If there is one thing that became clear in 2020, it’s how interconnected every aspect of our health is. Poor sleep habits can increase stress, and stress can lead to poor sleep. Our diet and gut health are interwoven with our nervous system, mood and mental well-being. And inflammation directly relates to how our immune system functions.
Left unchecked, these seemingly small interactions can lead to more-chronic conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity. In the case of COVID-19, those living with such conditions or comorbidities do not typically fare well. Yet when we understand how these interactions—such as inflammation and immunity—work to help the body look after itself, we can strive to keep them in balance.
“Inflammation is an important way that the immune system helps the body to heal,” explains Ashley Boudet, N.D., co-founder of the Vegan Fusion Culinary Academy in Boulder, Colo. “Inflammation is really important, even though most of the time it seems bad.”
A key role of inflammation is to defend the immune system by acting as a biological response to harmful stimuli such as bacteria, toxins and pathogens coming into the body through food or the environment. It is also a response to trauma and damaged cells. Ultimately, inflammation is the immune system’s mechanism to handle these threats and help the body return to a state of homeostasis. But if your body continually encounters threats, inflammation can become chronic and lead to a number of diseases.
“We live in a challenged environment with pollution in the air, a level of stress, and foods processed in a way that can be perceived in some bodies as a threat. When we are exposed to such threats, our body sends a 911 response,” Boudet says. In the case of an injury, the body sends blood and white blood cells to the area needing repair. But when there are constant threats, the body is having to send more immune cells to the rescue, which creates a state of stressful response and inflammation. Hormones such as cortisol are meant to be anti-inflammatory, but they lose their effect when they are on overdrive.
“Cortisol is the fight-or-flight hormone. When our body is stimulated to make a lot of that, it keeps us going through the day, but it’s the opposite of being able to heal,” says Boudet, adding that when we oversecrete cortisol, it can lead to chronic inflammation.
Reaching a Parasympathetic State
To heal, Boudet explains, we have to move away from the inflammatory response, from a sympathetic state that produces cortisol to a parasympathetic state, in which we can be calm and composed. In this state, the body is working at its best.
The brain can learn, food is fully digested, and our immune system works as it should. Although we continually cycle through sympathetic and parasympathetic states, we are more often than not in a sympathetic state, Boudet says, because in today’s world, there is almost always something our body is responding to. “When we are constantly reacting, there is less energy in the body to confront a viral or bacterial infection. The body just can’t heal, because it is preoccupied with continuous inflammation,” she says.
Although we often focus on strengthening the immune system, Boudet says the priority should be to reduce inflammation or lessen the toxic load that is causing the body to react so constantly. Boudet stresses the importance of eating a healthy, nutrient-rich diet and getting enough sleep and exercise. “Get out in nature, laugh, get rest, and take downtime seriously. Move a little,” she says.
In addition, Boudet recommends the following natural supplements to keep inflammation in check.
Supplements for Inflammation
A large body of research attests to the importance of having enough vitamin C in the body to support a balanced immune system. It has been shown to quell inflammation and lessen the duration of a cold. “Vitamin C is huge for the immune system. It works on the cellular level. It is an antioxidant that protects against damage from toxins and oxidative stress and can help us heal when there is damage,” Boudet says.
More than 40 percent of Americans are deficient in vitamin D. Studies have linked a variety of inflammatory diseases to low vitamin D; conversely, supplementation can reduce inflammation and ramp up your immune system. Although vitamin D can be obtained through exposure to sun and certain foods such as fish, it’s not always easy to get enough through these means. “The way we absorb it depends on our skin tone and the health of our kidneys and liver,” Boudet explains. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin, which means you need to make sure you are eating enough healthy fats to absorb it.
This essential mineral assists in calming spasms in the body resulting from inflammation and supports healthy nerve and enzyme function. Magnesium relaxes larger muscles that can be spasming and can reduce the need to take a pain reliever, Boudet says. She suggests getting magnesium through a bath with Epsom salts. “This is mainly because Epsom salts bring in an element of self-care. You’re absorbing it through the skin, and your muscles relax and notice it right away,” she says. There are also many powders you can take that have magnesium citrate.
Omega-3 fatty acids
Healthy fats or omega-3 fatty acids help to regulate inflammation and support the immune system. A number of studies have correlated an increased intake of omega-3s with a decrease in inflammation. For this reason, the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3s are sometimes used to manage inflammatory and autoimmune diseases, including heart disease. Omega-3s are also key to absorbing fat-soluble vitamins, such as D, A, E and K.
This mineral is necessary to maintain healthy immune function. “It’s important in repairing and restoring process in the immune system,” Boudet says. Zinc works on a cellular level to stop viruses from replicating. Low levels of zinc have been associated with decreased function of T cells, vital white blood cells that fight pathogens and infections.