Technology has certainly put us in touch with important information on preventive measures for spreading viruses, such as washing our hands and avoiding contact with those who are sick. However, much of the information is ignoring an essential part to staying healthy—boosting our immune system!
There is a part of our nervous system that hasn’t evolved far from our ancestors called the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Its purpose is for primal survival, equipping our mind/body to react to danger. When we are charged to respond to a stressor or danger, we are flooded with stress hormones. Our digestion shuts down, and we increase blood and oxygen to the heart, brain, and lungs to flee. Blood pressure rises and breathing becomes shallow. This is called the sympathetic part of the ANS, commonly known as the fight-or-flight response. Feeding the fear loop stimulates the fight-or-flight response and is known to suppress the immune system. Stress over time can begin shutting down other systems of the body.
Thankfully, there is another part to the ANS called the parasympathetic nervous system and is commonly known as the rest-and-digest response. The largest cranial nerve of the body, the vagus nerve, innervates from the brain stem to the chest and abdomen. When we stimulate the vagus nerve, we tap into the rest-and-digest response. The heart rate decreases, blood pressure normalizes, breathing is deeper, stress hormones are reduced, and happy hormone production is initiated (promoting sleep, focus, and happier emotions). There are simple methods and lifestyle choices we can make to boost our immune system. We can consciously pull ourselves out of a state of reaction, take back our own power, and ask ourselves what does my mind/body need in this moment to support rest-and-digest?
7 Immune System Boosters
- Breathe. Place your hands on your lower abdomen and your chest. Take in a deep breath from the belly, expanding the belly and bringing oxygen up to the lungs. Leave a little bit of room to the top of the lungs from the inhale. As you exhale, send the breath all the way down into the belly, contracting the belly. This action expands the diaphragm. The act of breathing deeply and expanding the diaphragm massages the vagus nerve. To help pace the breathing and create a state of calm, count to 3 equally on each inhale and each exhale. If you can exhale slightly longer than your inhale, even better. This also sends a message through the vagus nerve that everything is OK here. We have enough oxygen.
- Meditate. The mind is the repository of all experience. It takes in an experience, establishes an emotion around it, analyzes it, and then projects it to the world. Meditation helps us cultivate self-awareness and gives us the space to break the cycle of conditioned thinking and make different choices. Plus, it’s an opportunity for you to observe your breath, thoughts, feelings, sensations, and emotions rather than become them. Meditation helps us to recognize these experiences from an objective point of view, helping us to let go of fear and clear space to focus on positive thoughts. Take one minute each day for this immune system booster and you’ll begin to witness the benefit of connecting within.
- Exercise. Decide what movement it is that you like to do. Instead of focusing on the reps and miles of your activity, focus on moving playfully and with joy. The American Heart Association recommends getting 2.5 to 3 hours per week (30 minutes per day) of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, preferably throughout the week in order to boost your immune system. Choose an activity that makes you feel joy. If you enjoy the activity, you will be more likely to commit to 30 minutes per day. Walking is one of the most accessible and natural forms of aerobic activity we can do. Exercise changes the energy in the body and promotes happy hormone and neurotransmitter production, which supports a strong immune system.
- Sleep. Recently, there has been a surge in research on the circadian rhythm cycle and how it affects our sleep. There is a small part of the hypothalamus, called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), that is tasked with noticing light. It contains approximately 20,000 neurons that respond to light and sends information to cells to regulate the body’s systems based on light and darkness. Sleep is a powerful anti-inflammatory and it’s how the body repairs and restores itself. To prepare for restful sleep, turn off the mind stimulators at least 1 hour, if not 2 hours, before bed to calm the mind and slow down breathing. Nature teaches us what we need to know. Follow the sun. Wake up when it’s light and preparing for sleep when it is dark.
- Eat more plants. Not only are plants full of healthy vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals you’ll need to support a healthy immune system, but they are also easier for the organs to break down and digest so that you can more easily absorb essential nutrients. To keep it simple and fun, one method I use is to pretend my plate is a canvas and I’m painting all the colors of the rainbow onto my plate with different colored vegetables. You will not only satisfy your taste buds, but also nourish your brain and body.
- Enliven all five senses. Ayurveda, an ancient healing system dating to 6,000 BCE in the Indus Valley, teaches us how to heal through our senses. When the mind is out of balance, look to balance the 3 S’s: sight/sound/smell. Pick a time each day for your digital detox and opt for things that are more soothing to the mind, such as looking at images of nature, listening to healing sounds or music, and breathing in essential oils or aromatherapy. When the body is out of balance, look to the 2 T’s: taste and touch. Choose to consume healthy foods throughout the day, get exercise, or give yourself a massage with warming oils at bath time.
- Hydrate. While there continues to be a debate on what is the recommended amount of water needed to consume daily, keeping your organs hydrated and nourished is a sound practice for boosting your immune system. With today’s busy schedules and lifestyles, on average many people operate under-hydrated. Remember, you can also consume water content through fruits and vegetables, plus you’ll get the benefit of vitamins and other nutrients.
Every experience we have sends a message from the brain to every cell in our body. Be conscious of every choice, every experience you take in through your eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. Ask yourself, does this choice put me in the direction of mind/body harmony or disharmony? Before you make a choice, take a deep breath. You’ve got this!
Thank you for this sound advice that we all need to heed at this time. As Massage Therapists / Body Workers we have an opportunity to lead the way to help people get through this challenging time with some ease so we don't damage our health.