With the coronavirus and runoff reactions making their way into so many aspects of our lives, I thought I would take the opportunity to highlight actions that we can all take on from a personal skills perspective to minimize impact. The critical interface between this disease (and many others) and our personal and communal wellbeing is specifically our immune system. Besides basic cautionary behavior in avoiding ways and places in which we can contract the disease – some of which are not entirely in our control – our primary line of proactive defense is augmenting our immune system as best we can. So, here are some simple ideas that can quickly improve and maintain the many interconnected internal structures and processes that protect against disease.
Recent studies in various fields of wellbeing and health and longevity have identified important factors that significantly improve our immune system, which include a wider, more complex spectrum of consideration than had been previously thought. The most crucial: a circle of long-term friendships, a sense of meaningful purpose, close proximity to nature, consistent physical movement, a plant-based diet, and daily rituals that alleviate stress.
These can be incorporated into any day, no matter where you live or what you do for a living. The impact of each within even a few days is substantial, and they do not require serious sacrifices. Let’s pick apart each suggestion to give some ideas as to simple application…
A circle of long-term friendships
On a deep existential level, we all seek close camaraderie that gives us access to meaningful conversation, sympathetic understanding toward issues that are personal to us, and intimate trust. Spiritually and emotionally, our enduring friendships provide us with unique joy, perspective and relief that dramatically affect our wellbeing, and consequently our immune system. Reaching out beyond our common day-to-day obligations to connect more intimately with those who mean most to us can be as simple as sharing personal quests and questions, in person, through a phone call or written exchange. That doesn’t necessarily need to be long or overly serious, but it does require sincere, attentive presence. This is particularly important during periods of intensified distress and isolation.
A sense of meaningful purpose
We were speaking at my recent workshop about the need to shrink the intimidating idea of “purpose” to a size that enables us to find the core experience within consistently accessible arenas. These are circumstances in which we find that we have something unique to offer and unquestionably value what we’re doing. Such opportunities come to us naturally throughout each day, and can be as simple as listening a little more conscientiously than normal, taking an extra moment to find and express interest or appreciation, or attending to whatever projects we’re engaging with more concentrated care. These move our thoughts and emotions away from agitating distractions and oppressive negativity, toward the life-affirming experience “I fit in here and have something valuable to do.”
Close proximity to nature
There’s some excellent information on this subject by the author and neurologist, Oliver Sacks, in his article The Healing Power of Gardens. Here’s a compelling quote: “In 40 years of medical practice, I have found only two types of non-pharmaceutical ‘therapy’ to be vitally important for patients with chronic neurological diseases: music and gardens.” Even just a brief pause within our days to breathe fresh air and attentively notice details in – or better still, tend to – a garden or park can be surprisingly relieving and rejuvenating.
Consistent physical movement
Along with dietary adjustments, even the most basic programs for immune system improvement include consistent physical movement. Find what comes naturally to you and stay with it. There are additional sources of information on this blog, including exercise videos and articles on the benefits of walking and other forms of movement. The general recommendation from authoritative medical sources, such as Harvard Medical School (“Exercising regularly…is the single most important thing you can do for your health.”), advise at least two and a half hours per week. Some of that should include cardiorespiratory exercise, which you can get through a brisk walk or other forms of aerobic activities. This will also help to maintain a healthy weight and improve quality of sleep, both vital for a fully functioning immune system.
A plant-based diet
That is, the majority of the foods we should be eating to maintain optimal health are grains, vegetables and fruits, nuts, seeds and legumes. There are numerous books and articles on the benefits of, for example, traditional diets within The Blue Zones (where people live longer, with less debilitating disease, than anywhere else on Earth) that specifically target strengthening the immune system; here’s a decent introduction. For anyone, though, even a small gesture of adjustment toward a more plant-based diet will make a noticeable difference within just some days; over time, it becomes quite consequential.
Daily rituals that alleviate stress
Many doctors and health experts, including some on the cutting edge of immunology research, have argued that chronic stress – and resulting release of high levels of cortisol and intensified inflammation – is the number one cause of a weak immune system in modern lifestyles. We can’t eliminate all stress in our day-to-day lives, but we can set aside moments to delve into rituals that help us recover a deeper sense of tranquil wellbeing. I’ve found simple meditative breathing exercises that serve to quiet thoughts and open a more viscerally graceful experience of the moment are essential rituals to incorporate into each day. With some practice, it’s possible to “drag” much of that tranquil wellbeing into the rest of the day, simply by returning to focus on quiet, slow breathing from the diaphragm, especially during transitions of all kinds and moments of heightened stress. But we all have proven rituals that we know mitigate the stresses we carry, even if temporarily, and it’s often only a matter of prioritizing these a bit more to make sure we fall into them each day.
Amidst the current atmosphere of increasing consternation and panic, there are these simple things we can do to lessen the immediate and long-term impact, for ourselves and those around us. As well as augmenting our ability to function at our best, immunologically and otherwise. It’s a good time to consider making some minor yet effective behavioral adjustments that all fall under the auspices of personal practice. On a more encouraging note, it is entirely possible to implement most or all the above suggestions at the same time and place with just a little creativity and conscious intent.