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5 ways to optimize your immunity

Personal · Jan 14, 2021

The immune system is a complex defence network of cells, proteins and physical barriers that work to protect us from infectious diseases and viruses like common colds or the flu. It can also turn against us and provoke illness, including rheumatoid arthritis, depression and anxiety disorders. That’s right — there is a major connection between your immune system and your mental health!

Keeping your immune system functioning optimally is one of the best things you can do for your physical and mental health. Here are five ways to support your immune system today, tomorrow and for the rest of the year:

1) Reduce stress

Did you know that chronic depression and anxiety are inflammatory conditions? When stress is severe and prolonged, inflammation develops over time and impacts our brain structure and function. This also puts us at risk for physical illness. One way to help reduce inflammation in your body is to manage your stress levels (which has admittedly been challenging in our current global climate). Some proven ways to do this include prioritizing self-care — the things you do to take care of your personal wellbeing — every day, and practicing mindfulness through breathing exercises, a gratitude practice and/or mindfulness meditation. Not sure where to start? There are many free apps to help you develop these techniques!

2) Take care of your microbiome

Another critical part in the immune defence machinery is the gut — specifically the healthy bacteria that live there, called the microbiome.  This healthy bacteria protects us by acting as a physical barrier to infections, producing acid in the stomach to kill ‘invaders’, making mucous that traps pathogens and producing feces to remove waste from the body. There is a growing body of science supporting the connection between the gut microbiome and mental illness: an imbalance between healthy and unhealthy (pathogenic) bacteria in the gut has been associated with the development of chronic depression and anxiety.

Fortunately, you can shore up your natural gut defences by staying well-hydrated, moderating your alcohol intake, eating a diet that’s low in simple carbohydrates (bread, cereals, sugary foods), and rich in fibre and healthy fats. Opt for fibre-rich foods like green leafy vegetables and colourful fruits and veggies, and don’t forget to include lots of healthy fats such as fatty fish, olive oil, seeds and nuts. Probiotic foods have also been found to support your mental and physical health; these include yogurt, miso, sauerkraut, pickles and some cheeses such as aged cheddar and gouda.

3) Prioritize sleep

Research demonstrates that those who don't get enough or who get poor quality sleep are more likely to get sick following exposure to a common virus. Likewise, lack of good quality sleep can affect how quickly your body is able to recover when you do get sick. While you sleep, your glial cells also work to clean your brain, and even remove some proteins associated with Alzheimer’s disease. This process is called the “glymphatic system” and it’s a good concept to share with the people in your life who are not getting enough sleep. It can be especially challenging to sleep well during times of stress, but practicing good sleep hygiene can help. This includes maintaining a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding screen use before bedtime and keeping your bedroom cool and dark. 

4) Get 30 minutes of daily exercise

In addition to growing brain cells, helping to manage stress, reducing the risk of depression and anxiety, and promoting good cardiovascular health, regular exercise also combats immunosenescence — the immune system’s gradual deterioration as the body ages. There is ample scientific research demonstrating that regular exercise — even just 30 minutes of mild to moderate exercise per day — is associated with a better overall immune response, including a more robust response to vaccines and a lower inflammatory response to infections. That means if you do get sick, it might be less severe and not last as long.

5) Get your flu shot

Getting your flu shot significantly decrease your risk of getting the flu, helps lower your risk of severe illness and hospitalization if you do get sick, and protects your loved ones and your community.

For more information about boosting your immunity and its connection to mental health, watch TELUS Chief Neuroscience Officer Dr. Diane McIntosh’s recent presentation from Benefit’s Canada’s Mental Health Summit here.

The scientific information provided in this article was provided by Dr. Diane McIntosh, TELUS Chief Neuroscience Officer. It was adapted from her original writing, titled “The immune system, COVID-19 and mental health" published on October 7, 2020.  

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