It’s been more than three months since we all shut ourselves inside in an attempt to isolate and do our part to curb the COVID-19 pandemic. Some places are fully open; New York, where I live, is just shifting into phase two. But the virus hasn’t gone anywhere, and as we emerge into the world, we’re being bombarded with information—the city streets might be quiet, but the web is louder than ever, with dubious information on how we can fight coronavirus and “boost” our immune system.
This speaks to a larger problem: People often look for a quick fix. And I get it, especially right now. We’re all anxious to be past this terrible virus. Unfortunately when it comes to your health, looking for a “boost” is not sustainable. (It’s also a bad way to think about the immune system, since an overactive immune response is a potentially deadly disease.) To fight any illness, what you’re after is consistency and balance. Keep your body ready to protect us against infection, whether there’s a pandemic going on or not.
One way to do that is to tweak your diet and nutrition. I have an entire column on that in the current issue. But beyond what you eat, there are also things you can add to your life. These are the best “supplements,” elemental practices that you should think about integrating into your daily life to improve your overall health. These are habits that have worked for me, and I know I’ll keep them when this is all finished—it’s so much more sustainable than whatever pills you might be tempted to try out in this weird time.
Move Your Body
Movement is a key component of your overall health, including your immune system. When you get your heart pumping, even briefly, your circulatory system brings more blood to your muscles, of course, but it can also help in delivering more white cells throughout the body, which detect pathogens and fight infection. Consistent exercise can also decrease inflammation. This is important because when the body's inflamed, the immune system is less equipped to deal with infection—it's already kept busy trying to decrease inflammation. If we can help keep inflammation down, then, we can better protect ourselves against sickness.
The best news? You don’t have to go wildly hard to get these results. In fact, though it hasn’t been definitively proven, some believe that exercising too hard might actually lead to a short term suppression of immunity. So feel free to slow it down, and follow the advice from the good folks at the American Heart Association: moderate exercise for 150 minutes per week, or intense exercise for 75 minutes a week
A quick way to tell the difference between moderate and intense exercise is if you can talk easily. Moderate exercise will have that slight struggle from an elevated breathing pattern but you’ll still be able to have a conversation. During an intense workout, you’ll only be able to say a few words.
When I wrote about the wisdom of shorter, easier workouts—exercise snacks—I mentioned that I’m big on the phrase “Make movement a movement.” (You’ll also see it on the Instagram page I created to give you a library of quick and efficient bodyweight circuits.) There’s this misconception that workouts have to be a huge, painful undertaking. And that keeps some people from moving at all. But even if it’s just taking the stairs or jumping rope for a few minutes, make sure you’re doing something to move. The body yearns for movement.
Get Enough Sleep
We’ve all had those nights where we don’t get enough sleep. How do you feel the next day? Like trash, probably. That feeling is a signal—not sleeping enough is terrible for you. Getting enough of it is vital for a well-functioning immune system. Sleep seems to enhance a specific white blood cell response in the body, mainly the T cells, and this helps fight off infection in the body.
It also plays a role in (you guessed it) fighting inflammation. If you’re inflamed, your immune system can’t regenerate properly. Ironically, if it’s always on and “boosted” then it’s actually less ready to fight infection long term. Your immune system, like you, needs rest. The amount needed will change depending on the individual, but if you’re getting less than seven, you’re probably not getting enough. Aim for seven to nine.
If you’re sleeping poorly even if you have enough time, there’s plenty you can do. Try making your room cooler. If you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t just thrash around—it’s helpful to get out of bed and reset. (But please stay away from your phone.)
If you want to take something natural to help with sleep, consider exploring ashwagandha, CBD, melatonin, or valerian root. Melatonin is a hormone associated with your body’s internal clock, and valerian root is an herb that’s been traditionally used to fight anxiety and promote sleep. I use ashwagandha as a daily supplement, twice a day of about 300 mg, which research hints might work to improve sleep. CBD is the wild west, of course, but many, many people now use it for relaxation. If you do decide to experiment with it, looks for one that has been tested for purity.
Since so many of us are now home during the day right now, maybe find some time for a nap—and someone tells you naps are just for kids, forgive them: they’re probably just irritable because they didn’t get enough sleep.
This one starts from a simple premise: stress suppresses your immune system. Though the research in this area is preliminary, it’s been shown that meditation and mindfulness can improve one’s response to stress, and, in turn, promote immune function.
A good way to start practicing mindfulness, as I’m sure you’ve heard, is through meditation. But it doesn’t need to be a big thing. (Remember the concept of “snacking” I outlined above?) Just take 10 deep breaths before you start the day. Focus on your breathing and try to be completely present without judgment.
If you would prefer something more structured, try an app—I like Insight Timer, State: Breathing, and Stop, Breathe, Think. For additional resources, read the words of Pema Chödrön, who wrote When Things Fall Apart and Jon Kabat-Zinn, who wrote Full Catastrophe Living and Wherever You Go, There You Are. Finally, here is a full list of meditation tools that I rounded up a few weeks ago.
Spend Time in Nature
We all know that going out in the sun and getting some of that Vitamin D is good for us. Being outside and in nature is also helpful for a variety of reasons beyond that. First of all, the air is often cleaner than it is inside. There is also some evidence that compounds released by trees can strengthen immune function.
Nature is also just relaxing. It signals that we are safe. It’s calming. The sounds and scenery can produce the same sort of neurological response that meditation and sleep can. The body enters a relaxed state, saving energy that it can use to rebuild and revitalize our immune system.
Even if you live in a city or urban environment like me, take advantage of local parks and community gardens. And even if you can’t get outside, listening to nature sounds on a playlist can evoke a calm response from your body. (I like Gordon Hempton’s One Square Inch of Silence). At the very least: get yourself some plants.
I really believe voting is crucial to our health. We’ve all seen the racial and socioeconomic health disparities that are present in this country. If you are Black you are far more likely to be exposed to air pollution. If you are poorer or a person of color you’re more likely to live in a polluted area. This is a systemic issue—those with less political clout are less able to lobby against the environmental injustices that affect their health. And guess what? Air pollution suppresses the immune system.
The current administration in the United States has rolled back 100 environmental rules and counting. And failures of political leadership helped accelerate the early spread of coronavirus. Doing your civic duty and electing competent, thoughtful leaders is one of the best ways to protect yourself and others from preventable illness—maybe even the next pandemic.
GQ's fitness and wellness columnist shares six lessons to improve your diet for overall health.
Originally Appeared on GQ