in supporting the immune system (5). Therefore, we should strive to improve the quality of our sleep and aim to get between 7-9 hours of sleep per night.
To improve your sleep health, aim to:
Sleep when it is dark. Our circadian rhythm is innately linked to the changes of night and day. Aim to be asleep just after darkness sets in and awake when it begins to get lighter. 8 hours of sleep from 3 am to 11 am is not the same as 8 hours of sleep from 11 pm to 7 am (6).
Keep your room cool. As we fall asleep out core temperature drops and a cooler room may help to facilitate this. Try to keep the ambient temperature of your bedroom a cool 18C (7).
Avoid bright light 2-3 hours before bed. Bright light can interfere with our circadian rhythm as our body perceives it as daylight. If you are using your phone or light-emitting device at night see if you can shift the light to a warmer hue (8). Alternatively, stick to books! It might be wise to stay away from the news for a while!
There are two "types" of stress: acute and chronic. I say "types" because they are essentially the same thing, just that chronic stress is prolonged and acute stress is, well, acute. It is the difference between stressing over bills, money, relationships or the coronavirus, and the stress induced by exercise, a fright or a cold shower.
Chronic stress can suppress the immune system (9). Keeping your levels of stress to a minimum, therefore, is important. And while we are in a very difficult period where stress levels will naturally be elevated for most, there are things we can do. Meditating, going for a walk outdoors, speaking with friends, family or a qualified professional, and being mindful all help to keep our stress levels under control.
The NHS provides advice for those worried about the coronavirus.
"Ten Percent Happier" provide a free coronavirus sanity guide for those who need help in these challenging times.
Stop Smoking and Limit Alcohol Intake
Ok, so mini-rant incoming (my own opinion). In a world where there exists a virus which poses a threat to everyone and primarily affects our lungs, why on earth are cigarettes, cigars and vapes still available to purchase?!
Smoking makes you more susceptible to lung diseases and can suppress your immune system (10). Even the government has highlighted the risk to smokers from COVID-19 with the Secretary of State for Health Matt Hancock saying “It is abundantly clear from the research into previous coronaviruses that smoking makes the impact of a coronavirus worse.” (11) That is pretty much all there is to say about smoking. For help quitting visit the NHS website.
In times of stress people sometimes turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism. I'm not one to judge and, at the end of the day, we need to do what we need to do to get through this all. From a health standpoint, however, there are a few points worthy of discussion. Firstly, excessive alcohol consumption both suppresses the immune system and can contribute to the development of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) in critically ill patients (11) - not good news as ARDS is a common cause of death in COVID-19 patients (12). On the other hand, low to moderate consumption of alcohol could actually provide some health benefits.
If you do decide to have a drink, limit it to the recommended guidelines of two units per day and opt for high polyphenol content red wine (13).
Supplementation is a controversial topic amongst health professionals. Supplements should be used exactly as their name suggests; to supplement. No supplement should replace a whole, varied diet (see above) and little definitive evidence exists to support the claims many individuals make with regards to the potency and efficacy of supplements and their effects on human health. With that being said, evidence does exist showing that deficiencies of certain minerals and vitamins can lead to health issues, and limited, but promising, evidence exists showing the health benefits of certain supplements. Let's look at three popular supplements which may help support the immune system:
Vitamin C is known to support immune function and can help certain immune cells to perform their job (14). It can also help to reduce inflammation around the body and act as a potent antioxidant (15). There are studies and recommendations from China in the use of high-dose IV vitamin C administration as a treatment protocol for COVID-19, but as of yet, vitamin C administration is not part of the standard treatment plan of COVID-19 (16). With that being said, vitamin C is water-soluble meaning you excrete what you don't need, so it could be worth supplementing with.
Vitamin D is a prohormone which the body converts to the hormone calcitriol. Unlike most other vitamins we only get around 10% of vitamin D from food sources, the rest we synthesise from sunlight. Vitamin D deficiency increases our risk of infection amongst other things (17).
Vitamin D deficiency is probably more common than we think (18). Due to the tendency for most people to spend more time indoors and, subsequently, have less exposure to sunlight, vitamin D supplementation could be advisable. In any circumstances, always follow vitamin D supplementation guidelines (19).
Zinc deficiency severely impacts immune function (20). A meta-analysis of 2017 showed that oral zinc supplementation decreased the duration of the common cold by 33% (21). Whether this has any effect on the coronavirus is yet to be known as no proper studies exist as of yet. There do exist, however, studies which show that increasing intracellular levels of zinc can inhibit the replication of a variety of viruses including SARS-CoV (22). Again, this is not the same as saying it helps to combat COVID-19, but it may help. Supplementing with zinc should not lead to any issues as long as you do not exceed the upper limits (22).
To summarise, washing your hands frequently, following social distancing rules and following the government's guidelines are the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Staying healthy is an important role in maintaining healthy immune function and there are many ways we can achieve this:
- Exercise - Moderate exercise, preferably outdoors is advisable. Be careful to not overdo it.
- Nutrition - Aim to consume a variety of natural, whole foods. Choose the healthiest foods within your budget.
- Sleep - Sleep is a vital component of human health. Aim to sleep 7-9 hours per night and don't go to bed too late.
- De-stress - Chronic stress suppresses the immune system. Help is available for those struggling with stress here.
- Stop smoking and limit alcohol - Smoking undoubtedly increases your risk of serious illness due to COVID-19. Excessive alcohol intake can severely suppress your immune system.
- Supplements - Vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc all help to support healthy immune function. Always follow supplement guidelines.
Stay healthy and stay sensible. We can get through this together!
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor. This advice is not intended to replace advice from a qualified medical professional or national health authorities.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Maitland is a personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience. He has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.