To avoid getting sick, most of the focus so far has been on preventing exposure to the coronavirus, which, of course, is very important—staying at home, social distancing, hand washing, gloves, masks, disinfecting, etc.
But very little has been written about the other half of the equation: how to enhance your immune system so that if you are exposed, you can reduce the chances of getting sick—or at least mitigate the intensity of the disease and thus reduce the death rate.
The four aspects of our lifestyle medicine program—eat well, move more, stress less, love more—have been proven to reverse a wide variety of chronic diseases such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, early-stage prostate cancer, and hypertension. They also enhance immune function.
Here are some relevant studies:
1. Love More:
Spreading fear and loathing about the coronavirus may, ironically, increase the risk of getting sick. Fear can be self-fulfilling to the extent that it does suppress immune function and makes someone more likely to get the very disease they’re most afraid of.
Also, staying at home and social distancing help prevent transmission of the virus, but feeling lonely can be harmful to your health. Study after study have shown that people who are lonely and isolated are 3-10 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely of virtually all causes when compared to those who have a strong sense of love and community.
Fortunately, there are many things we can do to enhance our immune function to help protect us. While it’s important to stay at home, wash your hands, disinfect, etc., it’s also wise to spend more time socializing with family members who are living with you as well using video or just audio technologies like Zoom or the phone to virtually spend time with friends and family in other places.
For example, Sheldon Cohen did a study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in which he dripped rhinovirus (which causes the common cold) in the noses of volunteers. (I don’t know how he persuaded people to volunteer and got this approved by the human studies committee….) All of them became infected, but not everyone developed the signs and symptoms of a cold.
Those that had only 1-3 social ties—defined as a phone call or visit from a friend every two weeks—were 4.2 times more likely to develop a cold than those with 6 or more social ties during that time. (Now, just visit friends virtually rather than in person.) https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/417085
2. Stress Less:
In an earlier study, Cohen dripped five types of respiratory viruses (rhinovirus type 2, 9, or 14, respiratory syncytial virus, or coronavirus type 229E, a less deadly form than the current coronavirus) into volunteers. The rates of both respiratory infection and clinical colds increased significantly in a dose-response manner with increases in the degree of psychological stress. Infection rates ranged from approximately 74 percent to approximately 90 percent, according to levels of psychological stress, and the incidence of clinical colds ranged from approximately 27 percent to 47 percent.
In other words, stress suppressed their immune function. Because of this, the more stressed they felt, the more likely they were to get infected and sick. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199108293250903
And in a more recent study, he found that those who he infected with rhinoviruses who had positive emotions such as happy, pleased, and relaxed had a 2.9 times lower risk of developing a cold than those who did not in a dose-response fashion.
In other words, feeling happy and peaceful enhances your immune system. https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2003/07000/Emotional_Style_and_Susceptibility_to_the_Common.25.aspx
In contrast, when you’re depressed, your immune system is depressed as well. In a different study by Margaret Chesney and others, men who were HIV positive (i.e., all had evidence of being infected with the HIV virus) and were depressed were significantly more likely to develop AIDS and die from it than those who were not depressed. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8885823
3. Eat Well:
Numerous studies have clearly shown that a healthful whole foods plant-based diet enhances your immune function. There are thousands of substances in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and soy products that are protective against infections. https://www.pcrm.org/news/exam-room-podcast/incredible-vegan-immune-system
4. Move More:
Many studies have shown a clear, inverse relationship between moderate exercise and risk of a wide variety of illnesses, including infectious diseases. It enhances immune regulation. Just walking 15-30 minutes/day makes a big difference in your immune function. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2095254618301005
So, I put all of this together to say that it does make very good sense to be mindful of reducing risk of exposure to the COVID-19 virus by staying at home, social distancing, hand washing, gloves, masks, disinfecting, etc.) without becoming afraid or depressed. And to spend more time virtually in loving relationships with friends and family; eating well; moving more; and stressing less.
In short, enhancing our immune system can help us to be less “influenced” by the influenza virus.
Finding meaning in situations, especially bad ones, also helps enhance our immune system. With all the tragedy of the coronavirus, is there anything meaningful that comes from it?
First, for those of us who work too much, being at home and being told not to go to work or to travel gives everyone a valid rationale to spend more time with our friends and family, both in-person with those you live with and also virtually with others. No FOMO if everything is cancelled. You don’t have to give an excuse at work to stay home.
Also, having a common enemy can help heal some of the wounds that divide our country. These are profoundly human issues that affect everyone in all states, both red and blue.
It reminds me a little of the classic science fiction movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which an intelligent alien comes to Earth to warn everyone of the importance of living peacefully. He caused all mechanical and electrical machines to stop for an hour to get everyone’s attention. Our world this week is also stopping—for much more than an hour—and it’s getting everyone’s attention as well.
And, finally, having so much less traffic and manufacturing is also giving the Earth a chance to breathe and heal, at least temporarily. A literal breather.