If you were one of those with more time to spend at home and reflect on previous habits, you may have been including self-care practices that reconnected you with your body and nature. There has been some ‘official’ talk of the importance of supporting immunity through diet and exercise, but with the focus on ‘fighting the virus’ has in many ways taken the focus away from this opportunity to understand the nature and needs of our innate immune system.
Viruses are always part of the world we live in and how we support our innate immunity is part of the call to eat, move and breathe as close to our natural design as possible. That means tuning into health not as an action (something ‘to do’), but rather an opportunity to focus inwards and find the rhythm and flow of how all of our natural defences work.
From our oral, lung, skin and gut microbiome, to our emotional states to bring down inflammatory tendencies; we can have a profound involvement with our immune expression. Cultivating compassion and social support – rather than fear and separation – is a key part of healthy immune function.
Whether you are shielding, in isolation, or venturing back out into the world, the particular issues that face us now highlight the need to realign ourselves with all of our deeper needs; physical, mental, emotional and social.
The importance of self-care
The knowledge of how we can look after ourselves, support our respiratory system and immunity can actually help us to relax; we register a sense of safety that we are looking out for our deeper survival needs. To know that we are protecting ourselves helps with our whole wellbeing, is a source of self-support. This helps us to relax any heightened nervous system response and hypervigilance, which supports immunity. This fostering of awareness is not the same as being aggressively or over-defensively protective; when it includes compassion for self and others, it can come from a place of relaxed attention and attunement.
- Our respiratory system and the importance of creating energy in each of our cells.
- Our immune system – how we can help our bodies to work in harmony to be able to operate a defence system against invaders.
- Breath awareness and how every single time we inhale or exhale, each of these actions is directly linked to our immune system.
- Different types of breath and the beneficial impact they have on us, e.g. nasal breathing, mouth breathing and diaphragmatic breathing.
Now looking at lifestyle factors, we have a particular focus on the all-important factor of oral hygiene, lymphatic health and stress reduction to aid our bodies’ self-defence capacity.
Oral hygiene is incredibly important for the whole body, particularly for anything that is coming into our body through the nasal passages and the mouth. Clean your teeth and floss several times a day before eating, not after. If you are going to brush your teeth after food, leave it an hour to allow time for the acid in the food that we eat to be broken down by our natural saliva and come away from the enamel of the teeth. You can also use a natural, gentle mouth wash, perhaps from a natural health shop, but whatever works for you, to promote oral hygiene.
It is important to keep gums heathy too. Try using a very strong camomile tea, let it cool slightly and then simply swill it around your mouth as this is effective in the prevention of gum disease and also for the mucus lining around the mouth – you can gargle with the tea too or with salt water, as a way of looking after your throat and mucus membranes. One study shows that if you gargle with warm salt water three times a day, it can reduce upper respiratory tract infections by up to about 40%. This engages the vagus nerve and is very self-soothing. Other ways of soothing are making that “oooh” and “ahhh” – any sound which creates that vibration – and also singing.
Our oral microbiome is the colony of beneficial bacteria found in the mouth, which make up a key part of our immune system defences and feeds into the immune microbiome in the lungs. It is so importance for or overall health. “The oral cavity has the second largest and diverse microbiota after the gut harboring over 700 species of bacteria… crucial to health as it can cause both oral and systemic diseases” (J Oral Maxillofac Pathol. 2019;23(1):122–128). The diagram below shows the effects of poor oral hygiene:
Oral health and Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, an holistic approach to treating and healing our bodies, promotes oil-pulling, gargling and chewing:
- Gandusha (oil pulling) – filling the mouth completely with coconut oil, so that gargling is impossible; held for 3-15 minutes, then released; “Oil pulling therapy showed a reduction in the plaque index, modified gingival scores, and total colony count of aerobic microorganisms in the plaque of adolescents with plaque-induced gingivitis” (Indian J Dent Res. 2009;20(1):47-51)
- Kavala Graha, a comfortable amount of fluid (again such as coconut oil) is retained with the mouth closed for about 3 minutes, and then gargled
- Chewing, e.g. liquorice root (Glycyrrhiza glabral) promotes anti-cavity action, reduces plaque, and has an antibacterial effect
Steam supports the environment around your mouth and throat so bathing in salt water with eucalyptus oils and breathing that in is helpful. Salts really help to calm the whole nervous system and any kind of salt you have on hand will work well. Bathing also supports your whole physicality; in a bath you are floating the chest areas; and this support away from gravity helps breath that may have become tight. A ceramic salt pipe may also help – you breathe in, draw in the salt and then you exhale. This helps with respiratory issues as it focuses the breath, particularly for people who are not used to doing daily breath practices.
Epsom salt baths are particularly beneficial, although if you do not have this to hand, any salt is good, but unrefined, Epsom and Himalayan salts are best. Look for sea/rock salts as these have the best mineral content. You can buy these salts from a chemist or online but find a good grade supplier and if possible, organic. You can get these salts in 10k bags, once you start you will get through a lot! Just soak in a bath with 2 cups of Epsom salt for at least 12 minutes 3 times a week to get the most out of it. You can even add your own oils and favourite bath salts to create your own mixture. Epsom salts are magnesium sulphate and these components have important beneficial properties:
- Supplies a readily absorbed form of magnesium; an essential mineral involved in heart health, blood sugar balance, energy creation, bone health, serotonin production and calming the nervous system, including brain, muscle and the digestive system.
- Sulphates play an important role in the formation of brain tissue, joint proteins and the proteins that line the walls of the digestive tract. They stimulate the pancreas to generate digestive enzymes and are thought to help detoxify the body through phase 2 liver detoxification; specifically the pathways that help metabolise alcohol and keep female hormones in balance
Dry skin brushing
Like gargling below, dry skin brushing is a low-cost self-care routine that many cultures have practiced for centuries and is great way to support your self-health and bodies immunity. Often such home treatments get labelled as ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ practices as if this registers them ‘non-scientific’ and therefore not effective for anything beyond something nice to do. But the stimulation they provide is support for our whole psycho-neuro-immunology – the modern term for mind-body medicine; overall health that does not separate out our physical, mental and emotional worlds.
Dry brushing aims to remove surface toxins and ‘energise’ your skin; it gets the blood flowing. The skin is our largest organ and it a great place to detoxify our bodies. Dry skin brushing increases the capacity of our skin to eliminate toxins and expel waste. Not only are the immune benefits very evident it also helps muscle tone and more evenly distributes fat deposits, bringing blood flow to the surface of the skin to reduce the appearance of cellulite too. Brushing over your whole skin creates a whole body mini-acupressure workout and reduces stress hormones; tactile nerves lay right underneath the skin and their stimulation of touch can calm the brain, lower stress hormones and help regulate cortisol. It’s easy to do at home:
- Brush before or after a bath or shower
- Make it part of your daily routine
- Start with the soles of the feet
- Use long, confident strokes towards the heart
- Move to upper arms, thighs and stomach for thyroid and female hormone regulation
- Wash your brush regularly with soap and water
- Try adding things like lavender oil to the brush to help ward off bacteria
Gargling with ½ teaspoon of salt in a glass of warm or hot water for as long as you feel comfortably able, staying relaxed in the jaw and around the eyes is a great way to start and end the day, it promotes full mouth health which is linked to whole body health and immune defences. The act of gargling causes the liquid in your mouth to bubble and creates a vibration in your throat, which helps the liquid in your mouth cover various parts of your throat and all or most of the oral mucosa with the effect of:
- Drawing pathogens from the tissues of the mouth and throat
- Breaking up mucus in throat, respiratory tract and nasal cavity
- Relieving inflammation caused by cold, flu, sinus infections, tonsillitis
- Activating the soothing vagus nerve to bring down stress, anxiety and inflammatory tendencies
“Simple water gargling was effective to prevent URTIs among healthy people. Even when a URTI occurred, water gargling tended to attenuate bronchial symptoms.” (Am J Prev Med. 2005;29(4):302-7).
Gargling with warm salt water thrice a day may decrease risk of developing an upper respiratory tract infection by 40% (BMC Health Services Research 2009;8(3):258).
A study conducted on 338 Hajj (Muslim) pilgrims found that salt water gargle helped reduce the incidence of respiratory tract infections (Int J Prev Med. 2013;4(9):1030–1035) – in this study shown to be more effective than wearing masks and observing distance between prayer mats.
You can also see my breathing, yoga, mindfulness and meditation resources here.
Topic to follow:
- Respiratory & Immune Support at Home – Diet
- Respiratory & Immune Support at Home – Social engagement and compassion