It’s easy to panic about the coronavirus pandemic.
The vast majority of people alive today have never had to live through a global pandemic. The most recent one — the Spanish flu of 1918 — affected a world very different from the world we live in today.
While things are definitely scary, we’re all doing our best to flatten the curve, practise social distancing, and reduce the spread of the virus as much as we can.
There’s a ton we don’t know about the virus, but experts believe that the wild variations between symptoms often has more to do with the person who has the disease than the disease itself.
Can taking care of our immune systems prevent COVID-19?
So little of what’s going on now is within our control. But maintaining a healthy immune system is about our habits, and our habits and behaviour are among the rare things that are actually in our realm of control.
Doing what we can to strengthen our immune system won’t necessarily keep the virus at bay, but it can keep us safe from other illnesses and benefit our bodies and minds as much as is possible at this very chaotic and difficult time.
Here are some easy ways to strengthen your immune system.
Eat healthy foods ...
It’s pretty basic: If you put healthy foods in your body, your body gets healthier. A diet made up of lots of fruits, vegetables, good fats and healthy grains will help keep your immune system in fighting shape.
... but remember that there are no miracle cures
There are a number of healthy foods that are good for your immune system and can help contribute to a well-balanced diet, like citrus fruits, garlic, turmeric and spinach. And lots of supplements, like zinc, Vitamin D and Vitamin B6, are making the rounds as “immunity boosters” right now, too.
But it’s important to remember that there are no miracle fixes. “There are a lot of products that tout immune boosting properties, but I don’t think any of these have been medically proven to work,” Dr. Krystina Woods, hospital epidemiologist and medical director of infection prevention at Mount Sinai West, told the New York Times about zinc and other foods and supplements specifically advertised as immunity boosters.
Vitamins and minerals probably won’t hurt, but there’s very little research proving that they’ll do much. The best course of action is to talk to your doctor about your vitamin levels, and let them tell you if there are any supplements you should be taking.
You already know this, but regular exercise lowers blood pressure, improves your cardiovascular system, and generally contributes to good health, which also strengthens your immune system.
Health Canada recommends we get about an hour of exercise per day. There are a number of free home workouts available online if you need some inspiration.
Smoking impairs the immune system in a few different ways. It can weaken your immune system’s defences, making you more susceptible to infection, and can also make your immune system more likely to develop harmful pathogenic immune responses.
And because the novel coronavirus is a respiratory illness, smoking can exacerbate the risk of contraction, according to Stanton A. Glantz, the director of the Center for Tobacco Research Control and Education.
Drink in moderation
The official recommendation from the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction (CCSA) is that women have no more than 10 drinks a week, and men have no more than 15. Excessive drinking impairs your immune system, making you more susceptible to infections.
But because we’re human, and it’s hard for many of us to deal with stress using just exercise and green juice, 21 per cent of Canadians aged 18-34 and 25 per cent aged 35-54 are drinking more since the pandemic started. The lack of a boundary between “work” and “leisure” time is another reason for this, said Catherine Paradis of the CCSA, as well as plain old boredom.
The organization offers a number of resources for people who want to cut down on their drinking.
Get enough sleep
Almost no one sleeps enough, even though a sleep-deprived immune system doesn’t work as well as a well-rested one.
We should all be getting at least seven hours, Health Canada said, with up to nine hours recommended for people between ages 18 and 64. But there are many adults who don’t sleep that much, or who don’t have good, restful sleep.
Routines can help us, like having a regular bedtime and wake-up time. Avoiding excessive screen time before bed can also help, as can avoiding caffeine, nicotine and alcohol before going to sleep. And as much as possible now, having your work space separate from your sleeping space makes a difference, too.
Try to minimize stress
I know, I know: This is a tough one right now. But lots of research shows that stress can compromise immune systems. So if you can find ways to calm down and introduce some self-care into your routine, you’ll be better off.
Watch: Breathing exercises that can help with coronavirus-related anxiety. Story continues after video.
Also, another finding from that research is that healthy and robust social contact can benefit your health. So seeing friends is a good way to combat stress.
How to do your best to avoid contracting COVID-19
In order to stave off the coronavirus as much as possible, here are your best bets:
Wash your hands
It’s both the easiest and the most important way to protect yourself. There are even helpful singalongs now!
Stay home as much as possible
Social distancing is one of our most effective ways of stopping the transmission of the virus. The less you interact with the people who don’t already live in your household, the less likely it is that you’ll contract the virus, or that you’ll spread it if you’re an asymptomatic carrier.
Don’t touch your face
Yes, once you hear this you just want to keep touching your face. But the World Health Organization says that hands can easily pick up infections — that’s why washing them is so important — and the face, eyes and nose are quick ways for the virus to enter your body.
Cover your mouth when you sneeze
Droplets spread the virus, so make sure to contain them by coughing or sneezing into your elbow.
Wear a non-medical mask when you can’t socially distance
For trips to the grocery store or other essential needs that make socially distancing difficult, wearing a mask will protect the people around you.
Update: This piece has been updated to reflect current information on the function of the immune system related to COVID-19, as well as add additional info on best practices to support good health.
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