With COVID-19 fear gripping our society, I felt compelled to share ways to strengthen our immune systems. To be clear, these tips are not a substitute for home-isolation, social-distancing, hand-washing, and other recommended measures. We should all do those things too. With COVID-19, over 80% of people seem to have mild flu-like symptoms, not requiring medical care, but a small percentage of people need to be hospitalized and some will become critically ill. Who gets really sick and who doesn’t, has a lot to do with our immune system, which is influenced by age, other medical problems, genetics, but also factors we control.
Author’s disclaimer: I am taking this pandemic extremely seriously, as a physician and personally as a parent and son. That being said, there are jokes in this post. Humor is not a reflection on the seriousness of this pandemic but rather as a ploy to get you to keep reading.
Backstory: I spend most of my time in hospitals, taking care of patients, many with contagious diseases. It’s a regular occurrence for people to cough, sneeze, bleed, vomit, and poop on me, and not just while I’m in line at Walmart, but at work too. Also, I have two small children at home, who attend elementary schools, which have rates of communicable disease higher than Charlie Sheen’s poolhouse. Despite this, using the advice below, I literally never get sick. Your results may vary.
First disclaimer, I am fully vaccinated and I wash my hands a lot, but I am by no means a germophobe.
Second disclaimer, I wasn’t blessed with an iron clad immune system. As an adolescent, I had pneumonia twice and as a child, suffered from frequent ear infections. In college, I got…Nevermind, it’s not important. The point is, my baseline immune system is average at best.
Immune system overview and COVID-19:Besides physical barriers like skin and nose hairs, we have two parts to our immune system. The innate immune system and the adaptive immune system. The innate system is always working against all potential threats, like an electrified fence. The adaptive immune system works more like a sleeping security guard. It only activates when it identifies a new threat or recognizes a past threat. When activated, the adaptive immune system makes antibodies to help identify and attack invaders. With COVID-19, those with weakened innate immune systems (electrified fence) tend to do poorly, while those with less strong adaptive immune systems (security guards) do fine. Transplant patients are an example of the latter whereas the elderly are an example of the former.
Children have strong innate immune systems, but not fully developed adaptive immune systems, which may be why we see less severe illness in them.
Sometimes, we can sort out the right way to do something, by finding the wrong way and doing the opposite, like George Costanza. Two groups of people who suffer from terrible immune systems, are poorly controlled diabetics and meth users. Why is this the case? High blood sugar lowers our innate immune defenses. One study showed for five hours following a high sugar/carb meal, non-diabetics had their immune response reduced by 90%. Diabetics get extra immunizations because their immune system is weakened and their high blood sugar is a breeding ground for infection. Bacteria grow fastest in the lab on agar, which is a sugary gelatin, but not as delicious as it sounds.
What about meth users? They go many days without sleeping. This wrecks their immune system and they are prone to all sorts of infections, and not just the sexually transmitted ones. Studies show that rats who aren’t allowed to sleep, die of infection after only 7 days, because their innate immune systems shut down entirely. Human studies show that four nights of poor sleep weakens elements of our innate immune system by over 50%. Here’s my article discussing the importance of sleep.
So don’t blow your COVID-19 stimulus check on sweet tea, Monster Energy Drinks, and crystal meth? I know that’s not breaking news, but getting the proper amount of restorative sleep is clinically proven to be crucial. Furthermore, since restricting carbs, especially carbs in the form of sugar, wheat, and processed food, my immune system has become strong to quite strong. I have seen similar results in my patients as well. Here are some other things that may help…
Having normal levels of vitamin D helps our immune system, but it must be the D we get from sunlight and diet. If you are found to be low and then take supplements, there’s probably no benefit. So get outside and eat a diet rich in vitamin D. Side note, I’ve never seen a super sick person with a great tan, so there must be something to this sunlight thing.
Manage chronic stress. When doctors want to turn off someone’s immune system, we give them cortisol (corticosteroids), our stress hormone. This is helpful if they have an over active immune condition that is hurting their body but it’s bad for fighting viruses, especially COVID-19, except in certain ICU circumstances. Keeping our cortisol levels low is super important for healthy immune function. Here’s how to fight chronic stress.
Exercise, but skip the ultramarathon. Reasonable amounts of exercise are immune enhancing but if you find that you’re regularly crapping yourself during training or if your nipples are currently bleeding, that’s not good. Studies show that prolonged, extreme, intense, endurance workouts can temporarily weaken our immune systems.
Our bodies can only operate in one mode at a time. We can’t run from a tiger and maintain an erection or train for an ironman triathlon and fight off a virus. Alternatively, yoga, weight lifting, Tabata (brief high intensity interval training), light jogging, and brisk walks are great for both physical, mental, and immune health.
Take vitamin C but stop drinking OJ and other things that are high in sugar. Orange juice (even fresh squeezed with no sugar added) is loaded in sugar. Whole oranges are healthful, but when we juice them (and other fruits) we take out the fiber and are left with a sugar (fructose) bomb. 2000mg of vitamin C per day has been shown to help our bodies recover from illness, but even this is controversial.* Higher levels can cause diarrhea and haven’t been shown to be helpful. Also, I recommend taking 40mg of oral zinc daily.
What about other anti-oxidants? Don’t they help our immune system? Yes and no. Imagine a virus as an axe-murderer in your home. Your immune system is you with a machine gun, but you are a terrible shot. So in the process of defending yourself, you shoot up your house and hopefully kill the axe-murderer. The machine gun represents our white blood cells and the bullets are “reactive oxidative species (ROS)” or “free radicals” which are deadly to intruders but also cause a lot of damage to our home (AKA our body). In fact, these bullets keep bouncing off of our walls until neutralized by anti-oxidants. Every bounce could be a hit to your DNA, leading to damage, aging, or even cancer.
Without anti-oxidants, our immune system would do a lot more damage to our body every time it’s activated. Anti-oxidants also protect our cells against free radicals from UV rays, pollution, cigarette smoke, and chemical pesticides. The point is that anti-oxidants are great, but technically they don’t actually fight infections. They limit collateral damage.
Tumeric is a tasty spice that has a little evidence that it helps inflammation and immune function. I like it in food, but also coffee and tea. If you are on blood thinners, you need to ask your doctor before starting supplementation. This also applies to garlic, except I don’t put it in my coffee and tea, and you don’t have to ask your doctor.
Chicken soup. This is not just something your grandmother says. Real scientific studies have shown its immune boosting properties. I like mine hot and spicy because it helps to drain and open my sinuses. Vegetable soup would probably work too.
Hot and Cold. Sauna has shown incredible benefits for immune function, but since the COVID-19 shutdown, my sauna has been closed. I’m experimenting with hot baths but I don’t get the same euphoria, maybe it’s the lack of hot sweaty dudes. Periodic cold exposure, contrary to popular belief, can also boost immune function. I hate cold showers, so I’m regularly jumping in a cold pool which is also great for getting deep sleep. Here’s a protocol to check out.
ACV with Honey. Apple cider vinegar lowers blood sugar and has anti-oxidant properties and honey is great for sore throats and cough. I combine them with hot water and add fresh ginger, turmeric, and garlic at the first sign of a throat tickle or sniffle.
Fun Fact: When drug companies were testing kid’s cough syrup, honey served as the “control” drug and honey outperformed any cough medicine big pharma could safely offer kids. Don’t give honey to children under one or anyone with a severe honey allergy. Incidentally, I get a rash from honey when it’s applied at high temperatures to my feet and ankles.
Today, more than ever, we must keep our body’s immune defense strong and ready for a fight. Vince Lomabardi said, “The best defense is a good offense”, but with COVID-19, I say that an even better defense is just staying the f**k home. Please consider these immune system tips long after our COVID-19 crisis is over. Thanks for reading, please stay safe, and God Bless.
*Vitamin A and E, also help immune function but both are fat soluble and the body can recycle these vitamins, so supplementation of A and E is generally not needed. Vitamin C can only be used once and is water soluble, so it’s tough to overdose and our supply needs to be replenished daily in the form of a healthy diet and/or supplements.