Ironically the behaviour of world leaders and global media representatives are contributing to the ill health of nations everywhere. The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies stress as a "pandemic", and stress is known to be the leading contributor to six major causes of death in the United States; cancer, coronary heart disease, accidental injuries, respiratory disorders, cirrhosis of the liver and suicide.
Not only that, but emotional stress also weakens the immune system. And people with a weak immune system are the most susceptible to Covid-19.
In this article, we will take an in-depth look at how unhealthy lifestyles weaken the immune system and make us more vulnerable to ill-health and early death. The evidence presented here is supported by scientific studies.
We also suggest some lifestyle choices you could adopt to improve your immune system. First of all, let's examine why it's important to maintain a healthy immune system.
Your body’s immune system is a built-in biological defence mechanism that fights off harmful bacteria, disease, infections, parasites and viruses. It consists of a network of cells that branch out to every single part of your body.
Antibodies, also called immunoglobulins, are proteins that lock onto foreign substances and neutralise them with the help of “killer cells” known as T cells.
Once the antibodies have successfully defeated the foreign invaders, they store a molecular record that is used to defend against the same disease with the same molecular biology throughout your life.
The immune system can protect us against any type of general illnesses such as common colds, measles and flu.
Because Covid-19 is a new strain of coronavirus, we don’t have antibodies that can protect us. You will have to rely on your immune system to defend you from the virus once you get it.
And Covid-19 is not going away. I don’t say this to alarm you, but let's be realistic. A virus is as potent as the common cold. There is a strong likelihood that we will all contract Covid-19 at some point.
It’s therefore, important to strengthen your immune system and make sure you are primed for survival.
Staying healthy requires doing more than digesting over-the-counter vitamins, washing your hands and wearing a mask.
Lifestyle choices strengthen or weaken your immune system. It’s your responsibility to make the right choices.
It has also been shown that students have elevated levels of stress hormones around the time of exams. In addition, depression, loneliness, anger and relationship problems have all be shown to weaken the immune system.
Let's take a deep dive.
I’m going to start with chronic stress as this underlies many of the other lifestyle issues that undermine immune response.
Stress hormones kick in to help us cope with pressure situations in life. In some situations, stress hormones are useful. They make you more alert and enable you to focus.
The noted Hungarian endocrinologist, Hans Selye - the father of stress research - discovered stress hormones kick in every time we face a threatening situation. This includes psychological stress such as meeting a work deadline or target or, losing your job. During these times the flight, fight or freeze (FFF) response kicks in.
Moreover, the FFF kicks in every time you are faced with a new challenge the subconscious does not have a program for.
Technology is not helping us here. Fast-paced changes can overwhelm your body with stress and most of us do not allow our minds and body time to relax and recuperate.
The brain is constantly overworked consuming online content, learning new things and adapting to changes.
Have you ever noticed how you get flustered when you are faced with performing a new action online? This is an FFF response.
For Generation X and Baby Boomers that did not grow up with today’s digital technologies from an early age, using the internet can be stressful.
Whilst the body will naturally cleanse itself of unwanted toxic chemicals when it is overwhelmed with stress hormones, the healing power of the immune system declines.
Studies show the strength of the immune system declines with age and after illness. This is because the stress hormone corticosteroid lowers the number of lymphocytes and suppress the effectiveness of the immune system.
For example, chronic mild depression has been shown to weaken the immune system because the body is unable to produce sufficient quantities of lymphocyte T-cells (that kill harmful bacteria etc) that help to defend the body against alien invaders. In some cases, the number of lymphocyte T-cells were still lower than is clinically normal 18 months after recovery.
It is thought the reason for this is because stress decreases lymphocyte cells - the white blood cells that help to fight infection. When lymphocyte levels are low, the less effective your body is at fighting viruses and other foreign visitors.
Unhealthy coping strategies to manage stress also suppress the immune system, e.g, smoking, drinking, recreational drugs and comfort foods.
A paper published by the Journal of Eating Disorders revealed stress eating is not even helpful for managing stress.
The Dutch study was based on non-laboratory testing in which participants acknowledged their emotional eating patterns coincided with negative experiences.
Researchers found that comfort foods produced a variety of other negative symptoms in addition to weight gain. Health concerns include chronic disease such as diabetes and chronic heart disease together with mental health concerns.
Healthy strategies such as exercise, mindful eating and comparing eating habits with healthy and happy peers were found to be effective habit-changing strategies.
The study also supported other findings that obesity affected the behaviour of immune cells in response to flu.
To help support the immune system, adopt a better work-life balance, learn to switch off from work and avoid stressful situations as much as possible. Practising meditation is known to reduce stress hormones.
You will know from experience that a good night’s sleep naturally makes you feel better whereas a restless or sleepless night leaves you feeling drained and hollow.
Insufficient sleep, including poor-quality sleep, not only makes you feel lifeless, it weakens your immune system.
A study published by researchers at the Departments of Pharmacology in the University of Delhi reads:
“…cytokines has a major role in many diverse functions including immune cell differentiation, inflammation, angiogenesis, tumorigenesis, neurobiology, viral pathogenesis etc. In addition to inflammation, immunity and infections, cytokines have now expanded their domain to atherosclerosis and cancer. Thus, cytokines may be useful biomarkers for health and disease and act as diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic agents.”
Cells are the body’s basic units of life, but they need relevant information to function properly. Cytokines are responsible for passing information from one cell to the next so that it can perform the required activity.
If there is an insufficient amount of protective cytokines in the body, cells do not receive the correct message and do not respond accordingly.
On the other hand, doctors claim a “cytokine storm” could be responsible for Covid-19 deaths. This is when the immune system goes into overdrive and attacks healthy tissues.
Fortunately, doctors can recognise symptoms of cytokine store; high fever, headaches, seizures and coma.
The Sleep Foundation says taking two power naps no longer than 30 minutes each has been shown to help decrease stress.
If naps interfere with your ability to sleep at night, however, the alternative is to mediate so the body falls into a theta state. Meditation is linked with better sleep.
Researchers have found that pessimistic attitudes trigger negative emotions and weaken immune response.
The 11-year cohort study involved 2,267 men and women aged 52 to 76. Participants were assessed for optimism and pessimism. Their cholesterol levels, blood pressure, glucose readings and other health and behavioural indicators were also measured.
By the end of the study, 122 people had passed away from Chronic Heart Disease (CHD). After factoring in risks of death such as smoking and diabetes, researchers concluded that pessimists were 2.2 times more likely to have a short lifespan.
Optimism, on the other hand, appears to stimulate blood circulation and protect the heart. A strong heart subsequently improves your overall health.
There is a growing body of evidence that shows how positive experiences trigger positive emotions which enhance the immune system. On the flip side, negative emotions cripple the immune system.
A research program in 2019 uncovered fresh evidence that indicates consistent exposure to negative experiences may impair how well the immune system functions.
For example, people that had suffered the death of a spouse or had been long-term caregivers had a lower functioning immune system to the rest of the population.
The study, conducted by specialists from Pennsylvania State University in State College found that moods influence the way in which the immune response functions.
Negative emotions such as clinical depression, sadness, anger and other fear-based emotions were shown to increase the risk of exacerbated inflammation.
Scientists in the 1980’s discovered the immunity of students lowered around examine time. The condition was attributed to stress. This new body of research - almost 40 years later - shows that stressful situations weaken the immune’s system’s ability to heal wounds and infections.
Constant exposures to situations that create negative emotional responses, therefore, make you more susceptible to illness and disease.
Being mindful of how you feel and react to situations on a daily basis can help you determine whether you are protecting or damaging your immune system.
No-carb diets have become the latest lose weight fast trend. It doesn't work. Not only that, completely cutting carbohydrates from your diet does not provide your body with a sufficient amount of nutrients it needs to function effectively.
It is important that you do not overeat carbs as it can lead to insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome. This could eventually cause type 2 diabetes which will prove fatal at some point.
However, engaging in some low-carb diets restricts the amount of calories your body needs which makes you more susceptible to illness. During a bout of illness, your immune system has to work harder and it takes longer for it to recover.
That's not to say, low-carb diets should be avoided altogether. Providing your diet is balanced it will help you lose weight without impairing your natural defences. Ensure you are eating foods with plenty of zinc, selenium and magnesium.
Carbohydrates provide you with an immediate boost of energy. They control and maintain the stability of blood sugar levels which is important for health.
Therefore, no-carb diets are a no-go. If you want to diet, stick to sensible low-carb diets and get advice from a professional weight loss coach and experienced dietician.
Diets that boost the immune system are high in omega-3 fatty acids, baby marrow, spinach, red bell peppers, broccoli, fatty fish, nuts, whole grains, avocados, olives, seeds, garlic, ginger, and berries.
Antacids are so prevalent in today's society that it has grown into an £8.2bn profiteering behemoth. Yet guzzling pills to ease heartburn, acid indigestion, and stomach ulcers pose a problem for your immunity.
Prescription antacids have been found to be particularly harmful. In her book, ‘The immune System Recovery Plan’ Susan Blum MD, explains that stronger antacids alter the pH in your stomach.
The chemical makeup of your stomach needs to be highly acidic in order to sterilise your food properly. Without such potent stomach acids, you are more susceptible to inviting infections in your body.
In 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning that excessive aspirin use can cause stomach bleeding. The warning was widely ignored by mainstream media.
Antacids that neutralise stomach may appear to alleviate immediate pain but could be leaving you vulnerable to more serious issues.
Several independent research teams have revealed how pharmaceutical drugs work against the body. If anything, antibiotics create an environment for viruses to thrive.
The studies show how antibiotics interfere with certain immune cells and ultimately weaken the body’s natural ability to fight off foreign invaders. Doctors that prescribe antibiotics for colds, flu and bacterial infections could be impairing immune response.
The problems caused by antibiotics has not gone unnoticed by some members of the medical profession. However, their warnings are often ignored. In his book, 'The Biology of Belief', Dr Bruce Litopn writes:
"Recent studies have found that “otherwise normal individuals have lost 15 to 40 percent of their microbial diversity and the genes that accompany it” mostly due to the overprescription of broad-spectrum antibiotics that kill microbes indiscriminately."
As more strains of bacteria resist common antibiotics, scientists are warning that we may enter a “dark age of medicine,” in which pharmaceutical drugs are ineffective against basic infections.
It is reported that 80% of antibiotics administered in the United States are given to livestock. This practice is “projected to increase dramatically worldwide over the next 15 years.”
Although antibiotics are only be used for treating bacterial infections, the drugs are producing changes that are counterproductive to the function of the immune system.
Not only are they killing bad bacteria, with prolonged use, they also wipe out good bacteria that prevents toxins from being absorbed into your body. This inevitably weakens your immune system and leave you exposed to viruses and disease.
It's well known that people who exercise regularly typically suffer from illness less often.
A study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that at least 20 minutes exercise a day for five or more days a week, have fewer upper respiratory tract infection symptoms.
What’s more, when they did get sick, their symptoms were less severe and they recovered quicker.
Researchers concluded that exercise helps strengthen immune response levels. It is thought that exercise prompts change in antibodies and stimulates immune processes.
When you engage in any kind of physical activity for a sustained period of time - including moderate exercise like walking - it increases your heart rate. This triggers white blood cells called neutrophils and the killer cells mentioned above - lymphocytes.
The more white blood cells circulating in your bloodstream, the more able your body is to respond quickly and destroy unwanted pathogens.
When oxygen comes into contact with blood, is releases carbonic acid gas generated from waste products and poisonous matter. We need oxygen for the body to cleanse toxic chemicals such as stress hormones mentioned above.
In the book, The Hindu Yogi Science of Breath by Yogi Ramacharaka writes:
“Purified blood is carried back to the heart laden with life-giving properties…If one does not breathe in a sufficient quantity of air, the work of the blood cannot go on properly, and the result is that the body is insufficiently nourished and disease, or state of imperfect health, ensues. The blood of one who breathes improperly is of a bluish, dark colour, lacking the rich redness of pure arterial blood. This often shows itself in a poor complexion.”
Most people shallow breathe and, therefore, do not inhale sufficient amounts of energy into the lungs. You can change this with a quick fix such as a daily dose of the Wim Hoff breathing exertions.
You can also read more about effective breathing techniques in this article.
Tobacco smoke contains at least 70 known carcinogens that cause various types of cancer.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains “Smoking harms the immune system and can make the body less successful at fighting disease.”
A small study performed by scientists from Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine in Ohio, discovered that smoking affects the ability of pulp inside the teeth to fight disease.
It was found that smokers had lower endodontic outcomes which delay healing.
Nicotine is already known to suppress the immune response by lowering the number of neutrophils produced by the body.
Neutrophils are needed to help heal damaged tissues and eliminate infections. They increase naturally in response to infections, disease and injury etc, but because nicotine inhibits the release of reactive oxygen species (ROS) ability of neutrophils to kill pathogens is impaired.
A 2015 study found that drinking alcohol induces a “pro-inflammatory state” within 20 minutes of inducing 130 mg/dL of alcohol - enough to make you feel euphoric or sedate depending on your environment or mood.
Once you hit the 130 mg/dl peak, your body produces fewer leukocytes and monocytes and natural killer cells in white cells. Chronic binge drinking also suppresses bone marrow production of red blood cells, which over time, weakens your immune system.
People that engage in unhealthy drinking practices are more susceptible to Covid-19.
To put your drinking habits into perspective, the CDC recommends men should have no more than “two standard alcoholic drinks” a day a women no more than "one standard drink.”
A standard drink is classified as:
It should be noted that these amounts should be taken every day to remain in an immune response safe mode, and not accumulated in one sitting.
Rather than drinking alcohol when you feel run down or after a negative experience, the best drink for your body and mind to recover is water. When your cells are well hydrated they function at optimum performance for you.
If you do have concerns about Covid-19, your best form of defence is to improve your immune system. So to alleviate fears, change your lifestyle to cut out behaviours that inhibit immune response and adopt lifestyle choices that strengthen immunity.