On Your Health

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Your Immune System During COVID

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect millions of Americans, the hours, days, weeks and months spent quarantining and social distancing may have you questioning how our society moves forward. Sometimes, questions lead to more questions — Is it safe to go in public? Should you stay indoors? Will your immune system weaken if you are staying indoors? — and misinformation ensues.

The theory behind that last question is the myth that your immune system will falter if you don’t go outside or in public places to expose yourself to germs. The short answer is no. Why? First, as we’ll explain, your body doesn’t work that way. However, too much time indoors can lead to unhealthy habits that affect your immune system. In other words, how you treat your body — not where you spend your time — plays a much larger role in immune health.

Finding a balance between health and safety

Your immune system is a complex defense mechanism that takes years to develop. Staying inside for a few months to lower the chance of contracting an infection or viral disease such as COVID-19 is unlikely to weaken your immune system to the point where it puts you more at risk. Your immune system won’t suddenly forget how to work.

While you shouldn’t exclusively trap yourself indoors out of fear and panic, you should take the necessary precautions when you leave the house. This means practicing safe social distancing, avoiding large crowds and gatherings, washing your hands regularly and wearing a mask in public.

As humans, we thrive on interaction and daily routines. Isolation can send you down a negative path that becomes cyclical. Your stress levels are at risk of increasing, and stress and immune health don’t mix. Any changes in your schedule, especially not interacting with friends and family, may cause anxiety or depression. If you’re looking for a way to mimic face-to-face interactions, try FaceTime or Zoom gatherings with your family to stay engaged during COVID-19.

With many of your daily routines in disarray, staying cooped up indoors may also cause loneliness that leads to eating irregularities such as binge eating. Collectively, disruptions to your mood, diet and sleep patterns place unwanted strain on your immune system.

Keeping your immune system in check is all about striking a healthy balance between protecting yourself and keeping a clear physical and mental headspace. Meet your exercise goals by taking a walk in your neighborhood or hiking at a state park. (But, do so with extra caution and avoid interacting with other people.) Not only are these activities ideal for cardiovascular health, you’ll also create a positive mindset in an otherwise negative environment.

Vitamin D and immune health

Because vitamin D is essential in helping your body absorb calcium, it’s not surprising you generally associate it with bone health. But, vitamin D is also linked to your immune health. Sunlight is the best way for your body to absorb vitamin D, which explains why some people question if staying inside can weaken your immune system.

The good news is you can boost your vitamin D intake through certain foods. You can also turn to supplements for help if you live in climates with limited sun exposure. Vitamin D deficiencies are a worldwide problem, especially in adults over the age of 70 due to less frequent sun exposure. Fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna or mackerel, and many commercial milk products have vitamin D. Cheese, mushrooms and egg yolks also contain small amounts of vitamin D.

Is there a link between vitamin D and COVID-19?

Vitamin D’s exact role in your immune system isn’t entirely clear, but researchers hypothesize it binds to existing cells to help fend off harmful pathogens. With COVID-19, several trials have studied vitamin D’s ability to help produce fewer cytokines and thus reduce inflammation.

Cytokine syndrome, or cytokine storm, is a common symptom in COVID-19 patients. Your body produces cytokine proteins that attach to cells to help regulate inflammation. In this case, the coronavirus disease causes excessive cytokine production that impacts your lungs and can cause organ failure.

The University of Chicago Medicine found data that supports vitamin D deficiency can play a role in contracting coronavirus disease, while another study found a correlation between vitamin D levels and the number of COVID-19 cases.

The hospital measured the current vitamin D levels of 499 patients compared to previous levels measured within the past year. The research showed patients with a vitamin D deficiency (measured as less than 20 ng/ml) were nearly two times more at risk of contracting COVID-19 compared to individuals who had recommended levels of vitamin D.

What does the recommended daily intake look like? It varies by age, but this info provides a general guide in International Units (IU).

  • Birth – 12 months: 400 IU
  • Children, Teens, Adults up to age 70: 600 IU
  • Adults age 70 and above: 800 IU

As a takeaway, remember that more research is needed and you shouldn’t view vitamin D solely as a way to limit or prevent COVID-19. Currently, medical professionals haven’t found a cure for the disease. If you’re outside, constant and prolonged sun exposure can damage your skin. Here’s a guide to the sunscreen basics you need to know.

How to build your immune system

It’s natural to wonder if your immune system can fight off coronavirus. A healthy immune system won’t prevent you from coming down with COVID-19 and it won’t cure the disease either. But, it can put your body in a better position to fend off illnesses.

The concept isn’t new or revolutionary. In general, healthier individuals are more prepared to keep infections and diseases under wraps. It’s no different than an athlete who practices more is able to perform better in games. Treating your body right will have lasting effects.

For starters, a healthy diet, regular activity, a consistent sleep schedule and managing mental health are the building blocks for a healthy immune system.

You are what you eat

Those tasty snack foods or desserts you see on store shelves or your Instagram feed are full of refined sugars and carbohydrates. Treat yourself in moderation, but long-term consumption of packaged and processed foods can cause inflammation.

Why does this matter? Vitamins, minerals and other nutrients are the building blocks of a healthy diet. Without them, your body may find it difficult to defend against common illnesses. Read our in-depth guide about which foods and drinks can help you naturally boost your immunity.

Activity matters

Obesity can lead to a litany of health problems that deplete your immune system. A diet will help you stay fit and healthy, but you should also include activity in your daily routine. Try to log 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week.

Typically, activity and outdoors go hand in hand. You can still perform home workouts, either to boost your heart rate or build strength, and still mix in safe outdoor activities. Check out these tips on staying active when you’re at home.

A rested body is a well-functioning body

We’ve mentioned how an overproduction of cytokines can harm your body. But, outside of COVID-19 and other common lung diseases, cytokines help us fight off infections. Your body produces cytokines while you sleep to help, which further emphasizes the importance of a good night’s rest.

Plus, the mental strain and inactivity of isolation can disrupt your circadian rhythm, which helps regulate sleep. Adults should set a sleep goal of eight hours each night. Your children or grandchildren may need anywhere from nine to 10-plus hours of sleep depending on their age.

Manage stress to give your body a fighting chance

As difficult as it may seem to keep a positive outlook during this time, keeping an upbeat frame of mind will help your mental health and, in turn, keep your immune system on track.

Anxiety and depression affect your mood, but they also lead to increases in cortisol and adrenaline. Over time, this excess production can lead to inflammation and cause problems with your immune system. Check out our blog on protecting your mental health during COVID-19 for more information.

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