By Dr. Katie Deming, Radiation Oncologist
Are you wondering how you can boost your immune system? Well, you are not alone. This past week, I spent more time counseling my patients about immune function than ever before. Everyone wants to know how their current or previous cancer treatments may affect their immune function and how to optimize their immunity now. I have some great news. Boosting your immune system is less complicated than you think, and doesn't require expensive supplements or treatments. If you are concerned about your breast cancer treatment during this time, check out our article on how to navigate COVID-19 while undergoing breast cancer treatment.
You probably know that sleep is essential to wellbeing, but you may not realize that sleep plays a vital role in immune function. Studies show that a lack of sleep or poor quality sleep can increase your risk of getting sick after exposure to a virus. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines. Specific cytokines are needed to fight infection or inflammation. A lack of sleep may decrease the production of these protective cytokines. Additionally, infection-fighting lymphocytes decline when you don't get enough sleep. By getting adequate high-quality sleep, you can decrease the risk of getting sick and reduce the time it takes to recover.
But how much sleep do you need to optimize your immune system? For most adults, the optimal amount of sleep is seven to eight hours per night. Studies show that restricting sleep for even six nights can lower the immune response after flu vaccination. If you are having trouble falling asleep, minimize blue light from electronics in the evening. Set "dark mode" on your phone to start at sunset and make sure to turn off all electronics at least one hour before bed. You should also create a routine that helps you wind down for sleep.
Engaging in physical activity is a great way to lower stress and bolster immunity. Research shows that individuals who exercise regularly have a lower incidence of infection. But how does exercise help with immune function? Physical activity reduces levels of stress hormones and proinflammatory cytokines. It also facilitates the transport of infection-fighting white blood cells from the blood into the tissues of your body.
Exercise doesn't need to be vigorous to boost your immune system. But, you may be asking, "How do I stay fit with gyms closed and no home gym?" Walking is an excellent form of physical activity and provides a perfect excuse to get outside. The seven-minute workout is another great option that you can do anywhere, even during a short break from work. Some families are creating physical activity challenges. One family in Los Angeles has set a prize for the family member who walks the furthest during California's shelter in place order. In my own family, we are doing a pull-up challenge. My son does ten pull-ups every 30 minutes. On the weekends, we all do the pull-ups with him. It has been fun for us to get fit and spend time together. If you need a structured workout, many smartphone apps provide home workouts options. Some companies are offering free access right now. For example, the Peloton app is offering a 90-day free trial.
However, more is not better when it comes to exercise and immune function. Too much vigorous exercise can decrease your immune response. So, if you are new to working out, now is not the time to start training for a marathon. It doesn't matter what type of activity you choose. Just find a way to incorporate exercise into your day. It will boost your immune system and help you feel energized and healthy.
A healthy immune system needs adequate nourishment. Scientists have long recognized that malnourished persons are more vulnerable to infectious diseases. There is no clear data demonstrating the superiority of one type of diet for immunity. Although there are fundamental principles of nutrition that will help your body fight infections. First, deficiencies in micronutrients such as zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E can alter the immune response. You are likely to get all the micronutrients and minerals needed if you eat a well-balanced diet with plenty of fruits (1.5 - 2 cups per day) and vegetables (2-3 cups per day). If not, consider adding a multi-vitamin and mineral supplement to your diet. Please note, taking mega-doses of any vitamin is not necessary. If you are looking for specific recommendations of fruits and vegetables that support immunity, please check out this resource. Recent studies show that intermittent fasting may also impact your immune function. Though the type of fasting does matter. Shortening your eating window to 12 or fewer hours per day and decreasing overall calorie consumption improves immune response. Whereas prolonged periods of fasting for 36 hours (water only) blunts the immune response. Given this data, I would not recommend starting any severe forms of intermittent fasting right now. Though limiting your eating window to 12 hours or less each day and reducing your overall calories may give your immune system a boost against infection.
4. Social Connection
We are now well aware that social distancing is a vital strategy against COVID -19. However, it is essential to distinguish between being alone and feeling lonely. Social distancing can keep us safe. Though people who feel socially isolated have a harder time fighting off viruses. Studies show that people quarantined during prior outbreaks (SARS, HIN1, Ebola) experienced significant stress, insomnia, and substance abuse. All of these stressors decrease your body's natural ability to defend itself.
So how do we stay connected? Since you are unlikely to bump into your coworker or friends organically, find time to digitally connect via FaceTime, Google Hangout, Zoom, or other online platforms. Get creative with your neighbors to continue living while maintaining safe practices.
And lastly, nothing can replace the healing touch of real human contact. If you are sheltering in place with your family, holding hands, hugging, or massage can be therapeutic. Human touch reduces symptoms of a viral infection (remember to practice proper hygiene before touching, ex: 20 seconds of handwashing).
5. Stress Reduction
When we are stressed, it reduces our immune system's ability to fight off antigens, making us more susceptible to infections. The stress hormone corticosteroid can lower the number of infection-fighting white blood cells. Stress also indirectly affects the immune system when people use unhealthy coping strategies such as drinking and smoking. So, it is crucial to find healthy ways of managing the stress in your life. All of the topics discussed in this post will help with stress reduction. Still, there are many additional resources to manage stress. I have included some resources for stress management below. Next week, I will dedicate an entire post to the stress management techniques I use in my practice and personal life.
Stress Management Resources:
I hope these tips will keep you and your family healthy in the coming weeks. Even though this is a challenging time for all of us, it is also an excellent opportunity to establish new habits that will bolster your overall health. Please stay well and safe!