By Stefanie Pusateri | April 2020
This COVID-19 business is terrifying stuff. Social distancing and Shelter In Place orders have drastically altered the normal pattern of our lives leaving many of us feeling helpless and hopeless. One thing we can all do to provide us with direction and assist us in the fight against the virus that is currently threatening our world is take this opportunity to understand the immune system and what we can do to support it.
What is the Immune System?
Our immune system is made of a series of organs, glands, cells and vessels. The key components of our lymphatic system are:
- Spleen – filters the blood and creates white blood cells
- Tonsils – trap bacteria and viruses that enter your mouth or nose
- Bone marrow – produce red and white blood cells and platelets
- White blood cells – destroy the germ, virus or bacteria
- Lymph vessels – transport nutrients and waste to the lymph nodes and returns clean fluid to the blood stream
- Lymph nodes – filter dead cells and other wastes out of the lymph
What Does The Immune System Do?
The immune system protects our body from disease and helps the healing process. The stronger our immune system is, the easier it is for us to fight off illness. We have cells that are specially designed to detect and destroy harmful elements like bacteria and viruses that are produced by the bone marrow, spleen and tonsils. Organs like the spleen and tonsils trap these harmful elements and once the body detects the bacteria or virus, white blood cells are sent to attack and destroy. Our body is made mostly of water and much of that water hangs out between the cells to provide nutrients and remove waste to the cells. The fluid between our cells is where all the dead cells, waste materials and nutrients hang out. The fluid between our cells (interstitial fluid) is drawn into the lymph vessels once it is full of waste material that needs to be cycled out. Once the interstitial fluid is drawn into the lymph vessels it is referred to as lymph. Lymph vessels are delicate sets of tubing that wind around the circulatory system and cycle lymph through our built in filters. Lymph vessels have little holding tanks called lymph nodes that filter lymph and move the clean fluid back into the system to surround the cells and the cycle starts all over.
In recent years the medical community has found that stress has a huge impact on immune function. The increase in chronic illness is a strong indicator of how closely related the stress response is to the strength of the immune system. In general, higher stress levels make all of our body systems work harder which drains our immune system and makes it harder for our body to protect itself. There’s a fairly new line of research called psychoneuroimmunology that focuses on the impact our perceived stress and neurological responses have on the health of our immune system. The pandemic poses as a double threat to our immune systems. COVID-19 is a challenge to our immune system and the heightened stress levels we all are experiencing serves as a significant double whammy.
What Can We Do To Keep Our Immune System Going Strong?
The four best things we can do to support our immune system is to eat good food, drink plenty of water, get a good night sleep and watch your stress levels. I’m sure you’ve heard this advice a thousand times, but I’m going to explain why these things are so important.
- Good food is what provides your body with the vitamins and nutrients it needs to kick off and maintain vital functions. Anna, our resident Health and Life Coach wrote a great article that explains how nutrition impacts immune function and provides recommendations for supportive vitamins, foods and supplements.
- Drinking plenty of water ensures that your lymph system has enough liquid in it to have lymph to filter through the system. The thickness of our blood and amount of lymph heavily relies on how much water we drink. The less water we have in our system, the more our blood and lymph resemble mud which makes it harder to move the waste-filled lymph through the filters and makes our system less efficient.
- A good night sleep is essential to our brain health. The brain doesn’t have lymph vessels to help deliver nutrients and remove waste. It relies on the recently discovered glymphatic system to clean away dead cells and other built up metabolites. The glymphatic system primarily works when we sleep. Strong sleep patterns lead to strong restorative work for our brains and better brain health and function.
- Watching your stress levels keeps your body efficient. Stress turns up the intensity on every body function and that disrupts the balance or homeostasis required for our body to work at optimal levels. Stressful thoughts trigger the production of hormones that push our bodies into overdrive. That’s okay for short bursts, but when you constantly feel like you’re under attack your body wears down, your immune system drops and you run the risk of getting sick.
How Do We Practice Healthy Behaviors During Times of Crisis?
Healthy behaviors are hard to practice on a good day, much less when the entire world has been turned upside down. I have been struggling with this myself; our office has been closed since March 21st and we aren’t scheduled to return to our clients until at least April 24th and that may change pending progress with COVID-19. Anxiety is my constant companion and working to keep my family and self calm and centered has been a struggle. Here are some things that have worked well for me to manage the madness:
- Drink water. I have a hard time drinking water, I prefer coffee. I have a favorite 24 ounce water glass that I fill up every morning and drink before I allow myself to have a cup of coffee. I have noticed that when I start my day with water I tend to drink more of it throughout the course of the day. I have also noticed my energy and mood levels are linked to my water levels; the more water I drink, the more energy I have and better mood I’m in.
- Plan your day. In these crazy times it’s easy for your entire day to disappear in a Netflix binge or to wander around your house randomly organizing and dusting and creating more of a mess in your path then you had at the start. I have accomplished both ends of this spectrum and have found it exhausting and depressing so I decided to change my approach. Every morning I spend the first 15 to 30 minutes of my day planning my activities. A set, scheduled approach makes it possible for me to get more done, feel more productive and keep the household running smoothly.
- Get creative in the kitchen. I tend to be an emotional eater so it has been tempting to use COVID-19 as an excuse to surround myself in a land of deep fried, carb-rich comfort food. I have a Sam’s Club membership and a deep freezer so what more do I need, right? Since I don’t want to end this pandemic with a list of health conditions or have to buy an entire new wardrobe I am looking at the situation as an opportunity to try new, healthy recipes. I filled my freezer with lots of vegetables and stocked my cabinets with rice, dry beans and lots of new and interesting spices. By the end of the pandemic I hope to have a whole new list of healthy recipes to keep me and my family going strong.
- Move every day. I tend to be more mentally active than physically active so getting up and moving is not something that comes easily to me. One of the first things I did when the Shelter In Place order went live was strap on my Fitbit and commit to getting at least 10,000 steps a day. I am happy to say that I’ve been successful so far and have even signed up for a 30 day yoga challenge! Exercise is not only important to keep your body limber, moving offers a subtle boost to the immune system. Our lymph vessels don’t have a pump so they rely on our muscular movements and even our breathing to keep our lymph circulating.
- Keep a sleep schedule. I have had a couple days of sleeping in as well as a couple sleepless nights during the early days of the pandemic. Pre-COVID I had a fairly regimented schedule and not having a set schedule threw me for a loop. I didn’t have a direction to my day which left me lots of time for my mind to wander and get overwhelmed. Once I committed to following my standard bedtime schedule and started planning my day, I noticed an improvement in my stamina and mood. I had direction and purpose and still left time in my day to enjoy some family time or a good book.
These uncertain times are difficult for all of us. My daughter mentioned the other day that she’s putting a fall out shelter or panic room on the top of her list when she gets to the point of house hunting. As with all things, we have a choice. We can choose to succumb to the madness of the times and spend our days in worry and misery or we can focus on the things we can control. We can see this as an opportunity to take a look at our lives and habits and decide what positive changes we can make. It is entirely possible that by the end of this pandemic many of us will eat more healthy, sleep better, move more often and can take those lessons into our post-pandemic lives. That is my goal and I hope some of the suggestions in this article will help you to join me.
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