What has COVID-19 taught us about ‘getting sick’?

Focusing on strengthening our immune system will help us focus on finding something ‘upstream’ from the infection that could impact whether we get sick or can fight off the virus.

As the COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease and life moves towards a new reality with face masks, social distancing and other practices, lessons can be learned from our experience during this global pandemic. We all have had to reassess our own health and the lifestyle variables that impact our daily lives. COVID-19 clearly has escalated research into novel infectious diseases and treatment. Perhaps more important to our individual health, it has ushered in a new era of immunity research. Essentially, the coronavirus will, in the end, teach us more about our own health vulnerabilities and the effect of aging on our individual immunity and resistance to disease.

As a geriatrics specialist, I have observed the functional decline in patients that occurs with age. What has become more concerning is the rapid aging of our immune systems in younger patients.

What is immunosenescence?

The term immunosenescence refers to the slow and insidious decline of our immune system and ability to fight off infections and disease. Based on genetic factors and environmental stressors such as trauma, smoking, drug use, etc., our immune cells decline, and our bone marrow becomes exhausted. The result is increased susceptibility to common infections and rising inflammation in the body. Increased body inflammation leads to higher incidence of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease.

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Big lifestyle causes of immunosenescence

  • Weight gain
  • Poor diet
  • Lousy sleep
  • Immobility
  • Chronic stress
  • Smoking and excessive alcohol use
  • Overuse of antibiotics

In the new world of COVID-19 restrictions, it is easy to understand that an increased level of unregulated stress can unleash additional chronic inflammation that negatively impacts our brain and body functions. One example we can all understand is the trigger to eat highly processed and fatty foods with an increase of stress. This inflammatory diet leads to weight gain and promotes a poor gut biome, which creates more anxiety and physical unease. This can push you into metabolic syndrome or even Type 2 diabetes, which recharges the negative stress cycle over again. What can we do to break this cycle?

How to strengthen your immune system

  • Self-knowledge: Understand where your health is right now and the factors you can change.
  • Stress management: Learn coping strategies, from anti-stress activities to asking for professional help.
  • Weight management: Obesity is deadly and promotes unhealthy inflammation.
  • Nutrition: Strive for dietary balance and feed the good bacteria in your gut.
  • Vitamins and supplements: Vitamins A, C, D, E and B. along with folic acid, iron, selenium and zinc. are essential for “immunocompetence.”
  • Movement: Skeletal muscle movement releases myokines, which are “immunoprotective.”

We all must learn to be more introspective and regulate our own health. COVID-19 has forced us to pause and reevaluate our lifestyles and health vulnerabilities. Focusing on boosting our immune systems will help us focus on finding something “upstream” from the infection that could impact whether we get sick or can fight off the virus.

Dr. Wernert is a psychiatrist and is executive medical director of Norton Behavioral Medicine.

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