by Jenny Lelwica Buttaccio
There’s little doubt that those of us with persistent symptoms of Lyme disease or coinfections have immune systems that have gone haywire somewhere along the line. Whether our bodies have been bombarded with die-off from stealth pathogens or are busy coping with mold mycotoxins or autoimmune reactions, an out-of-sync immune system can make you feel miserable.
For those reasons and more, restoring immune function is a top priority when it comes to recovering from chronic illness. The problem, however, is that the more we add to the list of things we should do to improve our health, the more we tap into our already limited resources — whether they be financial, emotional, physical, or all of the above. Oftentimes, adding even one more item to the to-do list feels overwhelming.
But here’s some good news: Boosting your immune system and improving function can be simple, affordable, and time-efficient if you know how and where to focus your energy. The following are six of the most cost-effective ways to bolster your immune system without spending a fortune or draining you emotionally or physically. Plus, they’ll help you feel more rested and restored — two crucial factors when trying to get well.
1. Start Meditating.
As more patients desire an integrative approach to treating chronic illness, meditation has become a popular recommendation from many healthcare providers to assist with healing. And for good reason: Meditation has been shown to help restore immune function in a number of ways, including:
- Facilitating a mind-body connection
- Reducing stress
- Improving symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Mitigating the nervous system’s overactive flight-or-fight response
- Fostering a sense of calm
- Positively impacting the immune system
Though science has yet to pinpoint the exact mechanisms by which meditation acts upon the immune system, researchers believe that it may have to do with an improved ability to self-regulate your emotions, gain more awareness of your personal values, and increase mental flexibility, according to a review in OBM Integrative and Complementary Medicine.
Ultimately, meditation may allow people mental space to process negative emotions and experiences without judgment; to break harmful, habitual patterns; and to choose more beneficial responses to undesirable situations while simultaneously minimizing stress and overwhelm. And in turn, reducing stress and creating a more positive mindset can reduce inflammatory chemicals like cytokines, and switch on parts of the brain connected to your immune response.
So how do you get started? Online guided meditation apps like The Mindfulness App, Headspace, Calm, and Stop, Breathe & Think can be a great way to get the ball rolling. Plus, most apps have free and paid options. If you have Lyme symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, or difficulty concentrating, or if you’re simply new to meditation, don’t set an unrealistic time goal — start by trying a few minutes once or twice a week. As your health and strength improve and you grow more comfortable in your meditation practice, you can slowly increase the time to optimize immune function.
2. Add Economical Herbs.
For thousands of years, herbs have been used for their ability to boost and support immune function, especially adaptogenic herbs.
“The phytochemistry of adaptogens counteracts all the stress factors that weaken our immune systems,” says Dr. Bill Rawls, MD, Medical Director of RawlsMD and Vital Plan. The top stress factors on his list:
- A poor diet that’s predominantly processed foods
- Environmental toxins
- Chronic stress
- A sedentary lifestyle
- Microbes that weaken the immune system and disrupt communications between immune cells.
To help minimize the damage of these stress factors, Dr. Rawls turns to the following adaptogenic herbs based on their affordability, accessibility, and efficacy:
A mildly stimulating herb, rhodiola enhances both cardiovascular and immune function and protects nerve and brain tissue. It’s most often sourced from Siberia, but it can grow around the world, too.
Reishi contains both immune-supporting and antiviral properties. It reduces inflammatory cytokines, improves energy levels, and helps the body respond to pathogens more effectively.
Native to Tibet, cordyceps is a fungal species that grows on a specific type of caterpillar. In addition to bolstering immune function, the herb helps to combat fatigue, inflammation, and cellular damage.
This herb has traditionally been used in Ayurveda, a system of medicine that comes from India. Ashwagandha helps restore balance to the HPA axis in the brain, enhance the immune system, fight fatigue, and quell inflammation.
Bear in mind that when you use herbs to support immune function, it won’t be a quick fix like you might expect from medication. “Adaptogenic herbs that provide immune support work very differently than drugs,” says Dr. Rawls. “By countering the stress factors that disrupt immune system functions, the immune system can better do its job of clearing debris and waste that compromises cellular function, managing the microbiome, and promoting optimal healing.”
3. Head Outdoors.
Taking a moment to breathe in some fresh air and let the sun shine on your face can certainly perk you up for a few hours. But can being outdoors really enhance your immune system? The answer appears to be yes.
For starters, the vitamin D your body produces from exposure to sunlight can improve immune function. Plants and trees also release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the air called phytoncides that may have some antimicrobial properties, according to a study in Environmental Health and Preventative Medicine. These compounds, such as alpha-pinene and beta-pinene, may boost your body’s natural killer (NK) cells to help fight infections.
Ideally, you should aim to spend at least 20 minutes outside each day to give your body the disease-fighting surge it needs. If you don’t have 20 minutes to spare, do what works for you and your lifestyle. Any time spent with Mother Nature is better than no time at all.
4. Place Plants in Your Home.
If you’re struggling to find the time or energy to go outdoors, you can still avail yourself of nature’s potential immune-boosting properties by bringing a bit of it to you in the form of indoor plants. A research review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggests that indoor plants could have a positive effect on physical ailments.
In one study, researchers examined the impact of office plants on 51 healthy office workers from a Norwegian oil company over two years. They noted that the workers in offices that contained foliage reported a decrease in bothersome physical symptoms like dry skin, hoarse throat, coughing, and fatigue. The review pointed to other, similar health benefits in studies when indoor foliage was introduced to office and classroom spaces, suggesting that adding plants to an indoor space could improve overall health and lessen the occurrence of illness.
If you’re not an expert in caring for plants, no problem. Plants like succulents, cacti, aloe, and lavender are low-effort, requiring minimal maintenance, and they can thrive indoors — just add an occasional watering and some sunlight, and you’re all set.
5. Eat Immune-Boosting Foods
When it comes to which diet is right for Lyme disease, there’s no shortage of opinions out there. But no matter what diet you choose, certain nutrients help fortify your immune system and give it the best chance to fend off unwanted pathogens.
Here are the top nutrients to load up on, and in the spirit of cost-effectiveness, you’ll notice that many of the recommended food sources contain multiple nutrients.
Vitamin C aids in wound healing and tissue repair, and it combats oxidative stress.
Food sources: When you think of vitamin C, your mind probably goes directly to citrus fruits, and fruits like oranges and lemons are indeed great sources of C. But there are other foods rich in this antioxidant, including spinach, bell peppers, broccoli, kale, and strawberries..
This mineral performs several important jobs for the body: It assists in making DNA and protein, aids in wound healing, and supports the health of the immune system by regulating inflammation.
Food sources: Animal proteins, nuts, legumes (like chickpeas, beans, and lentils), and seeds (especially hemp, pumpkin, squash, and sesame seeds) are all high in zinc.
Vitamin A is an antioxidant, and it enhances the function of the immune system. You can recognize foods that are rich in vitamin A because they are often brightly colored.
Food sources: Carrots, sweet potatoes, spinach, broccoli, and pumpkin are all top picks from the bright category. Other options include fish, beef liver, and cod liver oil.
Like the other vitamins on this list, vitamin E is an antioxidant, and it assists with immune health and various metabolic processes in the body.
Food sources: Add nuts, seeds, avocados, spinach, or broccoli to your diet to get vitamin E’s help in defending against infections and free radicals.
Selenium is a trace mineral, which means it’s present in small amounts in your body. It’s also an antioxidant, and it helps the body defend against viruses, which tend to be extra challenging when you’re fighting chronic Lyme disease.
Food sources: Selenium-rich foods include eggs, brazil nuts, fish, cashews, and garlic, among others.
6. Get Enough Sleep.
We all know we’re supposed to get a full eight hours of sleep to keep our immune systems strong, but you might be surprised how quickly you experience the repercussions of a bad night’s rest: One study showed that when healthy individuals were deprived of sleep between the hours of 3 AM and 7 AM, their immune systems’ NK cells took a significant hit the following day.
The good news is, that dip in NK cells was short-lived. When participants resumed their regular sleep habits, their NK cell activity returned to their baseline level of functioning. Even so, this study underscores the importance of prioritizing sleep every night if you want to maintain strong immune function.
If you find yourself in a vicious cycle of poor sleep night after night, be sure to take steps to set yourself up for success, including:
- Give yourself time to unwind before bed with a low-key activity like reading a book, taking a relaxing bath, or doing gentle yoga.
- Try your best to avoid light from screens after 9 PM, as the blue light from electronic devices can inhibit your body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
- Create an environment that’s conducive to slumber: Don a light-blocking sleep mask, set the bedroom thermostat to between 60℉ and 67℉ (the ideal temperature range for sleeping), and ensure you have a comfortable mattress to help you drift off at bedtime and wake up feeling refreshed.
If you can’t do everything on this list all at once, that’s okay. Start with one (Dr. Rawls recommends adaptogenic herbs as the best place to begin), and build from there as you can. Taking steps to fortify your immune system is the most important thing you can do to speed your recovery from chronic Lyme, and to protect yourself from other additional viral and bacterial illnesses that can wear down your immune health and slow healing even more.
Dr. Rawls is a physician who overcame Lyme disease through natural herbal therapy. You can learn more about Lyme disease in Dr. Rawls’ new best selling book, Unlocking Lyme.
You can also learn about Dr. Rawls’ personal journey in overcoming Lyme disease and fibromyalgia in his popular blog post, My Chronic Lyme Journey.
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6. Vitamin A. MedlinePlus website. https://medlineplus.gov/vitamina.html
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8. Vitamin E. MedlinePlus website. https://medlineplus.gov/vitamine.html
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