The Covid-19 worldwide pandemic has reminded us just how important resilience and a strong immune system are. The concept of “boosting” our immune system has had a lot of press, but little attention has been paid to the deep mind-body connection that underlies a strong and resilient immune system. But what do we mean by resilience in this context? We refer to it as the ability to anticipate and adapt well to adversity or change and to sustain good health and energy when under constant or acute pressure. Resilient people feel they are in control of how they respond to events, even when they don’t control the events themselves, they choose their interpretation and response to the events.
Interestingly enough, people with more resilience tend to also be the same people who have more robust immune systems. How does that work? Long-term and chronic stress leads to persistently high cortisol levels that trigger the immune response. When levels stay elevated for long periods of time though, this causes tolerance to cortisol, thereby leaving us more susceptible to anxiety and illness. People who have high levels of resilience actively decide if and how stress impacts them, and see it as an opportunity to grow. Therefore, cultivating emotional resilience helps regulate your stress levels and keeps your immune system responsive.
An article in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2018), describes how resilient people have a different “immunophenotype” – referring to the way that specific immune genes are expressed – vs. those who are more prone to stress and inflammation. This is not about the genes themselves but about the environmental factors – like sleep, nutrition, toxins, etc. that influence which genes get turned on or off. This means that to a certain extent we have the ability to strengthen our resiliency by modifying how we think and behave.
The connection between nutrition and the immune system Many of our clients ask us what we can do to help keep their immune systems operating at an effective level. Several medical studies have identified a connection between nutrition and immunity in more senior people. Research around ‘micronutrient malnutrition’ (where a person is deficient in some essential vitamins and trace minerals) show evidence that various micronutrient deficiencies (such as zinc, selenium, iron, copper, folic acid, and vitamin A, B6, C & E) can negatively alter immune responses and weaken the immune system.
Including enough fruits and vegetables in your diet (especially ones that are high in Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and Vitamin B6) shouldn't be a surprising recommendation. The medical fraternity has been telling us for years to do this - remember the marketing campaigns various governments adopted around the '5-a-day’ recommendations? Eating foods that have high, antioxidant properties, and which can protect you against oxidative stress, such as garlic (the best way to keep people and vampires at the recommended safe COVID distance), dark coloured berries, and beetroot (which is rich in phenolic compounds and has been ranked in the top 10 most potent antioxidant vegetables) are essential foods for your daily immune-strengthening routine.
What about exercise?
There is a compelling link between exercise and the body’s immune system, and the evidence is clear that people of any age, no matter how many long-term conditions they may have, can close the fitness ‘gap’ if they undertake a regular exercise regime. This can contribute to the effectiveness of the immune system by promoting good circulation - in turn allowing cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently.
Exercise increases endorphins which help to reduce the stress hormone Cortisol - elevated levels of this hormone can reduce your ability to fight off infection - dopamine and adrenaline (and endocannabinoid which works with the immune system) - these are chemicals in the brain which are associated with feeling confident, capable, happy, less stressed and having less anxiety. All of which ensures a proper ‘brain function’ but can also support productivity, mental capacity, and overall performance.
There is also increasing evidence for improved antibody responses to flu immunization specifically in elderly adults who engage in regular exercise training regimens. So in the periods of imposed lockdown, and when gyms were closed, could this have been handled differently, especially given the positive effects of exercise on the immune system? Given all the recent press around this topic, it is definitely food for thought for current and future government policies.
But for those who think that more intensive is better, think twice. Too much intensive exercise is linked to inflammation, oxidative stress, and increased susceptibility to illness.
And last but not least.....sleep
We all have experienced the negative effect of one night of poor sleep. What we don´t realise is that it produces changes to the immune system as quickly as in the next day, and when poor sleep is chronic it suppresses immunity and increases inflammation. Poor sleep also increases stress, which in turn negatively influences immunity. So healthy living strategies are a good way to start giving your immune system the upper hand when it comes to the first line of defence and giving the body a fighting chance to defeat viruses.
What about building emotional resilience?
Being emotionally resilient means that you can acknowledge and “digest” negative emotions instead of pushing them away or being overwhelmed by them. This does not only require being aware of what you think when you think it, but it also necessitates the understanding of how you interpret situations and the ability to consciously choose how to act.
Practices that can help with this are for example
· Ask better questions When you think about the pandemic, did anything positive come out of the challenges you experienced? Despite the uncertainty into the future, what is it that you can control?
Instead of asking, “Why is this happening?” you can ask, “What now?” (focus on the action) and “What for?” (focuses on what matters) and even “What next?” (focus on the future).
· Be clear on what matters to you most Think about your top 3 values. If courage or perseverance is one of your top values, what does it look like to act with these values in mind every day? How can it transform how you experience current events? What and who are the most important in your life? What’s a meaningful activity that you’re involved in? How do these activities bring you value and meaning?
· Cultivate a growth mindset Someone with a growth mindset has the fundamental belief that human beings are designed to change and grow. With effort and experience, your brain can change, providing the perspective you need to stick with something even when faced with a challenge, mistake, or failure. Ask questions as: What can I learn, who can I learn from? Where can I ask for help/support? What other strategies/skills can I try? What do you value about yourself that you bring to difficult situations? These are strengths people have in service of things they care about.
· Practice gratitude Our brain releases serotonin and dopamine (the “happiness chemicals”) when we express or receive gratitude. With a daily gratitude practice, the neuropathways of the two areas of the brain responsible for regulating emotions and memory get stronger, resulting in more sustained feelings of contentment. For example, pause for a moment as you get out of bed and think about what you are grateful for. That simple act sets you up to move through your day with balance and perspective.
You have a lot more control over your health and happiness than you account for. Resilience is like training a muscle, you have to do the work, consistently. Challenge and change are a normal part of life. The question is, will you thrive or cope? We count on you doing the first - thrive.
Jacqueline van Paassen & Iain Bainbridge