6 Surprising Ways to Boost Your Immune System, Fight Off Viruses and Feel Great
We are living in the midst of a pandemic, so we probably don't need to tell you why it's a smart idea to turn up your immune defense by any healthy means possible so that your body can have the best chance to fight any virus that comes your way. You already know to get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet of mostly plant-based foods, and cut out meat and dairy (which promote inflammation) and junk food loaded with sugar and chemicals and compromises your efforts to lower inflammation. Here are six surprising tips that are easy to implement into your routine, from the author of Immune System Hacks, Matt Farr.
1. Use Iintermitting Fasting to Help Your Immune System Do Its Job
Fasting has become a top health hack over recent years, in part because of the popularity of intermittent fasting as a way to lose weight or get a handle on spiking blood pressure. But beyond a lower number on the scale or improved blood pressure levels, many of fasting’s most important benefits center around its effects on the immune system.
The number one benefit of fasting is the activation of autophagy, which involves the recycling of old, damaged, and redundant cells in order to produce fresh new cells that are superior in function and health. During this process, defective immune cells or their parts are replaced and toxins and pathogens can be released from the cells. Fasting helps your body focus on the work of this cleanup operation, and not have to be occupied by working to sweep away new toxins and excess calories in the food you eat.
Autophagy can also be triggered through exercise, specific nutrients or compounds in healthy antioxidant-rich foods, going into ketosis, and even sleep. Intermittent fasting involves eating within specific windows of time each day (also known as time-restricted feeding, or TRF), or even going for a prolonged period of one to five days without eating. (Do this only under medical supervision.)
The benefits of short-term fasting include:
- Reduced immunosenescence, which is the aging of the immune system
- Lowered white blood cell numbers including lymphocytes, natural killer cells, and neutrophils
- Lowered inflammation and fewer pro-inflammatory markers
- Protection against inflammatory-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, and obesity
- Lowered cortisol levels at night, the stress hormone that when constantly in the "on" position is unhealthy and can lead to cellular aging
- Increased insulin sensitivity (which means your body burns fat more readily)
- Lowered levels of low-density lipoproteins (which transport cholesterol from the liver to the tissues of the body, so you'll also see lower cholesterol levels
- Support for the healing of the gut lining
- Slowed progression of diabetes and obesity
- Increased weight loss
- Help in preventing metabolic and neurological diseases
- Improved effectiveness of cancer treatments
Although research is yet to clearly define the most effective time frame to practice short-term fasting, an eating window of around 8−10 hours (which means fasting 14 to 16 hours, often including your overnight sleeping hours) seems to offer the best balance between practicality and health benefit. Less than six hours of eating (and 18 of fasting) appear to produce mixed results, while a bigger window than 10 hours of eating (such as 12 on and 12 off) produces a significant drop in benefits.
Longer-term fasts of no food (e.g., water fasts) that last for one or more days have their own benefits for the immune system.
According to Valter Longo, one of the world’s leading authorities on fasting, when we fast for 48−72 hours, we deplete our liver glycogen (glucose) levels so that we rely on fat for energy. This is the state of ketosis, where the body eats up old immune cells (and anything else ithas to burn) as an energy source. As a result, immune cell levels drop but are later restored with fresh new cells once we start eating again. During fasts lasting two to four days, the protein kinase A gene, which regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism within the cell, is turned off, which triggers stem cells to produce new immune cells. According to Dr. Longo’s research, the cumulative effect of repeated, prolonged (two−to-four day) fasts is that the entire immune system can be reset.
To gain the benefits from prolonged fasting, you must fast without food for at least three days (and preferably four to five days) for optimal immune-system effect. If you have health problems or conditions that make this risky, seek the advice of your doctor before fasting. Some experts recommend that longer fasts (of more than forty-eight hours) should only be conducted in controlled environments where vital health factors can be measured.
2. Play a Musical Instrument Like the Drums. Or Listen to Classical Music
There have been many studies over the years into the effects of listening to music on the immune system, but new research tells us that playing a musical instrument has been shown to lower cortisol, stress, anxiety, and depression—all of which diminish your immunity.
One of the most researched instruments with respect to immune function is the drum. One study found that drumming increased natural killer cell activity, lowered cortisol levels, and increased lymphokine-activated killer cell activity, all mechanisms used by the body to combat cancer and illness. Another study found that drumming reduced the inflammatory immune response both immediately following playing and for several weeks afterward.
Other studies have found that playing music increases levels of IgA, an important antibody found on the mucosal lining of the gut and respiratory systems, as well as natural killer cells, important immune agents that go out into the body and seek invaders or any cells that are behaving badly, and they help keep both invading pathogens and cancer cells in check.
What better excuse to dust off your guitar, drums, or finally learn to play the piano?
3. Turn Down the Heat and Take a Cold Shower
A simple way to strengthen your immune system is to take a cold shower every day. This may surprise you, as, like many, you may have been told growing up (or even as an adult) that exposure to the cold may increase your risk of coming down with something. However, there is no scientific basis for this and you can't "catch a cold" by being out in the cold.
Conversely, there are several reasons to believe that cold exposure may improve immune system function.
Multiple studies have shown that cold exposure:
- Reduces pro-inflammatory and promotes anti-inflammatory responses in the immune system—particularly beneficial for those suffering from autoimmune conditions and inflammatory conditions that compromise immunity
- Strengthens your body’s internal oxidative system
- Increases white blood cell count via an increase in metabolic rate
- Increases autophagy—the important cleanup and recycling process in which the body breaks down old, redundant, or defective cells and replaces them with new healthy cells (including immune cells). Autophagy is your body's internal Rumba.
Even taking a cold shower for just 30 to 60 seconds can help reduce the number of sick days someone has to be out of work, one study found. Exposing your body to the cold on a regular basis either for long periods of time at mildly cold temperatures (research suggests 59°F is effective) or for short periods at much cooler temperatures (e.g., a two-minute shower as cold as you can tolerate it) can have positive effects on immune health, particularly with regard to reducing chronic inflammation. As an added bonus, research suggests that cold exposure can aid weight loss by stimulating your metabolic rate.
4. Write Expressively. Time to Dust off that Old Novel You Started
Writing can be an effective tool and it bestows many health benefits. Expressive writing has been found to be particularly therapeutic, especially for the immune system. Expressive writing involves writing about events and circumstances that manifest intense and distressing emotions. One study found that patients and health care workers both benefit from writing down their feelings, giving air to fears, anxiety and intimate thoughts can allow the body to release tension and heal more effectively. "Expressing our deeper thoughts and feelings can result in significant health benefits in the short and long term. Studies over the past 25 years have shown that expressive writing, that is, simple writing on deeper thoughts and emotional sensations, is a useful tool to alleviate both physical and psychological symptoms."
Studies have found expressive writing improves:
- Immunity Response: Levels of T lymphocyte immune cells
- Physical Healthy: Respiratory conditions such as asthma
- Autoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis
- Reduces the time it takes to fall asleep when you write before bed
- The healing of trauma, PTSD, and depression, which impair immune health
- Stress, which has both physical and emotional health impact
It also has cathartic effects that support the release of distressing emotions that could otherwise suppress immune function. Researchers have concluded that expressive writing has similar benefits to working with a therapist. In order to gain from the healing and well-being benefits of expressive writing, it is important to write in detail about the event or circumstance affecting you, your thoughts and emotions relating to it, and, most importantly, any meaning you find in the situation. Simply venting emotions or describing the event without connecting to the emotions behind it is ineffective.
To benefit from this therapeutic activity you can either commit to regular journaling or write about specific traumatic and emotional events when their pain surfaces. Journaling is particularly effective since it can become a well-developed practice that enables you to process your day and events in a healthy way. It is recommended to write freely for about 15 to 20 minutes without editing your thoughts or words. It can also be helpful to focus on a specific theme for the day or week.
5. Take a Sauna-- but if your only option is at the gym you may want to wait on this!
Saunas have been used for thousands of years by cultures all around the world, from shamanic sweat lodges to traditional Finnish saunas. And in recent years, scientists have validated this ancient practice for health improvement. You can build a sauna with a stone fire pit and old fashioned TeePee, using the rocks and a small bucket of water to heat the space.
Regular sauna use:
- Reduces the incidences of colds and flu
- Increases several types of immune cells in the short and longer-term
- Improves stress (lowers levels of cortisol), anxiety, and depression
- Elevates mood
- Improves autoimmune symptoms (chronic fatigue syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis) and chronic inflammatory (cardiovascular, lung and brain diseases) conditions
- Detoxifies the body, through sweating, of chemical toxins and heavy metals (e.g., lead, arsenic, and thiuram) that disrupt immune function (infrared saunas only)
- Improves sleep when used a couple of hours before bed
- Increases autophagy (the recycling and replacement of oldt immune and other cells)
Saunas provide these immune benefits by emitting infrared light, which provides many immune benefits including healing, energy, immune-cell-generating, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant benefits. They also produce heat, which raises core body temperature by a few degrees, imitating the effects of a fever, a natural response to some infections. This “fake” fever activates the immune response responsible for fighting microbes and the immune system’s memory. The heat also activates heat shock proteins, which trigger an immune response and have antimicrobial and inflammatory effects.
To optimize long-term benefits, aim to use a sauna four or more days a week. (Occasional use will still produce short-term benefits.) If you are new to saunas, begin with 5−15 minutes per session and increase use over time. Use Finnish saunas for up to one hour and forty minutes for infrared saunas. Make sure you are fully hydrated before and after using a sauna. If you are pregnant or have a cardiovascular condition seek your doctor’s advice first.
6. Get Outside and into a Garden
Gardening is one of the most effective ways to boost your immune system—it’s true! This may not be your time of year to garden but plan ahead for spring and summer planting.
Here are eight reasons why:
- Exercise: Gardening will get you moving and exercising your body in ways you otherwise wouldn’t.
- Sunlight and fresh air: Gardening gets you outdoors and benefiting from the immune-enhancing effects of sunlight and fresh air.
- Microorganisms: One gram of soil contains up to ten billion microorganisms. The “Old Friends” theory explains that losing your connection with microorganisms through modern hygienic living weakens your immunity. Getting your hands dirty is critical to re-establishing a healthy connection with microorganisms.
- Better mental health: Gardening lowers anxiety, stress, and depression—which lower immunity—and has been used successfully in horticultural therapy for treating mental health.
- Nutritious foods: Growing your own food allows you to lower your intake of pesticides (which harm immunity), increase nutrients in your diet, and try your hand at growing immune-boosting foods.
- A connection to nature: Gardening provides you with the immune benefits of grounding (connecting with the earth via your bare skin, usually barefoot) and phytoncide (oil with antimicrobial properties that is released by trees and plants).
- Human connection: Gardening is an opportunity to connect and foster deeper relationships with friends and family, which strengthens immunity.
- Healthier diet: Growing your own food deepens your connection with and appreciation for real food and leads to healthier dietary choices, especially among children.
Excerpted from Immune System Hacks by Matt Farr. Copyright © 2020 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher, Adams Media, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.