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The Guardians of Your Immune Galaxy

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We spoke to a slew of holistic health experts to find ways to turn our immune systems impenetrable.

The tendency in our Western world is to grasp onto vaccines and medication to fix what’s not working in our bodies. We’re privileged with sophisticated technology that provides this option. But as we look to the future and all the potential strains of viruses to come, we can also take pre-emptive action to guard our immune system. We went in search of advice from a variety of health perspectives, and here’s what we found.

The Traditional Guardian

“In traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) theory, the body’s resistance to disease and its ability to repair in the presence of the disease is determined by the healthy flow of qi or vital energy around the body,” says TCM practitioner Philippa Harvey. Harvey is head of the TCM Department at SHA Wellness Clinic in the south of Spain. “I like to believe that our immune system is like a protective blanket that keeps illness away,” she says. “When someone is healthy and happy, we say they have good qi. Qi has many different roles in our health and body.”

In TCM, every organ is considered to have qi, and there are three types that are particularly important. Wei qi is the outer defense mechanism, driving a large part of the immune system. Ying qi is energy derived from nutrition, and yuan qi comes from the kidneys and keeps the circulatory system running. Harvey explains that these three qi work together to create a healthy immune system. She recommends supporting the qi by eating fresh, in-season foods. If you suffer from respiratory issues, she also recommends avoiding dairy, which in TCM is considered to create dampness in the body.

As far as using herbs to boost the immune system, Harvey recommends using ginger to prevent inflammation, garlic for its powerful antioxidant effects, echinacea for its antiviral and antibacterial properties, Asian ginseng for its immune-boosting benefits, elderberry to fight cold and flu, and reishi to fight the flu.

Emotions also play a role in immunity, according to traditional Chinese medicine. In TCM, there are five emotions associated with various organs in the body that can make us vulnerable to disease. Fear, for example, is related to the kidneys. If fear is a constant emotion, Harvey suggests using daily physical exercise and meditation as a way to manage the emotions, releasing endorphins and lowering cortisol.

The Balanced Movement Guardians

Traditional Chinese medicine believes in meridian pathways equivalent to the nervous system, and tai chi and qi gong are both ways to open these paths.

“It’s like the magic path when you can open the nervous pathway, remove the stagnation in the body,” says Aihan Kuhn, president of the Tai Chi and Qi Gong Healing Institute. “We all feel tight from walking or sitting too much, and our body energy jams like a traffic jam.” She says when the body is working normally, every organ works together. “But when the person has a poor immune system, it has lost that teamwork.” Another vital task of tai chi and qi gong is their ability to balance the autonomic nervous system. “The balance of parasympathetic and sympathetic is essential. We call it yin and yang. You keep the balance. You don’t keep the disease. It’s key to keeping the immune system intact,” she explains.

For beginners, Kuhn recommends qi gong, since it’s easier to follow than tai chi. Tai chi, she says, is “a higher level of chi practice” that requires a specific way of moving and coordinating the body. She describes both as moving meditation, a way to connect the body, emotions, and mind without having to sit still for long stretches of time. “With the movement, mind focus, and correct breath it really harmonizes, and you feel the immediate reduction of stress. Feeling good is very positive and important in preserving our immune system.”

A second benefit is that tai chi and qi gong emphasize breathing. “Breaths in tai chi and qi gong involve deep breath. Most people just have a shallow breath, especially when you’re stressed. When you practice qi gong you bring more oxygen to the brain. Oxygen is so important in healing and preventing disease. Oxygen participates in every step of the body’s metabolic process,” she explains.

The Yoga Guardian

If tai chi isn’t your thing, yoga and meditation can have similar effects. Ann Swanson, author of Science of Yoga says, “Movement improves circulation, including lymph, which is key for your body to fight invaders like bacteria and viruses. Yoga and meditation have also been shown to reduce key inflammatory markers in the blood, which can mean less chronic inflammation, allowing your immune system to stay strong and ready to fight,” Swanson says. Swanson suggests a simple inversion like legs up a chair or wall, which can improve lymphatic flow.

Yoga also offers breathing practices such as nose breathing (rather than mouth breathing), which optimizes your body’s first line of defense in your mucosal linings. Cleansing practices using a neti pot or sinus rinse, which comes from the yoga tradition, can also improve respiratory function and prevent sinus infections.

The Nutrition Guardian

“There’s only so much control we have over our external environment,” says Michelle Miller, a clinical nutritionist at Physio Logic in New York City, but we can control some of the internal environment. She says the biggest impact you can easily make is to reduce your sugar intake. During stressful times, we gravitate towards cookies and ice cream, but studies show sugar can actually suppress white blood cell activities in the body.

[Read: “How Sugar Is Affecting Your Spirituality.”]

There are many ways to tackle the sugar issue, Miller says, but everyone can become more aware of hidden sources of sugar and identify the highest sources in their diet. For some people, going cold turkey may be the best option. Others may need to gradually wean themselves off by switching from soda to seltzer and drinking less alcohol. Miller says these small steps can help people feel less deprived until their taste buds are recalibrated, and everything tastes sweeter.

The Disposition Guardian

“High cortisol from stress and fear blunts our immune system response,” says Patty DiBlasio, an integrative, functional, and regenerative medical doctor at Physio Logic. This means we may need to change our mindset from fearful or discouraged to upbeat or empowered. What we think produces an emotional response in our body, DiBlasio says, and “our emotions make a huge difference in how our body responds.”

DiBlasio also recommends having your levels of vitamin D checked because it “helps the immune system modulator to adapt, and it’s anti-inflammatory.” She adds that “High fructose syrup blocks pathways in the body to synthesize vitamin D.”

Seattle-based RN Marie Manuchehri agrees: “Our thoughts affect immunity. Reduce stress and think positively.”

She suggests identifying what brings you joy. Then, instead of checking the news five times a day, challenge yourself to experience happy, authentic moments five times a day. You can also switch your current mood by asking positive “what if?” questions, such as: “What if everything is really okay? What if my family is safe? What if we are recovering?” We tend to ask negative “what if?” questions, which can lower vibrational energy and depress the immune system. This simple switch, Manuchehri says, can enhance the immune system and add joy to our lives.

Continue to balance and boost with these 4 Ayurvedic Herbs for Immunity.