How much our world has changed over the past year. COVID-19 has claimed millions of lives and negatively impacted countless others across the globe and, unfortunately, more will be still affected. It caused a devastating crisis to health care as well as the economy. As with many other viruses, COVID-19 causes more serious disease in older people whose immune systems are weaker and those with underlying diseases such as diabetes, chronic heart or lung conditions and those on immunosuppressant medications.
Perhaps, though, there is a lesson to be learned here that could improve our lives going forward.
It is well established that our lifestyles have a tremendous impact on our immune systems and overall health.
To start, the Standard American Diet (the abbreviation for which appropriately spells “SAD”), is detrimental to our immune system through variety of mechanisms: by contributing to obesity and diabetes, by its devastating effect on gut microbiome (which is intimately connected to our immune system and brain health) and even by depriving us of healthy fats like fish oil, fiber and essential micronutrients.
High blood sugar levels are toxic to our immune system, making our white blood cells less effective in their ability to fight off bacteria and to “clean up” after the battle. Unresolved inflammation and remaining debris can trigger ongoing low-grade inflammation, increasing our risk of heart disease, dementia, arthritis, depression, and other health problems.
Overeating, which is common in our society of large portion sizes, impairs immunity as well.
A typical Western diet, which is low in fiber and high in fat, salt and sugar damages our gut microbiome, which needs plant-based fiber to thrive and which is essential for a healthy immune system. Pesticide residues, antibiotics in our food, endocrine disrupting chemicals, artificial sweeteners and chemicals either added to our food on purpose or contaminating it through packaging, devastate our microbiome, mess up with our hormones, our mood and behavior, immune system and both shorten our lives as well impair the quality of our lives.
Animal studies suggest artificial sweeteners like sucralose contribute to inflammatory bowel diseases, and with thousands of other chemicals that make it into our food it’s no wonder digestive diseases like Crohn’s disease skyrocketed along with epidemics of allergies, autoimmune diseases, obesity, diabetes and mental health disorders over the last 50 years. Our food and our environment are contributing to these epidemics.
Our immune systems are also undermined by lack of sleep, chronic stress, negative emotions, physical inactivity, lack of sunshine and lack of time spent in nature. Repairing your immune system starts with reversing some of these negative environmental factors. Here are some tips for success:
- Get a good night’s sleep (this will also benefit your brain health)
- Develop a daily practice to help you deal with stress (call a friend, go for a walk, listen to a meditation CD or sing along to your favorite song)
- Write down three things you are grateful for every day
- Tell others how much you appreciate them
- Take an online exercise class and invite your friends to join as well
- Clean up your pantry by removing foods with artificial ingredients.
It won’t take long to start reaping the benefits of this new lifestyle. Your gut microbiome will start changing right away. You might begin to feel better in a week: with more intense lifestyle changes you are likely to experience a more dramatic improvement. Imagine the possibilities after a month or a year!
Too many people have lost their lives due to COVID, but even more people continue to lose their lives or quality of life due to non-infectious diseases that could have been prevented. Change is not easy, but it is possible. There is so much to gain! If we learn together, encourage each other, support each other and change the policies protecting our food and environment, we could have much healthier and happier lives for ourselves, our children and for the generations to come.
Let’s do it together. And let’s start today.