Most of us try our best to live a healthy lifestyle by exercising and eating right — and for good reason. Maintaining our health helps ensure that our immune system, our body's defense system that protects against foreign invaders, is strong. Without a fighting immune system, we become susceptible to all sorts of infectious diseases and viruses.
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There are big things we can do to keep our immune systems healthy, including eating right, exercising and staying up-to-date with vaccines, but there are also small things we can do on a daily basis to keep our defenses in tip-top shape.
But where to start? With this seven-day plan, of course. Each day, you'll add a new, simple-to-implement microhabit, so by the end of the week you'll have racked up a roster of immune-boosting practices that will soon feel like second nature.
Get tips on how to stay healthy, safe and sane during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Day 1: Wash. Your. Hands.
This one might sound obvious, but too few people actually wash their hands well enough to eliminate illness-causing bacteria. In fact, one April 2013 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health observed the hand-washing behavior of nearly 4,000 people and found that as many as 95 percent don't wash their hands for a long enough time after going to the bathroom.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends washing your hands for at least 20 seconds to minimize germ exposure and keep the immune system from getting overwhelmed. Time yourself each time you wash your hands today (after using the bathroom or touching any shared surface, like the office kitchen counter) so you get a feel for how long you should be sudsing.
Sing the "Happy Birthday" song twice through as you soap up your hands to make sure you're hitting the 20-second mark.
Day 2: Add More Protein to Your Breakfast
Protein is a vital nutrient for many reasons. It helps the body build and repair tissue, and it's also the centerpiece of a healthy immune system, says Roger Adams, PhD, personal trainer, doctor of nutrition and owner of eatrightfitness.
Research, including a March 2016 study in Food & Function, has shown that protein from high-quality sources (i.e. lean meat) is essential for optimal health. "If protein intake is poor, it can impair the body's ability to make antibodies, large proteins produced by the immune system in response to the invasion of foreign molecules," Adams says. "Without sufficient protein to make antibodies, the immune system loses its ability to fight infections."
Protein can be easier to come by at lunch or dinnertime, so breakfast is the perfect meal to squeeze in more. Make it your daily goal, starting today.
How Much Protein Is Enough?
The American College of Sports Medicine recommends getting 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram (or 2.2 pounds) of body weight each day, but keep in mind that people who are active need more. Weight-lifters or those training for a running or cycling event should eat between 1.2 to 1.7 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight daily. To put that into perspective, a weight-lifter who weighs 170 pounds should be getting somewhere between 92 and 131 grams of protein each day.
Day 3: Avoid Secondhand Smoke
Even if you don't smoke, you may experience the damage it can cause to parts of your immune system if you are exposed to it secondhand, according to the CDC.
"Chronic secondhand smoke exposure causes inflammation of both the upper and lower respiratory tract and impairs the immune system's ability to produce antibodies in response to exposure to bacteria," explains Julia Blank, MD, family medicine physician at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "This leads to decreased clearance of bacteria from the lungs and increases asthma flares, which can both make a person more vulnerable to infection."
Today and going forward, try to avoid places where you'll be exposed to secondhand smoke, and ask others around you to get in the habit of going outside if and when they smoke, and changing their clothes afterward to prevent exposing you.
Day 4: Sneak in an Extra Serving of Veggies
All fruits and vegetables are beneficial for our health, but some can do more for our immune system than others. The cream of the crop are the ones rich in color, as they tend to have more nutrients, Adams says.
"The more colors, the more antioxidants, which the body uses to fight off free radicals that may contribute to cellular damage," he says. "Also, these foods are loaded with vitamins and minerals essential for a healthy immune system."
Unfortunately, most people aren't getting enough. For adults, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends eating two cups of brightly colored fruits and two to three cups of vibrant veggies per day. But even one extra serving will do you good. So add a helping of baby carrots to your lunch today, or opt for salad at dinner instead of french fries.
Day 5: Set an Alarm for Bedtime
Sleep is essential to a healthy, functioning immune system. One February 2019 study in the Journal of Experimental Medicine found that a good night's sleep can boost the efficiency of T cells in the body, a type of white blood cell that helps the body fight off viruses.
"Many people stay up late and miss the opportunity to boost their immunity by proper sleep hygiene," says Shiva Lalezar, DO, functional medicine and anti-aging specialist. "The adrenal glands, which produce cortisol (the stress hormone), epinephrine and norepinephrine, get disrupted by poor or inadequate sleep, which, in turn has a negative impact on the immune system."
In order to go to bed at a proper hour, you have to create a healthy bedtime routine, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Start by giving yourself a curfew — for example, head to bed at 10 p.m. tonight — and avoiding stimulating activities (think: exercise, caffeine) for at least four hours prior. Just like you set an alarm to wake up in the morning, set one to remind you to start winding down for sleep.
Day 6: Drink a Glass of Water When You Wake Up
Staying hydrated by drinking enough water on a day-to-day basis will also give your immune system a boost.
"Dry mucous membranes and cracked skin can all be areas pathogens can invade your body," says Adams. "Staying hydrated will reduce dryness in essential areas, like the mucus membranes in your nose, and give your body's natural resources a better chance at warding off pathogens."
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that men drink approximately 15.5 cups and women get 11.5 cups of H2O each day. Start by downing a glass first thing in the morning to start your day on the right foot.
Read more: 8 Hydration Mistakes You're Probably Making
Day 7: Say 'No' to That Second Drink
Drinking too much alcohol can make you feel lousy, and it can also negatively affect your defenses against illness, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Alcohol in excess can weaken the immune system and make your body more susceptible to infections.
If you don't want to forego drinking altogether, remember that moderation is key: The CDC recommends sticking to no more than one drink per day for women and two drinks for men.
Now that you've got a week under your belt, keep going! It takes time to shore up a healthy, strong immune system, so keep practicing these small, daily habits to get you there.
Concerned About COVID-19?
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
- Journal of Environmental Health: "Hand Washing Practices in a College Town Environment"
- Food & Function: "Dietary protein intake and human health."
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "When and How to Wash Your Hands"
- 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans: "Appendix 3. USDA Food Patterns: Healthy U.S.-Style Eating Pattern"
- American College of Sports Medicine: "Protein Intake for Optimal Muscle Maintenance"
- National Sleep Foundation: "How to Train Yourself to Go to Sleep Earlier"
- Journal of Experimental Medicine: "Gαs-coupled receptor signaling and sleep regulate integrin activation of human antigen-specific T cells"
- National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine: "Dietary Reference Intakes: Water, Potassium, Sodium, Chloride, and Sulfate"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Health Effects of Secondhand Smoke"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Facts About Moderate Drinking"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.