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Evidence-Based Practices to Improve Immune Health

In part one of the immune health blog series, and in the webinar recording with Dr. Leonard Calabrese, we talked about the immune response to COVID-19 and what makes us vulnerable to infection from COVID-19.

We also discussed the specific layers of protection from COVID-19. But we haven’t yet talked about how lifestyle impacts immune system functioning and can reduce chronic inflammation and the prevalence of non-communicable diseases.

Before we jump in, it’s important to know that there is no single source, supplement or “quick fix” to create a strong immune system because it’s exactly that—a system.

“I’m just overwhelmed and queasy at all the people talking about quick fixes for wellness. There’s no trick, it’s something that merits hard work because there’s big rewards to be reaped for this,” said Dr. Calabrese. Improving your immune health starts with modest (and sustainable) improvements over time to your diet, exercise routine, sleep, and stress.

Here are a few of the studies and recommendations from Dr. Calabrese on how to strengthen your immune system.

The Impact of Exercise on Immune Health

There are several studies that describe the impact of exercise on immune health. One newer study in particular shows that engagement in the recommended amounts of leisure-time activity was “associated with a statistically significant lower risk of 7 of the 15 cancer types studied,” including colon, breast, endometrial, kidney, liver, myeloma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

It’s best to be careful not to overdo exercise, though. Being sedentary can make you vulnerable to ubiquitous infections like colds, flus, etc. Exercising moderately will reduce your risk. Over-exertion can increase risk of respiratory infections.

Cardiorespiratory exercise may also provide our immune systems a boost by causing antibodies to circulate in the blood faster – and also to help combat cortisol spikes from isolation. For more on this, read our article: Why Wait? Support Your Immune Health All Year Round.

How Diet and Nutrition Impact Immune Health

As much as we would all love to take a supplement and have our immune system boosted, unfortunately it doesn’t work like this. It is also highly unlikely that individual foods can “boost” the immune system.

What we do know is that the standard American diet, or “SAD” diet, as Dr. Calabrese calls it, shows that the typical eating patterns are low in vegetables, fruits, dairy and oils and exceed the recommended limits of added sugars, fats and sodium. This diet, combined with sedentary lifestyle can create metabolic inflammation which can contribute to the development of many prevalent non-communicable diseases.

Dr. Calabrese advocates a diet of real and colorful food, more whole foods, less processed foods. And unless you have a vitamin deficiency, if you are eating a plant-based, balanced diet based on dietary guidelines, supplements may be unnecessary.

For more information about creating a healthier diet to support your immune health and reduce chronic disease risk, check out our Nutrition Back To Basics video series with Registered Dietitian Abby Saponaro.

Stress Reduction Techniques to Improve Immune Health

In episode 2 of the Back to Work with COVID-19 Series, we talked about the impact of stress on the body. High levels of stress can lead to chronic inflammation, which can contribute to the development and progression of many diseases of the immune system.

There is evidence to support that mindfulness or “mind-body” techniques can lower inflammation when practiced regularly.

“There are two types of treatments to build immune health through stress reduction: bottom up and top down,” says Dr. Calabrese. “We know that as little as five minutes a day can actually relieve stress. But we know that 15 minutes, three to four times per week of practice really starts to kick in at the genetic level.”

Bottom Up stress reduction techniques include controlled breathing and physical practices like yoga or Tai Chi. Top Down techniques include focused attention, intention and cognitive/affective practices.

For more stress-reduction techniques, check out our resources on the COVID-19 self-help site for videos, articles and mindfulness practices.

The Impact of Healthy Sleep on Immune Health

Prioritizing sleep is one of the most important things you can do in order to stay healthy. Research shows that sleep disturbance is associated with increases in markers of systemic inflammation and all-cause mortality.

“Sleep is as important as our cholesterol,” says Dr. Calabrese. “There’s all types of biobehavioral approaches to sleep, and we ignore them. And there’s evidence that we can improve our energy and inflammation by [improving it].”

While it may be harder than ever to get a good night’s sleep because of stress over COVID-19 or social injustice, Dr. Calabrese recommends working on your sleep habits by going to bed at the same hour every night and making your bedroom a place for sleeping.

For additional resources about sleep hygiene, download our infographic, “Create a Sleep Sanctuary,” or the article, “14 Tips to Improve Sleep,” from our COVID-19 resource site, developed in partnership with the Cleveland Clinic.

Does Your Wellness Program Support Immune Health?

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s no better time to support your employees in their health journey. By creating a wellness program that focuses in on positive, long-lasting lifestyle change in all areas of health, employees can work towards improving their health, and building up better immune defenses.

For more information about how to leverage the wellness program to reduce health risks and improve immune health, check out our Back to Work With COVID-19 webinar series with physicians from the Cleveland Clinic.

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