The majority of the public health strategy for dealing with widespread illnesses in general is focused on protection through vaccination and prevention, in the form of hand washing and staying home, so as to prevent these illnesses from spreading. While this is important and necessary to focus on, it is only part of the picture. The other factor to consider is our resistance and how our immune systems remain resilient in the face of this pandemic. Focusing on immune competency and capacity allows us to meet this challenge with much better resources. As COVID-19 is extremely virulent, we must consider ways we can keep ourselves as healthy as possible so that we decrease our chances of becoming ill. This is, of course, in addition to restrictions on interacting with others and washing our hands in order to prevent the virus’ spread, and in no way dismisses any of these necessary and important steps. It is through tending to both of these strategies that we keep ourselves healthy so that we can prevent an overload on our communities and health care systems and our own bodies.
With these considerations in mind, I am outlining some basic suggestions for keeping our immune systems healthy during this stressful time. None of these suggestions are in lieu of a health care professional’s advice. They come from the perspective of an herbalist focusing on the immune system and are not specific to this particular virus, though they do take it into consideration. In addition, there is no guarantee that any of these suggestions will decrease your chances of getting ill; but hopefully they are tools you can use long-term to help you remain resilient. If you do get sick, please contact your primary care practitioner.
The foundations of a healthy immune system
We always hear that we must exercise, decrease stress, eat healthy, and stay hydrated; these things are especially true when we are considering ways to stay at our peak health. It is true that a poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and high-stress lifestyle puts a strain on our bodies and immune systems and causes us to work harder to prevent illness. I often see folks not pay much attention to this advice since we hear it all of the time, so we become desensitized to it. But these pieces are the foundations of our health and are necessary to tend to. If you are one of the many people who cannot afford to eat a healthy diet, or who have stressors that you can’t eliminate (understandable, especially at this time), or have reasons you can’t move your body, take these factors into account and consider some of the other options on this list that you can utilize. It is true for so many of us that a healthy diet, exercise, and low-stress lifestyle are privileges we can’t afford. We must weigh and balance all of our options and practice a form of harm reduction to do the best we can with what we got.
Move your lymph
Our lymphatic system is a vital part of the immune system responsible for providing protection against infection. It removes waste and delivers nutrients, while shuttling white blood cells throughout the body. For this reason, it is important to keep it flowing and functioning well. There are a couple of simple ways to get our lymph moving: we can walk and we can breathe. Our lymphatic system doesn’t have a central pump that keeps it moving through the body like our cardiovascular system, but the muscles of our calves pump the lymph through the body every time we walk. Additionally, deep diaphragmatic breathing also helps keep the lymph moving. If you can get outside and get fresh air and sunshine while doing these two things (while social-distancing), you receive even more benefits.
Eat your medicine
Most of our kitchen herbs and spices are strong medicines and they are generally abundant and accessible to many. They can all be found in our gardens or at our grocery stores. They are not only tasty but many of them demonstrate antimicrobial and antiviral properties and are specific to the respiratory tract, which is strongly affected by this virus. Making pesto out of fresh herbs and putting it on everything you eat is a simple way to get this medicine into your diet. You can also make a delicious pesto from many different herbs, including combinations of basil, cilantro, parsley, sage, thyme, oregano, fennel bulb, leeks, and rosemary especially. In addition to pestos, cook them into broths, and sprinkle them on everything you eat.
Clear the air
Many types of aromatic plants not only smell nice, they also clear microbes in the air around us. You can use them in houses where folks are sick or just to keep you healthy. Do this by burning essential oils in diffusers, burning smudge sticks (please no White Sage or Palo Santo unless you have an ancestral connection), or adding essential oils to hydrosols or witch hazel and spraying them in the air. Please note that many essential oils are made from over-harvested plants so consider using oils from common kitchen plants or conifers.
This pandemic and the ensuing panic and stress has got all of our nerves frayed. Stress takes a toll on our immune systems. What keeps you calm? Taking walks? Putting your hands in the dirt? Cooking food? Taking deep breaths? Playing with your dog? Consider the tools available to you at this moment and be sure to find time for them on the daily. Sometimes it is helpful to write them down where you will see them when you are stressing out. Another thing that can help us stay calm through the day is making sure we get plenty of rest at night. When we don’t get good sleep, it can feel like our bucket has a hole in it and nothing we do can ever fill it up. Herbs such as maypop, skullcap, and motherwort can assist us to find a place of calm and rest.
Our skin is our largest organ of elimination, and sweating can be useful during this time. It also gets our circulation moving to our lungs and sinuses to help fight infection in those areas. Using herbs that can move energy to the body’s surface and help us sweat are vital right now. One easy way to do this is to drink Fire Cider. It is a folk remedy made from kitchen spices, vinegar, and honey. There are lots of great recipes online that you can make on your own for cheap. Another quick and easy option is making fresh ginger tea. Consider adding reishi and astragalus to this tea to support your immune system. Be sure to stay hydrated and replace your fluids with electrolytes. You can use store-bought packets or make your own hydrating fluids with honey, salt, and vinegar.
Gimme that Vitamin D
Vitamin D is essential to our immune system and to the health of our respiratory tract. During the winter, the sun is too low in the sky for us to effectively make Vitamin D even if we spend time outdoors in the sun. This is also the time of year that colds and flus are more common and many folks feel there is a strong correlation between the two. Here in New Orleans, it can be useful to take 5,000 IU/day of Vitamin D3 to support our immune systems. For those of us who can’t get outside at all, consider taking this amount year-round if you can.
Please remember that these suggestions are for prevention, not treatment, and never in lieu of a doctor’s advice. They are all offered through the lens of supporting our immune systems in the long term and not as a specific remedy for COVID-19. Please share these tools widely if you find them beneficial. Offer them to your neighbors. Pass along Fire Cider recipes with pals. Share the ways that you are staying calm through it all with others. Ask for help. Most of all, please remember to take care of yourself and others. Let’s remember we are only as strong as the community around us and the only way we are going to get through this is if we do it together.
illustration by Happy Burbeck