Last Updated: 5th September 2020.
Do you catch flu (influenza) or fever easily from public places, in restaurants, office colleagues, or even from your daily commute in trains or tubes?
If you are finding ways to recover quickly or protect yourself from catching a flu, or avoid falling sick every so often or fighting against COVID-19, then this article is all about strengthening your immune system.
According to Dr. Talia Swartz, an assistant professor and infectious disease expert at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, someone with a weakened immune system is likely to be more vulnerable to passing flu than someone with is healthy.
As you get older, the immune system’s responsiveness will decline if you are not managing your diet, lifestyle, and work-stress.
Couple that with genetically-induced diseases, this makes older people generally more vulnerable to virus attacks such as COVID-19 or flu.
So, if you are searching for ways to boost your immune system against viruses, or protecting yourself from COVID-19, then this article is for you.
Can your immune system fight COVID19?
The answer to this is not straight forward, but since you can possibly recover from COVID-19, it gives a glimmer of hope if you have a strong immune system.
Now, COVID-19 has sparked more debate on immune system response since its first outbreak. The immune system is your first line of defense against any virus or bacteria attacks.
How successful your immune system in fighting COVID-19 depends on your diet, lifestyle, history of medical conditions and genetics. That explains COVID19 patient’s recovery rate varies from each country. For example, Malaysia’s COVID-19 recovery rate is high at 96.4%, with one of the lowest death per capita.
Does that mean Malaysians have a stronger immune system to fight COVID-19 compared to other countries?
However, severe cases of COVID-19 have been linked to what is known as a “cytokine storm“, when the immune system goes into overdrive that is harmful and potentially deadly.
In other words, avoiding your immune system to “overwork” for you to fight the viruses is good for your body. So please do not expect a “maximum immune system protection” after reading this article.
Anthony Fauci, one of the leading US experts on infectious diseases told Trevor Noah of The Daily Show – that he felt “really confident” that recovered COVID19 patients will have immunity.
“I am willing to bet anything that people who recover (from COVID-19) are really protected against re-infection.”
From the total patients recovered from COVD-19, the total case of re-infections are very small. However, according the WHO, there has been “no evidence that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and have antibodies are protected from a second infection”.
As we have not found a vaccine proven to fight COVID-19, can we fight COVID-19 through basic preventive health measures?
Here is what WHO has to stay on fighting COVID-19.
Stay Healthy To Beat COVID-19
According to WHO, yes, you can fight COVID-19 by staying healthy. Although technically this is more of a preventive measure (similar to wearing a mask), the idea is to educate the importance of indirectly building a stronger immune system.
Here are some tips by WHO:
- Eat a healthy diet
- Be physically active
- Avoid alcohol
- Quit tobacco (smoking/cigar)
Staying healthy is key to fighting COVID-19. And staying healthy is supported by a strong immune system. You cannot be healthy if you have a weak immune system.
From tips by WHO and putting the genetics aside, our immune system is closely associated with what we consume (i.e diet & lifestyle) and what we do to our body (i.e exercise).
If these general-but-simple tips can indeed protect us from COVID-19, but how many of us religiously wear a mask in public places or in restaurants? Maybe 20% of the global population?
Now, the COVID19 death cases showed that older people and patients with past health conditions are the most affected, with the majority have lower or failed immune response systems to fight COVID-19 compared to healthy adults.
Most coronavirus-related deaths are due to the immune system’s inability to respond to the virus, not damage caused by the virus itself.
As our immune system is highly complex and the level of protection (and how our immune responses work) varies in different parts of our bodies/organs, this makes it challenging for scientists to predict the COVID-19 behaviour when the attack occurs.
COVID19 strikes your respiratory system before it destroy the immune system
According to WHO, COVID19 cause respiratory diseases and destroy your immune system. In short, your lungs are the first vulnerable organs to COVID19.
During the attack, two things can possibly happen – either the attack will end in your lungs, or worst still your immune system breaks down completely, thus spreading to other parts of your body, causing liver or kidney failure.
There are three stages of the attack.
Flu-like symptoms with or without fever. At this stage it is hard to ascertain whether the coronavirus will continue to spread. It can stay dormant for at least 10 days before it goes to the second stage of attack. Hence why people are diagnosed with coronavirus can go pass the thermal scanners at the airports without any early warning signs.
Many patients diagnosed with coronavirus will develop pneumonia in both lungs and this are usually accompanied by symptoms like shortness of breath, fever, cough and other forms of breathing difficulties.
Lung damage continues to build—which can result in respiratory failure depending on your health condition and age. In severe cases, you will witness patients coughing blood and other extreme conditions. Some patients may survive this stage or recover with permanent lung damage.
What is immune system?
Before we go into possible ways to protect and strengthen your immune system against COVID-19, lets us share a brief explanation about our immune system – different parts and location in our bodies and how it works.
Depending on your gender, the immune response behaves differently when it is under attack. The latest research showed that women have a robust immune response to COVID-19 compared to men.
Our immune system is a defense mechanism in our body that protects us from viruses and germs. The immune system is triggered (known as immune response) when any parts of our body or cells are attacked by viruses.
The immune system is a complex system and made up of organs and vessel systems including a network of individual cells and proteins.
The main parts of the immune system are:
Do you know the immune system is “highly intelligent” that it keeps a record of every germ it has ever defeated so it can recognise and destroy the germ in future?
In fact, when you first become infected with a virus, your body will launch a standard innate immune defense. And this innate immune response is behind many of the symptoms you experience when you are sick.
You can read more about immune system here.
Ways to boost your immune system against viruses and bacterias
The short answer lies in the secret of 70:30 rule. 70% diet and 30% exercise. This is the conventional wisdom to the secret of keeping fit, losing weight, longevity or achieving a healthy life generally.
Keeping strictly to this rule over a long period of time will enable you to have a strong immune system against most diseases.
Now, lets break it down into two parts.
Part 1: Start with right exercises
You may hear the same advice from health experts, nutritionists or doctors that exercise helps you build a stronger immune system.
Exercise and keeping fit are undoubtedly effective to achieve good health and subsequently assisting your body to develop a robust immune system.
Physical activities promote better blood circulation with a fresh supply of oxygen. This in turn allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and efficiently.
So, how long should you exercise in order to maximize or boost the immune system?
The answer is – 20 minutes daily.
Researchers at the University of California-San Diego of Medicine found that 20 minutes of exercise daily can have anti-inflammatory effects that boost your immune system.
What if you don’t have the luxury of time to spend 20-minute doing exercises?
Here are some exercise tips to boost your immune system at work.
- Climb up the stairs to your office instead of taking the elevator
- Walk to your office instead of taking public transport
- Do 40 squats at your pantry during lunch hour
- Order and carry 10 lunch sets for your colleagues in the office.
- Jog to your office every morning and carry 5kg dumbbell with you daily.
Interestingly, we found many workouts which can help to boost your immune system. Our personal favorite workout can be found here.
Remember one thing. Do not over-exercise as your body will interpret as “stress”.
Longer exercises do not necessarily improve or boost your immune system. The idea of short-burst of 20-minute exercises is to keep you heart pumping fresh oxygen in your blood-stream to various parts of your body.
Part 2: Consume Healthy Diet & Health Supplements
The human diet goes back at least two million years. When you imagine Neolithic hunter-gatherers, you probably think of people eating hunks of meat around an open fire. But the truth is that many humans living 10,000 years ago were eating more vegetables and grains than meat.
No, we are not suggesting you should be a vegan.
Although there is no such thing as an ideal human diet, scientists and nutritionists have long found a close association between a healthy diet, immunity and longevity. In remote Asia, people who live more than 100 years are closely linked to health diet which consists of fruits, vegetables and less red meat.
A healthy diet consists of the right nutrition and minerals that your body needs. What you consume is more important than your exercises, and there is a reason why alcohol and smoking are bad for your health.
Consensus by doctors, nutritionists and virologists are that having the right diet and supplements can increase your chance to boost your immune system.
An article published by the Havard Medical School showed evidence that various micronutrient deficiencies such as zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamins A, B6, C, and E — alter immune responses.
For elderly people, micronutrient deficiencies are also common as older people tend to eat less and often have less variety in their diets.
Here are some excerpts from doctors and specialists on health supplements to boost your immune system against coronavirus.
“There’s a whole host of herbs from tons of countries, including Chinese medicine, that works really well and boosts your body’s ability to fight viruses”
– Dr. Samantha Randahl of Keystone Natural Family Medicine.
“One of the most important vitamins that boosts the immune system is Vitamin C. Then we have Vitamin B6, which is vital in supporting biochemical reactions in the immune system, and thirdly, Vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant that aids the body to fight off infections.”
– Dr Ganabaskaran, President of Malaysian Medical Association.
Source article here
“Fruits and vegetables of various colours are important for the body to replenish and strengthen one’s immunity. Fruits and vegetables contain Vitamin C, E and antioxidants that can enhance the immune system to fight against infections and pathogens.”
– Nutritionist Dr Sareena Hanim Hamzah
Source article here
Natural Superfoods & Herbs To Strengthen Your Immune System
In addition to fruits and vegetables which forms a healthy diet, does natural herb and superfood help to strengthen your immune system? To answer this, we have to look at the history of our ancestor’s diet.
Natural herbs, fruits and vegetables are part of our ancestor’s diet for centuries. When combined, it is often referred to as “super-food” – a dish served in modern times.
Studies have shown that natural herbs, vegetables, and fruits have more merits in fighting viruses or to protect your immune system, rather than a meat-based or processed-food based diet.
Although we are trapped in Stone Age bodies in a fast-food world, it doesn’t mean we cannot change the future.
The popularity of these so-called caveman or Stone Age diets is based on the idea that modern humans evolved to eat the way hunter-gatherers did during the Paleolithic—the period from about 2.6 million years ago to the start of the agricultural revolution—and that our genes haven’t had enough time to adapt to farmed foods.
A Stone Age diet “is the one and only diet that ideally fits our genetic makeup,” writes Loren Cordain, an evolutionary nutritionist at Colorado State University, in his book The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat.
If you plan to change your diet include natural herbs, start by cutting down red meat consumption. Read meat drives your immune system insane.
Heavy consumption of red meat increases atherosclerosis and cancer in most populations as our gut bacteria digest a nutrient in meat called L-carnitine.
The digestion of L-carnitine boosted artery-clogging plaque and that the human immune system attacks a sugar in red meat that’s called Neu5Gc, causing inflammation that could lead to cancer.
“Red meat is great, if you want to live to 45,” says Ajit Varki of the University of California, San Diego, lead author of the Neu5Gc study.
You may have purchased multivitamin supplements from pharmacies to over-compensate your bad eating habits, but it is not too late to emulate your ancestor’s diet by consuming natural herbs or super-food.
Here are top natural superfoods and herbs that have a long history of anti-inflammatory properties to boost your immune system.
Ask any nutritionists and they will highly recommend broccoli. It is superpacked with vitamin A, C, and E, as well as many antioxidants and fiber. And you can find it easily in any supermarkets and in western dishes too. Go and grab some now!
Garlic is found in most dishes around the world and blends well with any dishes you can think off. Garlic contains immune-boosting properties such as allicin and the secret to retain its health benefits is by not to overcook it! Garlic is used as herbal remedies in some parts of the world to treat minor illnesses.
In most parts of Asia, ginger is not just used in dishes but it is an ingredient many turn to after falling sick. Ginger may help decrease inflammation, which can help reduce a sore throat and other inflammatory-related illnesses.
4. Tongkat Ali (Malaysian Ginseng)
Tongkat Ali is a herbal root (from a plant known as Eurycoma Longifolia) that consumed for centuries as a medicinal herb and as functional ingredients in modern times.
Originating from Malaysia, this herbal root contains anti-inflammatory properties. Research by Tokyo Medical University and Life Science of Japan on 84 human test subjects showed positive improvement in cells related to our immune system. More potential science-backed health benefits of Tongkat Ali here.
5. Panax Ginseng (Korean Ginseng)
This herbal root is not an ingredient found in dishes, but if you have not heard of ginseng, you may have missed out on one of the potent herbs that are used for centuries to improve general health and treat illnesses.
It contains anti-inflammatory properties and touted to boost the immune system amongst elderly people. Both Panax Ginseng and Tongkat Ali are equally potent to protect your immune system. You can find a comparison between these two herbs here.
Those are ways to boost your immune system. In the age of “over-medication”, prevention is sometimes always better than cure.
Whilst the world waits patiently for the vaccine to tested and rolled-out safely, we hold tightly to the age-old wisdom that is proven to be more effective in the longer term.
Prevention means stepping up our immune system from a healthy diet, physical activities and reducing harmful intake into our body. Although there will never be a perfect formula, balancing our immune response system is crucial in fighting COVID-19.
Apart from face masks, each one of us has a responsibility to take care of our health.
Let’s start by building a stronger immune system, not for you but for the sake of your loved ones. Whether the goal is to survive this painful pandemic or to gain longevity – your body deserves the best. So, it is time to take the diet, supplements, and exercises seriously.
Ancient or traditional herbal remedies infused in modern science with exercises and a healthy diet can achieve what the world needs – a health community using natural resources in a sustainable way.
However, preventive measures to build a stronger immunity requires more discipline and relentless effort. It may take weeks, months or even years to achieve a population with a stronger immune system to withstand new strain of viruses.
But everything has to start from within. And it starts now.
Naressa Khan contributes regularly on AKARALI. As a writer and journalist, Naressa is all about creating, deconstructing, and reassembling meanings through words. With this approach always in mind, she eagerly explores the nuances in life via the aspects of lifestyle, culture, travel, health, and wellness.