It’s also not surprising that I’ve been bombarded with news over the past few months about how to bolster my immune system. I can’t scroll through my Instagram feed without seeing some influencer bragging about an immune-boosting smoothie or a supplement company promoting pills with elderberry and citrus.
Time-out, though. Immunity has a PR problem right now. The whole idea that you can power up your immunity in some quick-and-dirty way overnight (and, you know, avoid a cold or flu…or COVID-19) isn’t actually how it works.
Think of immunity like this: If you’re the star quarterback of your life, your immune system is like that super-jacked lineman whose number-one job is to protect you from all directions. And, separately (but still in that sports realm!), just like how strategic leadership can whip a team into shape, you can train your system to more efficiently pick off any opponent—bug, virus, germ—that comes your way. But that conditioning takes time and dedication.
So, taking a last-minute, reactionary approach to immunity is the opposite of how you should think about it, says Nicole Avena, PhD, visiting professor of health psychology at Princeton University. Immunity is a marathon, not a sprint. Because of that, there isn’t any fast and easy way to immediately amplify yours. “You’ve got to take an all-in, holistic approach if you’re going keep your immune system in fighting form,” says Avena.
Recalibrating your immunity for the long game comes down to the classic health habits you hear time and time again: sleep, stress reduction, and sweating it out. The key is doing all of these to at least some degree and not expecting one to be the ultimate cure-all. “You won’t make your immune system healthier in a week by pumping yourself with vitamins because someone close to you is sick,” says E. John Wherry, PhD, director of the Institute for Immunology at the University of Pennsylvania. “But you absolutely can help your immunity by making certain lifestyle changes.” Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
In particular, you should focus on these clutch immunity-optimizing habits that all ladder up to those wellness pillars.
Nail Your Sleep Routine
Sleep—specifically getting at least seven hours most nights—might be the Most Important Thing. “The best data we have about how to improve immunity is on getting the right amount of good sleep,” says Wherry. People who got six hours of shut-eye a night or less for one week were about four times more likely to catch a cold when exposed to a virus compared to those who got more than seven hours, according to a study published in the journal Sleep. (The risk of getting sick was even higher for those who snoozed less than five hours a night.)
“Everything you do when you’re awake—eating, digesting, working, walking, exercising—prompts your body to release inflammatory cells,” says Rita Kachru, MD, section chief of the clinical immunology and allergy division and assistant professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Sleep gives your body a break from all of that.” Don’t get hung up on one crappy night of Z’s (or give yourself too much praise for one amazing one, for that matter); focusing on long-term, consistent good sleep habits is the way to go. Your building blocks, right here. Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
“If my sleep schedule gets off track, I recommit to consistent wake-up and bedtimes—even on weekends.”
—María de la Paz Fernández, PhD, a sleep researcher and assistant professor of neuroscience and behavior at Barnard College of Columbia University
“I try to go outside every morning at the same time for 30 minutes or so. Morning light provides the most benefit in terms of avoiding circadian rhythm disruption. If I can’t do that—or on cloudy days—I put four lamps around my favorite chair and sit in the light for up to an hour.”
—Mariana Figueiro, PhD, director of the Lighting Research Center and a professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
“I make sure to have magnesium-rich foods—like spinach, beans, or nuts—in my dinner. Magnesium helps the body and brain relax, which also helps your sleep feel more rejuvenating.”
—Mikka Knapp, a registered dietitian-nutritionist
“I make sure the temperature in my bedroom is about 65 degrees, which may seem a little cool but is associated with falling asleep faster and sleeping better throughout the night.”
—Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a sleep researcher and co-author of Sleep for Success!
“I’ve learned to improve my sleep hygiene, but I’ve also learned that my sleep will be what it will be, and trying to strive for sleep perfection is more exhausting than rolling with the flow of sleep troubles.”
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