Omicron is scary. I know that. There is so much we don’t know about this strain of SARS-CoV2 – is it more contagious? Does it cause more severe disease? Can it evade our defenses from having had COVID or the vaccine? The answers to these questions will be coming over the next few weeks. So, what do you do in the meantime?
As we’ve all heard, this virus isn’t the first serious pandemic-causing virus and won’t be the last. So what makes the most sense is to shore up your defenses. In addition to the measures that can specifically keep you as protected as possible from this Coronavirus (masking, testing, and getting your booster shots), there are proven things you can do to protect yourself from viral infections in general. It would be prudent to incorporate some of these into your life.
First let’s look at the types of viruses that cause disease in humans.
Respiratory viruses are common. This includes influenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus, parainfluenza viruses, rhinovirus, coronaviruses, and adenoviruses. Vaccines and effective antiviral drugs are not yet available for most of these viruses, and they all can cause upper respiratory infections, bronchitis, or even pneumonia. They are all easily spread via respiratory secretions. That’s where handwashing and mask-wearing can help you protect yourself.
Masks do help protect you from respiratory viruses even when others aren’t wearing them. One study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that a standard surgical mask only protected the wearer from about 7.5 percent of the particles generated by a simulated cough. But knotting the loops and tucking in the sides of the medical mask reduced exposure by nearly 65 percent. There have been published reports of mask-wearers being protected even when a Coronavirus infected person was around. If you’re in a crowded indoor space, I’d suggest wearing a mask, especially during this time of year.
Handwashing was promoted more strongly in the early COVID days. It has been emphasized less as we have found that Coronavirus isn’t spread so easily from surfaces, but respiratory droplets do land on hands, and you touch your mucus membranes more than you realize. So it definitely increases your risk of getting these upper respiratory viral infections when you don’t wash your hands after being exposed to the virus on a surface. According to the CDC, washing your hands frequently, including after you use the restroom and before you eat, is one of the best ways to prevent disease transmission. It reduces the transmission of respiratory illness by about 20%.
Then there are other viruses that can be spread from hands – the gastrointestinal viruses. Norovirus, rotavirus, astrovirus, and adenovirus are common ones. They cause symptoms such as watery diarrhea, abdominal cramping, nausea, vomiting, and occasionally fever. While Norovirus is more common in adults, the others are more common in children but can definitely affect adults as well.
Viruses can also cause other problems, from meningitis to end-stage liver disease. The point here is that there are always pathogenic viruses around, so it makes sense to implement a multi-pronged defense against these nasty critters.
What To Do To Be Safer And To Protect Yourself Against Viral Illnesses
The main thing you can do to prevent yourself from getting a viral illness is to boost your immune system, especially the part of your immune system that is most important in fighting viruses. There’s a great description of this innate defense system in the British Journal of Immunology. Basically, the types of white blood cells that kill viruses are called cytotoxic T-cells and Natural Killer (NK) cells. These are different from antibodies, but antibodies also can help to get rid of viruses. Another way cells help limit the spread of viruses is through a chemical called Interferon.
So, How Do We Boost The Performance Of Our T-Cells, Nk- Cells, Antibodies, And Interferon?
Moderate intensity regular physical activity boosts immune function. This scientific review article states that during and after physical exercise, antiviral killing chemicals (cytokines) are released, white blood cell circulation increases, and Interferon increases. “Such practice has an effect on the lower incidence, intensity of symptoms and mortality in viral infections observed in people who practice physical activity regularly, and its correct execution must be considered to avoid damage.”
Adequate sleep (at least 7-9 hours a night) increases the power of T-cells to kill viruses by enhancing the ability of T cells to adhere to and destroy cells infected by viruses and other pathogens. One study showed that a decrease in sleep for one night (down to 4 hours) decreased NK-cell activity by 72%!
Chronic stress reduces the number of NK cells and impairs the function of the immune system as a whole, partly because stress is manifested as increased cortisol which is an immunosuppressant. As I’ve written about before try meditation or breath-work to lower your perception of stress. That will improve your ability to fight off viruses.
Diet or Supplement
Make sure your diet includes the following micronutrients that help support the functions of the innate antiviral immune system.
- Vitamin D: Plentiful in salmon, mushrooms, fortified milk, cereals, and breads, Vitamin D stimulates the production of a chemical called Defensin, which helps Natural Killer cells do their thing. You can also supplement it in the Vitamin D-3 form.
- Vitamin C: Found in oranges, grapefruit, broccoli, strawberries, red bell peppers, and tomato juice, vitamin C is the most popular T-cell booster. It flushes out of your system quickly, so get a boost multiple times a day in food or in a supplement.
- Vitamin K: Plentiful in green leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, fish, meat, liver, and eggs, this fat-soluble vitamin helps vitamin D work at its best.
- Vitamin E: Plant-based foods such as nuts and peanut butter are filled with vitamin E. It is also fat-soluble and very important in the ability for T cells to mature correctly.
- Vitamin A: Sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots, and spinach have Vitamin A, which is also important in T-cell differentiation.
- Zinc: Meat, shellfish, beans/legumes, and nuts/seeds are high zinc foods. Zinc has direct antiviral properties. You can overdose, so don’t take more than 20-30 mg a day.
- Beta-glucan: Found in mushrooms, it can also be taken as a supplement, and has been shown in multiple studies to enhance antiviral immunity.
While you can’t avoid exposure to viruses completely, there are things you can do to prevent getting very sick from them. Just like the COVID vaccine helps to prevent serious illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID, even though it doesn’t necessarily prevent infection, this toolbox is full of things that can help prevent you from getting dangerously ill from the viruses we all encounter on a regular basis.
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.