Chinese New Year is fast approaching, and according to Hong Kong experts, the novel coronavirus has already spread to 20 other cities in China, just ahead of the country’s biggest festival. China has confirmed that this respiratory virus can be spread from human to human. Although the majority of the cases have been in Wuhan, the disease has spread to other Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Japan and Thailand have also reported confirmed cases.
Currently, there is no vaccine for the new virus. Symptoms include fever, difficulty in breathing, coughing as well as pneumonic infiltrates in the lungs.
Your immune system protects you from infectious bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that cause disease and even death. “The strength of your immune system is what determines who gets sick and who doesn’t,” explains Woodson Merrell, MD, director of integrative medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. We know that adequate sleep, regular exercise, limiting alcohol consumption and not smoking are essential to good health, but what more can we do to improve our immune system?
- Choose the right type of probiotic. Probiotics are the helpful, good bacteria in our gut that keep us healthy and provide a number of health benefits. Many people know that probiotic supplementation can help maintain a strong immune system, but what you may not know is that different strains of probiotics treat different conditions. Not all probiotics are the same, so it’s important to find the right type. A supplement with various probiotic strains including a high(er) amount of Lactobacillus rhamnosus is beneficial for boosting immunity.
- How important is vitamin D? Researchers have found that people with adequate levels of vitamin D have reduced rates of infections, and when they do get sick, they tend to recover faster compared to those who are deficient. There have been various cross-sectional studies looking at vitamin D levels and rates of influenza as well as other infections including bacterial vaginosis and HIV. All have reported an association of lower vitamin D levels and increased rates of infection. One study found that among 800 military men in Finland, those with lower vitamin D levels took significantly more days from active duty to recover from upper respiratory infections than recruits with higher vitamin D levels (above 40nmol). In Japan, a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial compared vitamin D3 supplements (1200 IU/day) with placebo in school-aged children. Researchers found that the children receiving the sunshine vitamin had a 42% reduction in getting influenza A compared to those not receiving it. The study also found that the group not getting the vitamin D had six times more asthma attacks. “Vitamin D helps your body produce a protein called cathelicidin that fights bacteria and viruses,” says Carlos Camargo, M.D., an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. In Dr. Yik’s practice, she finds that many adults and children in Hong Kong are deficient in vitamin D, regardless of how much sunshine they get. Before you start taking vitamin D supplements though, get your level checked so you can supplement at the correct dosage. Too much vitamin D puts you at a higher risk for kidney stones.
- Are you deficient in micronutrients? Micronutrient deficiencies are associated with an impaired immune response and higher incidence of infection. Deficiencies can stem from reduced food intake (due to eating disorders, dieting, etc.), excessive consumption of junk/ processed food, an imbalanced diet or impaired/ weak digestion. Zinc, selenium, iron, vitamins A, C, D, E, B6 and folic acid in particular help the immune system work properly. To ensure you are getting adequate micronutrients, eat whole foods with adequate protein, good fats and a variety of vegetables and fruits. Include immune-boosting foods such as garlic, onions, ginger, dark green vegetables, shiitake/ maitake/ reishi mushrooms and berries in your diet. If you suspect you are deficient in certain nutrients, talk to your doctor and get tested.
- Certain essential oils such as clove and eucalyptus have immune-enhancing and antimicrobial properties. Some choose to diffuse it while others use direct or indirect inhalation. For topical use, always read the labels carefully and seek a certified practitioner if unsure.
- Practice good hygiene. Wash your hands with soap after you use the toilet and before eating. Avoid touching your nose, mouth or face. Sneeze or cough into a tissue or sleeve (not your hands), or wear a mask when you are sick. Change into clean clothes when you return home.