Harnessing the Body’s Defenses

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Now more than ever, our immune systems are the best medicine

The coronavirus pandemic certainly has left many feeling helpless. But maybe we’re more powerful than we know.

“We have a powerful, innate tool against the novel coronavirus. That tool is our immune system,” says Dr. N. Anton Borja, director of FAU Medicine’s Institute for Integrative Health and assistant professor of integrated medical science. “We know from the global data about COVID-19 that the vast majority of people infected by the virus will be either asymptomatic or will develop only mild symptoms. While we are not certain about all the factors involved in why one person becomes severely ill and [the] other remains without symptoms, we do know a weakened immune system will increase your risk of becoming severely ill from COVID-19.”

So, how does one harness the body’s defenses to fight viruses and more? Borja says these are the things to think about to keep the immune system functioning as well as it can.

STRESS

Studies show that stress weakens the immune system. And the longer stress lasts, the weaker one’s immune system becomes. The COVID-19 pandemic put people in a constant state of stress. The good news, according to Borja, is there are scientifically supported recommendations that can decrease stress and keep the immune system functioning to its full potential. These include mind-body activities such as meditation, deep breathing, contemplative prayer and yoga.

“When these activities are practiced, the body undergoes multiple physical changes which decrease stress and strengthen the overall health of the body, including the immune system,” Borja says.

Mind-body activities help turn off the fight-or-flight nerve response, or sympathetic nervous system. They turn on the relaxation nerve response, or parasympathetic nervous system.

“This is accompanied by a reduction of stress hormones including lactate, cortisol and epinephrine,” Borja says. “Blood pressure and heart rate decrease, oxygen levels increase, while carbon dioxide is released. Blood flow to the brain increases, and brain function improves.”

SLEEP

Many find it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep when they’re stressed. “Sleep is an essential tool your body uses to heal and rejuvenate,” Borja says. “Sleep is also a time when your immune system makes and releases more cytokines, which is a type of protein which responds to infection and inflammation. Sleep deprivation can start to weaken your immune system right away, and make you more susceptible to infections like COVID-19 or the flu.”

Getting at least seven to eight hours of sleep every night helps keep the immune system functioning at peak ability. Borja says meditation and deep breathing can help. Regular exercise can, too.

HEALTHFUL EATING

When stressed, the body requires more energy—a need best met with nutritious food sources. “Unfortunately, stress tends to trigger within many of us a desire for comfort foods such as sugary, highly processed foods,” Borja says. “The simplest recommendation for eating healthy, nutritious foods is to follow a predominantly plant-based diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.”

SOCIAL INTERACTION

Researchers have found social support, in particular positive social interaction, protects against stress. If social distancing isn’t an issue, that social support might come from meeting with friends for coffee or going to a church or synagogue. Positive social interactions are possible even when social distancing is a must, with video chatting and online group activities, talking with friends and family by telephone and more.

The FAU Medicine Wellness Hub offers free health and wellness activities, including yoga classes, meditation activities and lectures, at faumedicine.org.

This story is from the July/August 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine.