By Zach Columbia B.S. NASM. FPT.
With the recent outbreak of COVID-19 and the horror stories promoted by the media, we all seem to be questioning the ability of our immune systems these days. If you regularly watch the news, you’re probably thinking that if you were to encounter the virus, you would immediately be infected. While, the infection rate of the novel coronavirus is still uncertain, I will go out on a limb and tell you that when all is said and done, we’ll discover that the infection rate is not 99.999% like some Will Smith Zombie movie. Why? Because surviving is what our bodies were designed to do, and we have this brilliant operating system in our bodies called the immune system. So, let’s take a closer look at your immune system and the body’s ability to ward off harmful bacteria and viruses.
Before we dive in, let’s consider what happens to our bodies when we workout.
When someone begins working out, very little exercise and stress creates a great deal of micro-tears within the muscle fibers. We recognize this simply through soreness. However, with proper training, recovery, and nutrition our bodies quickly adapt, become stronger and what once created a great deal of soreness, doesn’t even produce a response from our operating system. Our bodies are actually designed to adapt to stress in this way and become more and more resilient to outside stressors. This process is called stress inoculation.
The immune system is really the operating system of the body. The goal of our bodies is homeostasis. It constantly desires and works to achieve perfect balance. The reality is, our environment and simply living for that matter, requires responses from our body to maintain balance and homeostasis. Our systems are constantly coming in to contact with bacteria, viruses, and impurities that all cause immune responses. It would obviously be impossible to escape these microbes and in reality; we wouldn’t want too.
Stress inoculation is good for our bodies.
When stress is placed on the body, our neurons release Neuropeptide – Y (NPY). NPY supports the body in achieving homeostasis. Much like lifting weights and running helps our bodies become stronger and more resilient, the same chemical response occurs in our bodies when exposed to viruses and bacteria. Your mother may not have known the physiological response that was occurring, but she was essentially practicing stress inoculation by letting you play in the mud when you were a child.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that you should intentionally go out and expose yourself to harmful microorganisms. Life does enough of that for us already. What I am saying, is that natural exposure to bacteria and viruses is just that… natural, and our immune system becomes stronger and more resilient each time we encounter a threatening microbe. There are however a few caveats to that.
One of the most important aspects of achieving homeostasis and supporting the immune system is the same as with a proper training program, REST!
We know that if a training program doesn’t allow for recovery, the body will eventually be unable to keep up with the demands being placed on it. Instead of growing stronger, “overtraining” as we call it, will cause the muscles to weaken, breakdown, and become more susceptible to injury. This same principle applies to our immune system and our ability to achieve homeostasis. In other words, it makes us stronger and actually healthier when we’re exposed to harmful bacteria or viruses from time to time. However, our body needs time to respond, bringing us back to homeostasis before being exposed to another harmful microorganism. If we are exposed to too many threats all at once or before our body can recover, the likelihood of becoming sick and symptomatic drastically increases.
Another important aspect of being able to achieve homeostasis, is the same as our ability to see results in the gym, NURTITION.
A poor diet is a double whammy. Not only does a poor diet fail to provide our bodies with critical vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients, but it also over-stresses the immune system. Lacking essential micro and macronutrients pulls our bodies out of a state of homeostasis and distracts our immune system, making us more susceptible to invading microbes. Without getting into too much detail, I feel like it’s important to mention here that “Proper Nutrition” when it comes to your immune systems depends a great deal on your genetic makeup. Sure, there are standards, like eating vegetables and avoiding sweets, but immunity differs widely from individual to individual when it comes to necessary vitamins and minerals. A simple example would be Vitamin D requirements of a light-skinned individual vs. a dark-skinned individual. Those with a darker complexion do not absorb vitamin d from the sun as easily as someone with lighter skin tone. Therefore, diet and/or supplementation would be different respectively to support a healthy immune system.
Ultimately, the greatest threat to our health is not infectious disease, rather it is our immune system’s ability to maintain homeostasis. The human body was designed to fight off and protect from harmful microorganisms, if it were not so, the human race would have died off a long time ago. It’s been proven that past pandemics and widespread health issues were mostly enabled by some underlying cause like unclean water, poor hygiene, insufficient nutrients, heavy metals and toxins, etc.
Unfortunately, the current COVID-19 crisis, just like every other harmful bacteria or virus known to man is taking advantage of those with poor immune systems. We see those hit hardest have underlying health issues, are overweight (i.e. poor nutrition), or are overly stressed. When I say stress, I’m really talking about any thing that creates a stress response in the body. Not getting enough sleep creates a stress response. A poor diet creates a stress response. Being overworked creates a stress response. Being exposed to pollution, toxins, and endocrine disruptors all create a stress response… I think you get the idea. The problem is that these stress responses do not help make us stronger. Why? Because the body is not given adequate down time to return to homeostasis and/or are required for proper function. Someone who is overweight is constantly overweight, meaning the stress will continue to be there. Someone who doesn’t get enough sleep is preventing their body from functioning properly.
So, what can we conclude from a little bit better understanding of the immune system?
Well it’s pretty straightforward. A strong immune system relies on our body’s ability to maintain a state of homeostasis. Taking care of ourselves and having healthy habits both support homeostasis and enhance our resilience to threatening microorganisms. If you lead a healthy lifestyle, get plenty of sleep, exercise, eat right, and take your supplements, your body will do what it was designed to do.
In conclusion, people like to preach about focusing on what you can actually control. Coming in contact with harmful bacteria and viruses is not one of them. It is literally impossible, no matter how much Clorox you horde. What you can control, is how capable your immune system is going to be in resisting those harmful bacteria and viruses. Focus on your health, don’t be foolish, and trust your immune system.
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