What do we do to build our immunity, improve our health and
reduce worry about infection, about our future and about our family’s health?
By Prof Gerard Bodeker PhD, Chair, Mental Wellness Initiative
of the Global Wellness Institute
We are all seeking ways to protect ourselves against infection by the coronavirus. In addition to the WHO recommendations of frequent handwashing and social distancing, many national requirements to wear masks and taking extra care to isolate older people from the risk of exposure to the virus, people are looking at foods, medicines, supplements, even heat treatments and aroma oils, as supportive means of keeping infection risk away.
Susie Ellis, Chair and CEO of the Global Wellness Institute (GWI) commented recently that “Online searches on how to bolster immunity and cope with rising stress/anxiety have surged during the Coronavirus crisis. People are seeking evidence for the best immunity weapons, but fear has also made us vulnerable to the barrage of online ads for ‘miracle’ supplements, superfoods, tonics, vitamins, essential oils and potions that claim to prevent or treat COVID-19.”
And the GWI has noted that governments and private businesses are also taking action on the avalanche of health and wellness misinformation. For example, in the US, the FDA recently sent warning letters to companies selling wellness teas, aromatherapy oils, tinctures and colloidal silver, as there is no evidence they can prevent or cure Coronavirus. Twitter is pulling down tweets for products/approaches “known to be ineffective or not applicable in the COVID-19 context.”
After almost three weeks of life in lockdown, a UK survey of 2,250 adults found that a significant minority of people were finding it “extremely difficult” to cope. The research, conducted by King’s College London and pollsters Ipsos Mori, found that half of those surveyed (49%) said they had felt more anxious and depressed than normal. Over a third (38%) said they were having trouble sleeping and more than a fifth of people (22%) said they were already facing significant money problems or were almost certain to do so in the near future. Younger people appear to be struggling to cope with the restrictions more than older people. Among 16-24-year-olds, a quarter (24%) said they were finding it extremely difficult to cope with the lockdown. Only 11% of those aged 45 to 75 said they were struggling. The emotional challenges of being cooped up behind closed doors were revealed in the survey. A fifth of people (19%) said they had argued more with people in their home and a similar proportion said they were drinking more alcohol than normal. A third said they were eating more food or less healthily than previously.
So, then, what do we do to build our immunity, improve our health and reduce worry about infection, about our future and about our family’s health?
One well-tested way of both reducing stress and enhancing immunity is through meditation. A meta-analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association identified almost 19,000 studies on different forms of meditation. Four decades of studies highlight the effects of meditation in:
- enhancing immunity
- reducing depression and anxiety
- improving academic performance
- reducing age-related cognitive decline
- increasing happiness and quality of life
- and managing and reducing trauma
Professor Rudolph Tanzi, Professor of Neurology at Harvard University, commenting on his team’s research on the benefits of meditation: “Meditation is one of the ways to engage in restorative activities that may provide relief for our immune systems, easing the day-to-day stress of a body constantly trying to protect itself. The prediction is that this would then lead to healthier aging.”
In the US, the meditation and wellness app Headspace is granting all healthcare providers who work in U.S. public health settings free access to Headspace Plus. With this app, healthcare workers can access hundreds of guided meditations, ranging from health to sleep, and more than 50 mindfulness exercises though to the end of 2020.
With meditation known to be effective in reducing stress, we might wonder if it also strengthens resistance to infection. And the answer seems to that reduced levels of stress mean reduced risk of infection. Long-term studies at Carnegie Mellon University have shown that people who were exposed to cold viruses and also reported less stress were significantly less likely to develop symptoms.
Not surprisingly, anxiety and depression are also associated with poor sleep. And sleep deprivation is clearly linked to heart disease and strokes.
A growing body of scientific and popular literature has focused on the influence of such factors as external light (including from mobile devices), sugary and caffeinated beverages, noise, time of going to bed, etc. on sleep quality.
And on the question “Does sleep impact the immune system?”, more than 3,000 studies have addressed this question and shown that poor sleep hurts immunity. New research has found that just one bad night of sleep can reduce immune cells by up to 70 percent. By contrast, using a newly developed Living Well Index, researchers from Oxford Economics and the National Centre for Social Research in the UK reported in September 2017 that: “a good night’s sleep is worth more than quadrupling your disposable income. Better sleep is the biggest single contributor to living better”
When we exercise, our brain is the commander-in-chief directing activity in our heart, lungs, and muscles to mobilize our body for action, empowering us with a sense of influence over our environment and conditions. Aerobic exercise enables our brain and body to sustain and overcome the negative effects of chronic stress through natural physiological processes that are otherwise switched off during prolonged physical inactivity.
A meta-analysis of exercise and immunity has found the following:
- Acute exercise boosts the immune system and improves defence activity and metabolic health.
- The higher the level of moderate exercise training, the lower is the risk of illness.
- Exercise training has an anti-inflammatory influence.
- Increased carbohydrate and polyphenol intake are an effective nutritional strategy for immune support. Polyphenols are micronutrients that we get through certain plant-based foods
- Habitual exercise improves immune regulation, delaying the onset of age-related illness and decline.
A study in Malaysia looked at dance exercise, supplemented with honey, which is naturally rich in nutritive polyphenols, and found that combining aerobic dance exercise and honey supplementation produced better effects on immune functioning than aerobic dance exercise or honey supplementation alone.
Yoga, an anaerobic form of exercise, has been found in many studies to have beneficial effects with immune (and autoimmune) conditions such as asthma, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, lymphoma, and breast cancer.
Chronic inflammation is one of the main underlying causes of both physical and mental illness. Our diet and gut microbiome have important roles in affecting our bodies’ inflammatory processes, which impact our brain’s health in numerous ways. Dietary modification incorporating caloric restriction, anti-inflammatory foods, antioxidants, supplements (omega-3 fatty acids, curcumin), and prebiotics/probiotics help support and promote the brain’s health and our overall physical health and immunity.
Writing in Lancet Psychiatry Dr Jerome Sarris and colleagues of the International Society for Nutritional Psychiatry Research, report that: “A traditional whole-food diet, consisting of higher intakes of foods such as vegetables, fruits, seafood, whole grains, lean meat, nuts, and legumes, with avoidance of processed foods, is more likely to provide the nutrients that afford resiliency against the pathogenesis of mental disorders … the human brain operates at a very high metabolic rate, and uses a substantial proportion of total energy and nutrient intake; in both structure and function (including intracellular and intercellular communication), it is reliant on amino acids, fats, vitamins, and minerals or trace elements. Dietary habits modulate the functioning of the immune system, which also moderates the risk for depression.”
A study on cognitive functioning and brain aging found that higher levels of B family vitamins, as well as vitamins C, D, and E were all associated with higher scores on cognitive tests. The same positive relationship was found for omega-3 fatty acids.
But, people with higher levels of trans fats – found in a variety of junk foods – performed more poorly in thinking and memory tests. Their MRI scans also revealed more brain shrinkage than people who had lower trans fats levels. The study found that overall, nutrition accounted for 37 percent of the variation in brain volume.
Herbs for immunity
Chinese Medicine is built around the goal of strengthening immunity – the foundation for both preventing and curing illness. Many herbs are used in combination, but some of the best known for enhancing immunity are listed below:
Red dates. Also known as jujube, have been labelled as “the king of nuts” (白果之王) for their rich nutritional value. According to the “Classic of Poetry”(诗经), a famous collection of poems dating from around the eighth century BC, red dates were harvested in the eighth month of Chinese lunar calendar (around the autumn). Clearly, they were then ready to be used in the challenging winter months with its higher risk of viral infections. Seventy to 80 times higher in Vitamin C than grapes and apples, red dates also abound with Vitamin A, Vitamin B1, Vitamin B2, protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron and magnesium.
Goji berries (Lycium chinense; 枸杞). Research has found that Goji berries help the immune system to distinguish more effectively between friend and foe. The fruit’s polysaccharides provide cells with special sugars that support healthy immunity and enable cells to communicate more effectively with each other. Goji berries also support healthy immunity by promoting the growth of beneficial bacteria in our gastrointestinal system. The fruit’s combination of fiber content and polysaccharides naturally supports the growth of healthy intestinal bacteria, known as probiotics. Scientists in China have been examining how goji berries work for many years now. In one study, after 50 people ate approximately 1.5 ounces of goji berries daily for 10 days, their white blood cell counts and other markers of healthy immune function improved.
Gotu Kolu (Centella asiatica; 崩大碗), used a brain tonic and general tonic in Chinese Medicine it is known in the West as Gotu Kola, Pegaga in Malay and Indonesian medicine, and as Brahmi in Ayurveda. This herb is high in immunity boosting properties and is also a powerful antioxidant.
Turmeric (Curcuma longa; 姜黄) is often referred to as “nature’s antibiotic”. Over 1,000 studies on turmeric show it to be a powerful antiviral, antimicrobial agent, antioxidant, anticancer agent, and immune enhancer. According to Medical News Today “curcumin is proven to improve immune function with antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral and antibacterial properties.”
Astragalus (Astragalus membranaceus; 黄芪) is an important immunomodulatory herb in Chinese medicine. Laboratory studies have demonstrated that astragalus promotes B-cell proliferation and antibody production. Astragalus also acts as an antioxidant. Some evidence shows that astragalus may increase our body’s production of white blood cells, which are the cells of our immune system responsible for preventing illness. In animal research, astragalus root has been shown to help kill bacteria and viruses in mice with infections. Though research is limited, it may also help fight viral infections in humans, including the common cold and infection of the liver.
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum; 林芝). Reishi products have been found to reduce blood glucose levels and enhance the immune system. They also have antimicrobial activities and have liver protective effects and are also used as an adjuvant therapy in the treatment of cancer.
Ginseng. There are many types of this herb, but the most popular are American ginseng (Panax quinquefolius; 西洋参) and Asian ginseng (Panax ginseng; 人参). American and Asian ginseng vary in their concentration of active compounds and effects on the body. It is believed that American ginseng works as a relaxing agent, whereas the Asian variety has an invigorating effect.
Some studies exploring the effects of ginseng on the immune system have focused on cancer patients undergoing surgery or chemotherapy treatment. One study followed 39 people who were recovering from surgery for stomach cancer, treating them with 5,400 mg of ginseng daily for two years. Interestingly, these people had significant improvements in immune functions and a lower recurrence of symptoms. Another study examined the effect of red ginseng extract on immune system markers in people with advanced stomach cancer undergoing post-surgery chemotherapy. After three months, those taking red ginseng extract had better immune system markers than those in the control or placebo group. Furthermore, a study suggested that people who take ginseng could have up to a 35% higher chance of living disease-free for five years after curative surgery and up to a 38% higher survival rate compared to those not taking it. And a number of studies have shown that the immune enhancing effects of ginseng result in increased resistance to viruses and an antiviral effect.
Changing our routines:building immunity, saving lives
Many have pointed out that the COVID-19 crisis is also a call to everybody to change their lives in the direction of healthier living and more elemental human values. Regular daily practice of what we have covered here ensures that these become part of our life rather than a rescue strategy, and this in turn becomes a new way of living in the post-COVID era – a true benefit from crisis.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
By Lao Tzu (c.604 BCE)