The importance of your immune system in fighting COVID-19 and how to keep it healthy


Your immune system works 24/7, whether it’s offering you protection from the Coronavirus, a common cold or even pink eye. On the whole, it does a pretty good job, but sometimes it fails: a germ invades successfully and makes you sick.

Brand SA, Play Your part ambassador Dr Michael Mol and his colleague Dr Karen Heath shares insights on how to strengthen your immune system.

So what makes up our immune system and what is best way of keeping yours healthy?
Your immune system is an intricate network of cells, tissues, and organs that band together to defend your body against foreign invaders – things like germs, viruses and bacteria. A healthy immune system protects you by creating a barrier that stops those invaders from entering your body. If one happens to slip by, it starts to produce white blood cells and other chemicals that attack and destroy these foreign substances. If your immune system can’t get rid of the invader before it starts to reproduce, it simply revs up even more to destroy the invaders as they multiply.

In addition to blood cells and chemicals that physically attack germs, your skin, lungs, digestive tract, saliva and tears are also all involved in the immune response. That’s why washing you hands and not touching your face are so important too.

Is it really possible to BOOST your immunity?
Simply put, there is no quick fix when it comes to suddenly boosting your immunity and there is no supplement nor food that will suddenly strengthen it. The single best way to keep yourself, and your immune system, healthy is to choose a healthy lifestyle. What this does is offers support to your immune system and allows it to get on with its job of keeping invaders out, instead of trying to sort out other health problems.

What about loading up on Vitamin C or zinc to prevent COVID-19?
Nutritional compounds like vitamin C, antioxidants and zinc do work with your immune system and help it function more effectively, but the truth is that if you are already eating a balanced diet, the evidence and research don’t promote the need to take more. So the simple answer here is: eat well. Reduce your intake of highly processed and sugary foods, and increase your intake of fresh, healthy ones. If you enjoy foods touted as immune boosters, there’s no harm in eating them as part of a balanced diet, but don’t assume that’s all you need to do, and don’t neglect supported health advice, like washing your hands and not touching your face.

What other healthy lifestyle habits support a healthy immune system?
Sleep is good for everything – but it’s an undercover superstar when it comes to immunity, and there are two reasons for that. First, stress hormones dip while you’re asleep – that’s important because these hormones dampen your immune response. Second, a good night’s sleep boosts the effectiveness of specialised immune cells, called T-cells. T-cells are in charge of recognising foreign invaders and activating the proteins that attach to, and kill them. It works so well in fact that studies have found that people who sleep for less than 7 hours a night are around 3 times more likely to catch a cold than those sleeping for 8 hours or more.

Is keeping stress in check also important?
Stress decreases the number of white blood cells that help fight off infection. The lower this level, the more at risk you are for infection. And this is where exercise comes in! Exercise delivers a double whammy to your immune system. It slows the release of stress hormones, while at the same time improving natural immune defence activity.

Does any kind of exercise help?
Anything that gets your heart pumping helps! Your immune system responds almost immediately to exercise… so I would definitely make use of the daily exercise window. That said, exercising vigorously for all 3 hours of it may just do the opposite. Very high intensity and exhaustive training workloads are linked to a drop in immunity.

What could you do today to help support your immune system?
Focussing on a healthy diet, sleeping well and moving more are the 3 cornerstones to a healthy immune system. But a positive mindset is equally as important. Research shows that positive thoughts reduce stress and inflammation and increase resilience to infection, while negative emotions can make you more susceptible to the common cold and flu. So I think its important that we try to keep that in mind as we face the many unknowns of the lockdown and deal with all of its frustrations, including limited exercise windows, shopping restrictions and of course… home schooling!

Dr Michael Mol is a Play Your Part ambassador, and the founder of Hello Doctor SA.