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9 steps for overall health and a strong immune system

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A quick note before we get into it. 

No supplement, diet, or lifestyle modification — aside from physical/social distancing, and practicing proper hygiene ⁠— has been proven to protect you from catching COVID-19. The strategies outlined below may boost your immune health and overall health, but they don’t protect specifically against COVID-19.

Also, I’m not a doctor or medical professional. These recommendations are based on research I’ve done and a lot of common sense. While the benefits will vary person to person, none of them come with any associated dangers or risk of side effects. I also don’t endorse or recommend any specific supplements or even natural medicines. Every body is unique and may react to foods and supplements differently. You should always consult with a medical professional before taking any of those.

With the disclaimers out of the way, I do feel confident in recommending a good number of timeless practices that have been observed by people around the world for millennia. Though some of the recommendations on this list seem extremely obvious, they’ve all come into decline around the world, especially among the so-called “developed” or “wealthy” countries. 

If this pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that taking a step back and prioritizing the fundamentals of a simple, healthy, and connected life are more important now than ever. 

As we head into flu season and the rise in communicable diseases associated with the colder months of the year, let’s review the most tried and true elements of healthy living that can make a huge difference in your immune system response. Given that we’re still battling a pandemic, it seems like a good time to review the essentials.

This list isn’t in any order of priority. Some of them might be more or less important to you depending on your unique situation.

  • Get enough sleep

While there are so many reasons why this isn’t easy, nearly all adults need a minimum of seven hours sleep every night for improved health and well-being. People often underestimate the importance of sleep. Less than seven hours per night on a regular basis has a long list of negative effects. It essentially creates a fight-or-flight state in your body, with an associated increase of stress hormones and release of adrenaline. 

Chronic poor sleep affects not only the ability to function well the next day, but the sleep deficit builds up the longer you don’t get quality sleep. Scientists also claim to have discovered that quality sleep can bolster the T cells in your body that fight off infection on top of all the basic functions or recovery that a good night’s rest is well known for.

  • Get some sun, regularly!

Moderate daily sun exposure is linked to a huge range of health benefits including lowered blood pressure, bone health, brain function, sleep quality, and can even reduce the risk of certain cancers. While many of you I’m sure have heard about the importance of vitamin D and its connection to boosting immune function, sunlight also helps to suppress an overactive immune system which is linked to many autoimmune disorders. At a mental level, getting enough sun can also help you to feel better and reduce symptoms of mild depression as it helps the brain to produce serotonin, a mood-lifting natural chemical in the body.

  • Eat more, and a wider variety of, plant based whole foods (including fermented food)

One of the main commonalities that you see in many of the steps on this list are practices that help to reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation is closely associated with reduced immune response and a higher susceptibility to disease.

Though I’ll stop short of advocating for a strict vegetarian or vegan diet, there’s no getting around the fact that a whole food plant based diet is the foundation of every traditional diet around the world that is associated with longevity and a high quality of health. Foods that decrease inflammation, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, herbs, and spices make up the majority of these diets even though the foods themselves vary widely around the globe.

Foods that are high in fiber as well as fermented foods also feed and repopulate the good bacteria in your gut where a large amount of your immune system does its work. 

Research suggests that a flourishing network of gut bacteria can help your immune cells differentiate between normal, healthy cells and harmful invader organisms much more effectively than a compromised gut flora.

  • Eat healthy fats

Though fatty foods as a whole have been demonized by health ministries in the past, it’s important to know just how important healthy fats are for our bodies. Good fats such as those found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and certain fish also help to reduce inflammation in the body and have been shown to play an important role in cardiovascular health.

Since chronic inflammation can suppress your immune system, these fats may naturally combat illnesses.

While the good fats are essential for our well being and proper immune function, It’s important to separate healthy and unhealthy fats. Artificial trans fats, as well as vegetable oils and the fats found in most processed foods can wreak havoc on your system. The simple rule I use as a guide is that, if they’re not made in a lab, extracted and refined in a factory, or come from poorly raised and fed animals, chances are they’ll do you good. This rule applies pretty well to other categories of food too.

  • Reduce added sugars and simple carbohydrates

Large amounts of sugars in the diet contribute significantly to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, all of which can severely suppress your immune system. Lowering your sugar intake has been shown to decrease inflammation and your risk of those conditions. Simple carbohydrates are included because they are made up almost entirely of sugars and are processed almost identically in your body. Just like simple sugars, they can cause severe spikes in blood sugar and cause problems with insulin management over time. These spikes have also been linked to reduced white blood cell activity.

Aside from direct immune system suppression, eating sugar excessively can cause imbalance in your gut flora. Since a large portion of the body’s immune response is conducted by the beneficial bacteria in the gut, the connection there is evident. 

Even if you´re not worried about your immune system itself, avoiding processed sugars and carbohydrates will help you to maintain your energy and focus throughout the day because you won’t be cycling on and off blood sugar spikes with the associated energy crash as you come down. 

  • Get regular exercise

This is one of those categories where it’s possible to overdo it. Prolonged intense exercise can actually suppress your immune system since your body is spending its energy on recovery from the extreme exertion. Moderate exercise on the other hand, can give it a boost.

Studies have shown that even a single session of moderate exercise can increase the effectiveness of vaccines in people with compromised immune systems. You can see why I feel that this reminder is especially important now.

Moderate exercise can reduce inflammation and promote the healthy turnover of immune cells. Activities like jogging, biking, walking, swimming, and hiking are great options. The important distinction between moderate exercise and pushin it too far is that you give your body enough time to rest and recover too. 

On top of the immune system benefits, exercise improves cardiovascular health, lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, and protects against a variety of diseases as well. 

  • Drink water, just water

While proper hydration has tons of benefits on its own, it doesn’t directly protect you from germs and viruses. Dehydration can however make you more susceptible to illness by limiting the proper function of your heart, kidneys, and digestive function, so be sure you’re drinking plenty of water each day. 

The reason it’s worth focusing on plain water is because it’s common to look to more flavorful drinks to meet your hydration needs. It’s worth knowing though that some other drinks will have different effects on your body. Drinks like coffee, and tea can have a neutral or even dehydrating effect, and soda, juices, and sports drinks often have a lot of added sugar which can dramatically diminish immune function as mentioned before.

  • Manage your stress

While this might sound like antagonizing advice during a pandemic and an economic crisis, prolonged stress is well known to cause damage to your health. Long-term stress promotes inflammation, as well as imbalances in immune cell function because the brain sends defense signals to the endocrine system that releases an array of hormones that not only gets us ready for emergency situations but severely depresses our immunity at the same time. Some experts claim that stress is responsible for as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases. Chronic stress also exposes your body to a steady stream of stress hormones that actively suppress the immune system.

If stress is a constant factor in your life, there are many ways to help to manage it. 

  • Maintain a healthy weight for your body type

Maintaining a healthy weight range has nothing to do with looking like the models on TV or instagram, so let’s not even go there. Your body mass index (BMI) is a much better indication of healthy weight for any individual because it factors in aspects of your body type. 

Nearly all of the recommendations up until now will contribute to maintaining a healthy weight, and at the end of the day, there are no shortcuts. Just consistent healthy lifestyle choices. 

While it’s tempting to see weight ranges through aesthetic and cultural lenses, I would argue that there’s nothing more attractive than a genuinely healthy person.

Hopefully this list can serve as a reference when the rest of the obligations in our lives are pulling us away or distracting us from taking better care of ourselves. While there is certainly no shortage of options for medicines, remedies, and treatments out there claiming to fix any real or imagined damage to our bodies, there’s a lot to be said for focusing on prevention through healthy living. While some of those treatments may work, they´re no substitute to the foundational practices that enable your body to protect itself and keep it working optimally. 

For more great advice on holistic health and regenerative living, check out the links to previous podcast episodes 

What are some of your favorite practices that help you maintain holistic health?

Are there any essential habits or recommendations that you think should be included in this list?

Does maintaining your health have more to do with adding better practices or reducing damaging ones?

We regularly explore and debate topics like this, and many more in the regenerative skills facebook group. If you’re not yet a part of our growing community, you can find the link to join below. I look forward to seeing your feedback and questions in the chat!

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