When patients come into my office concerned about Covid-19, what I tell them is that although Covid-19 is primarily a respiratory illness, it seems that there is plenty of evidence showing that the status of your gut health (and gut microbiome) matters when it comes to fighting off this virus.
As someone who’s been studying gut health for years, this comes as no surprise! Gut health and immunity are intricately connected. So today, as we head into the holiday season — a time of year when our immune systems can really take a hit — let’s talk about habits you can adopt to protect your immune system from Covid-19 and all the other germs out there ready to threaten your health.
Holiday Habits That Weaken Your Immune System
I think we can all admit that the holidays are typically a rough time for our guts. There are holiday parties and big family meals, pies and cookies, and no shortage of holiday-themed cocktails and seasonal sugary, dairy-filled coffee drinks. Unfortunately, this can put our immune system at risk. How, you ask? Well, a recent study perfectly illuminates how our gut and immune systems are connected. Published in the British Medical Journal , the study collected blood and stool samples from 100 patients who had a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the last 30 days. Then, the researchers used something called “shotgun sequencing” to extract DNA from the samples to analyze the community of bacteria living in the stool.
After analyzing the samples, the data showed that patients with Covid-19 had a significantly altered gut microbiome composition — including a lack of immunomodulating bacteria like
Faecalibacterium prausnitzii, Eubacterium rectale
, and several bifidobacterial species
compared to those without a Covid-19 diagnosis. Next, the researchers looked at the samples from patients with a severe case of Covid-19 and compared them to those with a mild case. The comparison showed that those with severe Covid-19 had elevated concentrations of inflammatory cytokines and other inflammatory markers, such as C reactive protein.
So what does this all mean? First of all, it’s a groundbreaking shift in our understanding of immunity and infections. The status of your gut bacteria can potentially affect the progression of an infectious disease. Again, it’s what I’ve been saying since the beginning — what truly matters is the gut terrain. It also means that it’s important to do what you can to protect your gut.
Unfortunately, the holidays offer up many temptations that can be rough on our gut health. That means they can also be rough on our immune systems. In fact, these 5 holiday habits weaken immunity every single year:
5 Holiday Habits That Weaken Your Immune System
1. Holiday stress
The holidays are often portrayed as a perfect time of year filled with nothing but wonder and joy, but the truth is they often mean packed schedules, long lines, and tons of travel. This holiday stress can be hard on you mentally but it can also be tough physically. In fact, some experts think that as much as 90% of all illnesses and diseases are caused by stress.
2. Loss of sleep
The holidays can be bad news for our ability to get our ZZZ’s. We’re talking long plane and car rides, noise, jet lag, and late-night eating, and other activities that can all throw our sleep cycle out of whack. Lack of sleep is like getting on the fast track to a cold; in fact, one study showed that people who skimp on sleep are four times more likely to get a cold.
3. Poor dietary choices
It’s not just that the alcohol, dairy, and sugar can add up, it’s also the lack of fruits and vegetables that puts your immune system at risk. Fruits and veggies contain nutrients like vitamin C, which can help strengthen your body’s phagocytes and T-cells — two types of immune cells that are key to preventing sickness. And eating more fruits and veggies isn’t easy this time of year! Many of us feel pressure to eat everything on our plate, or like we’re being rude if we want to focus on veggie and fruit dishes.
4. Too much alcohol
From champagne to eggnog to Irish coffee, booze is a big part of holiday parties. Unfortunately, alcohol can put a damper on our immune system as well as the following morning. One study showed how alcohol disrupts the functioning of the upper airways and immune cells, which is why respiratory infections tend to affect drinkers more severely than non-drinkers.
5. Lack of exercise
You might think that exercise makes it easier to get sick (You don’t want to run yourself ragged, right?) but the truth is, getting your blood pumping may actually help flush bacteria from the lungs reducing your chances of getting sick. In addition, the rise in body temperature that occurs during exercise can prevent bacteria and viruses from growing. Staying sedentary over the holidays is one reason why many of us start the year with a cold.
How to Have a Health(ier) Holiday
5 Easy Fixes for an Immune-Healthy Holiday
1. Skip Breakfast
Intermittent fasting is a great way to give your body a mini reset in the midst of big holiday meals. And all you really have to do is skip breakfast. By leaving a longer gap between dinner and your first meal the next day, you can reduce inflammation — studies show that intermittent fasting reduces inflammation and improves inflammatory disease — and give your gut the rest it needs to repair itself from the damage done by stress and poor dietary choices.
2. Do a 20-minute HIIT workout
As we just learned, staying sedentary can have pretty big consequences when it comes to fighting off germs and bacteria. The good news is that you don’t need to spend an hour at the gym, run a marathon, or buy a bunch of fancy workout gear to combat this! Instead, a quick high-intensity workout like a 20-minute HIIT workout will do the trick. Try this no-impact, zero-equipment 20-minute HIIT workout .
3. Try extended-release melatonin
If you’re changing time zones or having trouble sleeping in a new environment, a melatonin supplement can be a great place to turn. It helps the body get into stage 4 sleep — the most restorative stage — which helps boost your immune system. I recommend trying an extended-release formula, which releases melatonin slowly throughout the night so you don’t wake up or toss and turn. Start with 1 to 3 milligrams one hour before bedtime.
4. Fill up on vegetable dishes first
You grab a plate, and you’re ready to sit down for a delicious holiday meal…. what do you put on your plate first? If your first answer is meat, bread, or other similar dishes, can I propose an alternative? One of my best strategies for a healthier holiday is to stock your plate with the veggie dishes first; that way, you aren’t missing out on healthy antioxidants and fiber that helps fill you up without feeling stuffed.