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Is it possible to boost your immune system as COVID-19 spreads?

Experts say there are things you can do to be healthier, which is important as pandemic takes hold

Photo Illustration by Michelle Budge

SALT LAKE CITY — As the COVID-19 pandemic numbers keep climbing, people are asking if there’s more they can do to stay healthy, in addition to following public health recommendations.

“We are told 75% to 80% of us will at some time be exposed to this,” said Dr. Preston Wilson, a family practice provider at Jordan Family Health in West Jordan. “We need to prepare ourselves for when that happens.”

Can you boost your own immune system or improve your health enough to skate lightly through the public health crisis?

Looking at more than 200,000 cases worldwide has already shown that those most at risk are adults older than 60, people with chronic medical conditions like diabetes or heart disease and those who have compromised immune systems, including anyone who had an organ transplant.

Experts tell the Deseret News that even those at high risk can do certain things to be as healthy as possible, not only during an infectious disease pandemic but in general. Patients should follow not just the basic advice, but tailored recommendations, too.

Wilson said patients still come in for care and admit they continue to smoke, though COVID-19 can be deadly as it can settle in the lungs. Others admit they haven’t changed their diets to control their diabetes.

“As much as we are concerned about this virus, I don’t know that we are doing everything we can to maximize our body’s ability to fight it when exposed to it,” said Wilson.

Could building your immune system and health really be as simple as sleeping, eating right, exercising, laughing and staying calm? Experts explain why each has value.

“Take this seriously,” said Wilson. “If you are healthy and strong and you are taking care of your body and maximizing its ability to fight infection, then you have a super high likelihood of recovering very well from this. “

Zzzzzzs please

Myriad studies have shown that sleep is needed for good health, but many people insist on treating it like a commodity they can skip when pressed for time.

Wilson said that sleep is the first thing that comes to mind when asked if it’s possible to strengthen one’s body and its immune system. That’s when the body recovers from the day.

“We know that our immune system gets depressed when we are limiting our sleep and don’t get enough,” he told the Deseret News. “By enough, I mean on average 7-8 hours for adults, and more for children, maybe.”

He’s not sure you can produce immunoglobulins better by getting more sleep. But he knows it’s important to a healthy life, both physically and mentally.

As close to raw form as possible

Food is more than fuel in Jennifer James’ book. The registered dietitian nutritionist and certified health coach at Ogden Regional Medical Center said healthy food choices are the raw materials that allow the body to build proteins, blood cells, immune system cells to fight infections and more. Vitamins and minerals run the chemical reactions that go into the cells, she added. For instance, cells have to have B vitamins to create energy.

The interaction of nutrition and the body is akin to building a house — a complex process that needs wiring and plumbing and foundation and framing work, among many other things.

The human body requires vitamins and minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, fats, fluids — “all those things to keep the body functioning at top capacity.” Eating an unbalanced diet or one with a lot of processed food doesn’t provide what’s needed for the chemical reactions to take place or for the body to be able to build new white or red blood cells, soft tissue, heal wounds and keep the brain going strong. A diet of food as close to its raw form as possible can do all that fairly easily, she said.

There’s no one miracle food, she added. “I encourage people to do a whole-food diet, mostly plant-based, colorful foods you prepare from scratch.” It’s OK, though, to enjoy an occasional less-healthy treat.

“Don’t eat a bunch of garbage,” Wilson said. “What you put into your body determines what you get out of it.”

James suggests getting an app that tracks food intake and breaks down the vitamin and mineral content, among other things. She particularly recommends one called Chronometer.

A healthy laugh

Don’t lose your sense of humor in a crisis. The Mayo Clinic writes that laughter really does reduce stress, which has a cascade of smaller, immune-system-friendly benefits. A hearty laugh doesn’t just tickle your thoughts; it gives organs a burst of oxygen and releases endorphins in the your brain. Laughter varies your heart rate from fast to slow, which is good for you. And it helps your muscles relax.

Perhaps best of all, laughter and positivity can release stress-busting neuropeptides to counter the chemistry that negativity, stress and anxiety induce.

So yeah, this is a very challenging time. But appreciate its funny moments, too.

“The memes have been hysterical on the toilet paper hoarding,” James said. “Humor is wonderful.”

Calming and other mental health tricks

The greatest mental health need is finding some balance, Wilson said. “We know that people who suffer more from depression and anxiety seem to suffer more chronic disease. It may be that they are not sleeping well or not doing the things they need to do to stay healthy. “

Relaxing, which cuts stress, is critical. “When the stress hormones are elevated, that does not help our immune systems,” said James. She likens it to her experience pushing through finals in college, stressed to the max, then going home. “I was always sick at Christmas.”

She’s among experts who believe being worn out and stressed makes people an easy target for illness.

Meditation is being heralded worldwide for its mental health benefits, from lowering blood pressure and heart rate to perhaps improving memory and building the immune system. It takes about two months of doing it regularly — for as little as five minutes a day — to see results. There are free and paid apps to help, and people can choose where and when to do it. Some people like music, some a mantra, others a voice guiding them.

Everyone’s mind wanders while meditating, James said. Just pull it back to what you were focusing on and “do it consistently,” she said.

Some school districts (when class is in session) are embracing meditation as a way to help students focus and calm themselves and manage their stress.

To manage emotions in a healthy way, James suggests doing things one enjoys, like journaling or crafts or other things that provide a sense of peace and satisfaction.

Don’t stew over your emotions. Acknowledge them and let them pass, she said. “Pay attention to how you talk to yourself — positive and encouraging helps a lot.”

Get moving

Regular moderate exercise is very important. But don’t overdo it. Overstressing your body may weaken the immune system and make people vulnerable to illness, James said.

Besides being good physically, there are mental health benefits. A nature walk, for instance, is good all around.

Lots of gyms and other organizations are offering exercise routines online while people are social distancing during the pandemic. Older folks can find ideas from YouTube videos on the National Institute on Aging, AARP and other sources.