In the midst of a pandemic, so we probably don’t need to tell you why it’s a smart idea to up your immune defense so that your body can have the best chance to fight any virus that comes your way. Here are six surprising tips that are easy to implement into your routine, from the author of Immune System Hacks, Matt Farr.
1. Fast to Rebuild Your Immune System
Fasting has become a top health hack over recent years, in part because of the popularity of intermittent fasting as a way to lose weight or get a handle on high blood pressure. But beyond a lower number on the scale or improved blood pressure levels, many of fasting’s most important benefits center around its effects on the immune system. The number one benefit of fasting is the activation of autophagy, which involves the recycling of old, damaged, and redundant cells in order to produce fresh new cells that are superior in function and health. During this process, defective immune cells or their parts are replaced and toxins and pathogens are released from the cells. Autophagy can also be triggered through exercise, specific nutrients/compounds, ketosis, and even sleep. Fasting may involve eating within specific windows of time each day (e.g., time-restricted feeding, or TRF), or a prolonged period of one to five days without eating. The benefits of short-term fasting such as TRF include:
Reduced immunosenescence (the aging of the immune system)Lowered white blood cell numbers (lymphocytes, including natural killer cells, and neutrophils)Lowered inflammation and pro-inflammatory markersProtection against and improvement of inflammatory-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, atherosclerosis, and obesityLowered cortisol levels at nightIncreased insulin sensitivityLowered low-density lipoproteins (which transport cholesterol from the liver to the tissues of the body)Support for the healing of the gut liningSlowed progression of diabetes and obesityIncreased weight lossHelp in preventing metabolic and neurological diseasesImproved effectiveness of cancer treatments
Although research is yet to clearly define the most effective time frame to practice short-term fastings such as TRF, an eating window of around 8−10 hours seems to offer the best balance between practicality and benefit. Less than six hours appears to produce mixed results, while greater than ten seems to see a significant drop in benefits.
Longer-term fasts of no food (e.g., water fasts) that last for one or more days have their own benefits for the immune system.
According to Valter Longo, one of the world’s leading authorities on fasting, when we fast for 48−72 hours, we deplete liver glycogen (glucose) levels so that we rely on fat for energy. This is the state of ketosis, where the body eats up old immune cells as an energy source. As a result, immune cell levels drop but are later restored with fresh new cells once we start eating again. During fasts lasting 2−4 days the protein kinase A gene, which regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism within the cell, is turned off, which triggers stem cells to produce new immune cells. According to Dr. Longo’s research, the cumulative effect of repeated, prolonged (2−4 days) fasts is that the entire immune system can be replaced.
To gain the benefits from prolonged fasting, you must fast without food for at least three days and preferably 4−5 days for optimal effect. If you have health problems or conditions seek the advice of your doctor before fasting. Some experts recommend that longer fasts (>forty-eight hours) should only be conducted in controlled environments where different health factors can be measured.
2. Play a Musical Instrument
Like with many studies into the effects of listening to music on the immune system, playing a musical instrument has been shown to lower cortisol, stress, anxiety, and depression—all of which diminish your immunity.
One of the most researched instruments with respect to immune function is the drum. One study found that drumming increased natural killer cell activity, lowered cortisol levels, and increased lymphokine-activated killer cell activity, all mechanisms used by the body to combat cancer and illness. Another study found that drumming reduced the inflammatory immune response both immediately following playing and for several weeks afterward.
Other studies have found that playing music increases levels of IgA, an important antibody found on the mucosal lining of the gut and respiratory systems, as well as natural killer cells, important immune cells that help keep invading pathogens and cancer cells in check.
What better excuse to dust off your guitar, or finally learn to play the piano?
3. Turn Down the Heat
A simple way to strengthen your immune system is to take a cold shower every day. This may surprise you, as, like many, you may have been told growing up (or even as an adult) that is exposed to the cold increases your risk of illness. However, there is no scientific basis for this.
Conversely, there are several reasons to believe that cold exposure can improve immune system function. Multiple studies have shown that cold exposure:
Reduces pro-inflammatory and promotes anti-inflammatory responses in the immune system—particularly beneficial for those suffering from autoimmune conditions and inflammatory conditions that compromise immunityStrengthens your body’s internal oxidative system Increases white blood cell count via an increase in metabolic rateIncreases autophagy—an important recycling process in which the body breaks down old, redundant, or defective cells and replaces them with new healthy cells (including immune cells)
Even taking a cold shower for just thirty seconds can help reduce the number of sick days taken at work. Exposing your body to the cold on a regular basis either for long periods of time at mildly cold temperatures (research suggests 59°F is effective) or for short periods at much cooler temperatures (e.g., a two-minute shower as cold as you can tolerate) can have positive effects on immune health, particularly with regard to reducing chronic inflammation. As an added bonus, research suggests that cold exposure can aid weight loss by stimulating metabolic rate.
4. Write Expressively
Writing can be an effective tool with many health benefits. Expressive writing has been found to be particularly therapeutic, especially for the immune system. Expressive writing involves writing about events and circumstances that manifest intense and distressing emotions. Studies have found it improves:
Levels of T lymphocyte immune cellsRespiratory conditions such as asthma Immune response in HIV patientsAutoimmune conditions such as rheumatoid arthritisReduces the time taken to fall asleep when done before bedThe healing of trauma, PTSD, and depression, which impair immune healthStress
It also has cathartic effects that support the release of distressing emotions that would otherwise suppress immune function. Researchers have concluded that expressive writing has similar benefits to working with a therapist. In order to gain from the healing and well-being benefits of expressive writing, it is important to write in detail about the event or circumstance affecting you, your thoughts and emotions relating to it, and, most importantly, any meaning you find in the situation. Simply venting emotions or describing the event without connecting to the emotions behind it is ineffective.
To benefit from this therapeutic activity you can either write about specific traumatic and emotional events when their pain surfaces or commit to regular journaling. Journaling is particularly effective since it can become a well-developed practice that enables you to process your day or week in a healthy way. It is recommended to write freely for about 15−20 minutes without editing your thoughts or words. It can also be helpful to focus on a specific theme for the day or week.
5. Use a Sauna
Saunas have been used for thousands of years by cultures all around the world, from shamanic sweat lodges to traditional Finnish saunas. And in recent years, scientists have validated this ancient practice for health improvement.
Regular sauna use:
Reduces the incidences of colds and fluIncreases several types of immune cells in the short and longer-termImproves stress (lowers levels of the stress hormone cortisol), anxiety, and depressionElevates moodImproves autoimmune (chronic fatigue syndrome and rheumatoid arthritis) and chronic inflammatory (cardiovascular, lung and brain diseases) conditionsDetoxifies the body, through sweating, of chemical toxins and heavy metals (e.g., lead, arsenic, and thiuram) that disrupt immune function (infrared saunas only)Improves sleep when used a couple of hours before bedIncreases autophagy (the recycling and replacement of redundant immune and other cells)
Saunas provide these immune benefits because they emit infrared light, which provides many immune benefits including healing, energy, immune-cell-generating, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant benefits. They also produce heat, which raises core body temperature by a few degrees, imitating the effects of a fever, a natural response to some infections. This “fake” fever activates the immune response responsible for fighting microbes and the immune system’s memory. The heat also activates heat shock proteins, which trigger an immune response and have antimicrobial and inflammatory effects.
To optimize long-term benefits, aim to use a sauna four or more days a week. (Occasional use will still produce short-term benefits.) If you are new to saunas, begin with 5−15 minutes per session and increase use over time. Use Finnish saunas for up to one hour and forty minutes for infrared saunas. Make sure you are fully hydrated before and after using a sauna. If you are pregnant or have a cardiovascular condition seek your doctor’s advice first.
6. Get Out and Garden
Gardening is one of the most effective ways to boost your immune system—it’s true! Here are eight reasons why:
Exercise: Gardening will get you moving and exercising your body in ways you otherwise wouldn’t.Sunlight and fresh air: Gardening gets you outdoors and benefiting from the immune-enhancing effects of sunlight and fresh air.Microorganisms: One gram of soil contains up to ten billion microorganisms. The “Old Friends” theory explains that losing your connection with microorganisms through modern hygienic living weakens your immunity. Getting your hands dirty is critical to re-establishing a healthy connection with microorganisms.Better mental health: Gardening lowers anxiety, stress, and depression—which lower immunity—and has been used successfully in horticultural therapy for treating mental health.Nutritious foods: Growing your own food allows you to lower your intake of pesticides (which harm immunity), increase nutrients in your diet, and try your hand at growing immune-boosting foods.A connection to nature: Gardening provides you with the immune benefits of grounding (connecting with the earth via your bare skin, usually barefoot) and phytoncide (oil with antimicrobial properties that is released by trees and plants).Human connection: Gardening is an opportunity to connect and foster deeper relationships with friends and family, which strengthens immunity.Healthier diet: Growing your own food deepens your connection with and appreciation for real food and leads to healthier dietary choices, especially among children.
Excerpted from Immune System Hacks by Matt Farr. Copyright © 2020 by Simon & Schuster, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher, Adams Media, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. All rights reserved.