We are all looking for ways to protect our families and ourselves from COVID-19. Currently, the only defense from this extremely contagious virus is prevention: wash your hands often, wear a mask, don’t touch your face, practice social distancing, avoid crowds, and stay at home as much as possible. Should you or a family member become ill, a robust immune system is key to overcoming any illness. Now is a good time to strengthen our immune systems by focusing on the basics of a healthy lifestyle.
The Immune System
Our immune system is a complex network of cells, organs, proteins, and tissues that work together to protect us from foreign invaders, such as viruses, bacteria, parasites, cancer cells, harmful germs, and toxins. A properly functioning immune system removes foreign invaders from the body and clears the infection.
Some people have weakened immune systems that put them at higher risk of illness. This includes people with certain medical conditions like diabetes, liver or kidney disease, and HIV/AIDS. People who have an autoimmune disease or are receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy are also at increased risk. In older people, the immune system may respond more slowly and less effectively to prevent infection.
Adequate sleep, good nutrition, and regular physical exercise are the basics of a healthy lifestyle. Focus on these to strengthen your immune system.
Make Sleep a Priority
Too little sleep can cause health issues and weaken the immune system. Go to the Sleep Foundation’s website at Sleep.org to find out how much sleep each family member needs. Experts recommend the following:
Make sleep a priority.
Develop relaxing bedtime rituals for your children and yourself.
Keep a consistent sleep schedule, even on weekends.
Turn off screens well before bedtime and keep devices out of the bedroom.
To help identify problems that need to be addressed, keep a sleep diary if sleep is an issue.
Be Intentional About Your Family’s Nutrition
Planning and preparing meals for a family is hard but critically important work. Don’t leave your family’s nutrition to chance. Be intentional about the food they eat. Our body needs a wide variety of nutrients in adequate amounts to maintain health and support the immune system.
A useful resource is the USDA’s website ChooseMyPlate. There you can calculate daily calorie requirements, see daily recommended amounts for each food group, then get resources to make an eating plan for your family. Kids will enjoy using the MyPlate app to help build healthy eating habits and earn fun badges. The website offers printable coloring sheets, a word scramble game, and videos for kids.
Involve your children in meal planning and food preparation. Not only will this help them improve their knowledge of nutrition in the short term, it will help build a foundation of proper meal planning and cooking skills for a healthy future. The ChooseMyPlate website has cooking videos designed to teach kids simple recipes.
Another way to improve nutrition is to eliminate junk food from your family’s diet as much as possible. Sugary, processed, and over-salted foods crowd out foods that build health. Junk foods are a primary cause of obesity and health problems. Teach your children to read food labels. Make a grocery store game out of comparing grams of sugar in snack foods. Take the total grams of sugar and divide it by 5 to calculate teaspoons. Fifteen grams of sugar may not sound like a lot, but it’s equivalent to 3 teaspoons of sugar. That’s half of the daily recommendation.
Many nutrients promote the normal functioning of the immune system. Some of these are prebiotics and probiotics, protein, zinc, B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids, and antioxidant-rich foods. Be sure your family’s diet includes foods that contain these nutrients. Before taking any supplements, consult a registered dietician or your healthcare provider.
Meet Physical Exercise Targets
Physical activity supports the immune system and improves cardiovascular health. Research has shown that exercise can reduce inflammation in the body and delay the onset of age-related immune system function decline.
Kids and teens should be active for at least 60 minutes every day. Adults need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity (or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity) each week. Walking is one easy way to get the physical activity your family needs. Remember to keep a safe distance of at least 6 feet between your family and other people while walking outside.
Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer based in Austin, TX.