At this point, it appears as if the COVID-19 pandemic won’t be going away until sometime next year, which means we all need to take good care of our bodies, and our immune health in particular.
We've examined the most basic ways to boost your immune system in great detail, but here are five lesser-known and less-publicized ways to do it.
5 Lesser-Known Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Meditation is one of the best things you can do to counteract chronic stress. And since stress weakens the immune system, one would expect meditation to be beneficial to immune function — and it is. Meditation reduces chronic inflammation and improves the body’s ability to counteract infections. This is partly due to direct effects of meditation, but meditation also helps you sleep better, which in itself boosts your immune system.
A good meditation practice only takes a few minutes per day. In many cases, people are encouraged to meditate for 10-20 minutes per day, often split into two shorter morning and evening sessions. However, you can meditate effectively in as little as 2 minutes per day.
#2: Consume Ginseng
Ginseng belongs to a class of supplements known as adaptogens, which purportedly help the body regulate its stress and arousal levels. The scientific consensus is that “adaptogen” is a misleading term: Supplements don’t have whatever effect you need at any given time. Regardless, there is strong evidence that ginseng lowers stress and supports stronger immune function.
"Ginseng regulates each type of immune cells, including macrophages, natural killer cells, dendritic cells, T cells, and B cells," one study noted. Another experimental study observed that "red ginseng extract significantly increased the number of white blood cells, especially T and B lymphocytes, and antibody-forming cells in the spleen and thymus, and it also activated a number of immune cell subtypes.”
This may be, in part, because ginseng makes people feel calmer. It also improves sleep, particularly for travelers who are sleeping somewhere new. Ginseng also has some cognitive and libido benefits that aren’t particularly relevant here.
The standard dose of ginseng is 200-400 mg once per day, with a supplement that contains 2-3 percent ginsenosides.
#3: Eat Garlic, or Take Garlic Extract
Beyond warding off vampires, garlic has a surprising number of health benefits that aren’t well-known. It lowers total and LDL cholesterol while raising HDL cholesterol. It also lowers blood pressure and reduces arterial stiffness. But for immunity purposes, what’s really important is that garlic is incredibly effective at reducing the risk of respiratory infections. Taking garlic extract reduces the frequency of colds by more than half, and reduces the length of colds when they do occur. It also reduces the severity of cold and flu symptoms. This appears to be because garlic boosts the function of natural killer cells, and certain types of T cells and white blood cells in the immune system.
It's important to note that garlic’s high effectiveness against colds and the flu doesn't necessarily translate to COVID-19, since COVID-19 mainly affects the lower respiratory tract, whereas colds and the flu mainly affect the upper respiratory tract. That said, they are at least distantly related and have some cross-immunity. Furthermore, the worst cases of COVID-19 often involve superinfection with colds, the flu, or bacteria. As such, the distinction between protecting against COVID-19 and protecting against other diseases is a bit fuzzy.
You can get your garlic from pills, or, of course, by eating actual garlic. Either way, extremely high doses can be toxic. If you choose to eat garlic, consume about 5-15 grams per day. (This equates to 2-3 garlic cloves for the typical small garlic bulb.) Microwaving garlic can damage or destroy the beneficial component, but grilling, roasting, or frying it are fine.
If you choose to supplement, take an odorless or aged garlic extract — the aging doesn’t make it more effective, but it does make it less smelly — dosed at 600-1200 mg per day, either once a day or split into 2-3 smaller doses with food.
#4: Use Blue Light to Control Your Circadian Rhythm
Blue light — sky blue, specifically – acts as a zeitgeber, something that helps your brain set its internal clock. As such, you can manipulate blue light to help you sleep better. First, getting more blue light in the morning helps you have more energy during the day and fall asleep more easily at night. You can get that either from a blue light-emitting device, or just by taking a morning walk.
Secondly, blocking out blue light for the last hour or two before bed helps you sleep better, because blue light suppresses melatonin production. You can either block blue light by wearing orange glasses, or prevent its emission in the first place by using sleep modes on your devices, or a free app called f.lux.
Sleeping better, of course, strengthens the immune system, and sleep appears to be specifically important for immunological memory. Just as your brain needs sleep to consolidate memories, your immune system needs it to “learn” to fight specific pathogens.
#5: Stay Positive
It’s no secret that positivity is good for your health. People who stay positive live longer. There are many reasons for this, including reduced stress and more motivation to take positive action in your life. But positivity and happiness also have beneficial effects on the immune system. Mirthful laughter, specifically, decreases stress and increases the activity of natural killer cells.
So, prioritize happiness, fun, and relaxation, as well as social interaction. That may mean phone calls or online video games right now, but do what you can. Bottom line: Keep having fun.