Ways to Buttress Immunity While Social Distancing

Care for Community Through Care for Self
As New Yorkers, we’re often confined to small spaces, the office, the train, wedged into restaurant tables just inches away from other guests, so it’s easy to become desperate when we’re told to stay inside. We’re notoriously bad at separating ourselves from other individuals, or social distancing. We celebrate elections, Halloween, any unseasonal sunny day, Pride, and whatever the f*$% SantaCon is, en masse. So in addition to all of this feeling very strange and maybe even ominous, we’re also left without the social systems we’ve all grown to love and rely on for support. The good news about all of this is it gives all us ample opportunity to work on buttressing our own immunity through the incorporation of self care practices.  

Note: Because this virus is so new, medical workers, naturopaths, herbalists, and all other forms of healers are at odds as to the best mode of action. Even traditionally very safe/stable things like vitamin D supplementation and elderberry are being HOTLY debated, so any suggestions being made now are sure to change wildly over the next few months. Due to this, our recommendations are simply time-tested strategies for buttressing immunity overall. 

Finally use that meditation app.
It has been largely proven that both short-term and chronic stress lower immunity and the body’s potential to fight infection. With the perfect excuse to free-up your social calendar, this might be the ideal time to actually start using that meditation app you downloaded with high hopes two years ago. And the best part about meditation (that’s often lost in this world of perfectionism) is that there’s literally no way to screw it up. It is a practice. Engaging with it even for as little as three minutes has shown to cause a major shift in the body (and has been shown to benefit ailments as diverse as depression, chronic pain, and anxiety). We also recommend dedicating a few hours a day intentionally logging off of all social media, internet, television, etc. (maybe even log off forever). This is especially important the few hours before bed… 

Get those zzzzz’s.
We live in a culture where people are often praised for how much work they can accomplish on as few hours of sleep possible. But sleep is absolutely critical for keeping our immune system up and running. Those who sleep five hours or less are up to 4.5 times more likely to catch a cold than those who sleep closer to seven. Insomnia is a risk factor for even those who have had a flu shot, as ten days post flu-shot, those who are sleep deprived had antibody levels that were half as high as those who were not. In these tests it took up to four weeks for the immunity to equalize. We recommend taking this time to catch up on that decade of sleep you’re behind on.

Not all bugs are bad. 
As indicated by the great hand sanitizer drought of March 13th, 2020, we are hellbent on DESTROYING THIS SHIT OUTTA this virus. Though frequent hand-washing is of course encouraged, we also need to remember the impact this has on the microbiome, or the ever present plethora of viruses, bacteria, fungi, and other nonhuman material that lives on our bodies, in our digestive system, and populate the ecology that surrounds us. The number of genes in all the microbes in one person’s microbiome is 200 times the number of genes in the human genome and it may weigh as much as five pounds. Seventy-five percent of our immune system starts in the gut, and the production of serotonin and dopamine, two incredibly important hormones to keep us calm and happy, starts in our digestive system. It might even be responsible for larger interworking of our brains. We diversify our microbiome by interacting with more bacteria, things like playing in the dirt, touching plants, kissing our beloved cats, hugging trees, etc. and a healthy, high-functioning and diverse microbiome is critical in beefing up our immunity, so while we disinfect, we need to remember to incorporate probiotics back into our systems. Fermented foods (sauerkraut, kombucha, kefir, sourdough, miso, etc.) are excellent here, and readily available. And if you’re interested, now is the perfect time to try to tackle it yourself! 

Fermented foods take some time but are otherwise a pretty easy way to support our intestinal flora and preserve fresh vegetables (for reference, we recommend Wild Fermentation or anything by Sandor Katz). Sauerkraut is a great ferment for beginners. Cabbage is cheap, salt is in the cupboard and you probably have an empty jar or three hanging around the house. It can be that simple. Feel free to add some spices you might have laying around, garlic (antimicrobial), turmeric (anti-inflammatory), peppercorns (delicious), caraway seeds (helpful for digestion), juniper berries (detoxifying), even some shredded carrots. 

  1. Chop the cabbage (or slice on a mandolin) into stringy pieces, mix with salt (2 TBSP : 1 head of cabbage), massage between your hands, let sit for 30 min (the cabbage will produce liquid). 
  2. Fill empty, clean, glass jars with salted cabbage while pressing/pounding down the cabbage (this will produce more liquid, called “brine”).
  3. Leave about 2 inches at the top of the jar, and cap it loosely (also, pickle pipes work great on mason jars and can be ordered online). Place the jar on a tray to catch any overflowing juice. The hard center of the head can be used to weigh down the cabbage and the outer leaves to provide a seal before capping.
  4. Your ferment will be really active in the first 3 days, bubbling and expanding. If the jar lid is on tight, it’s necessary to release built up gas every day (just simply unscrew until you hear all the air escape). 
  5. It is best to let the kraut sit for at least a week although three or so is preferable for flavor (it gets better with age, like the best of us). The first 3 days will see the most activity and after that things will calm down but the magic is still happening. Taste test the kraut frequently to check the flavor and find out how you like it. 
  6. If your cabbage did not produce enough brine to cover the cabbage, mix up a bit of brine (1 tsp salt : 1 cup of water) and top off until the cabbage is thoroughly submerged. 

Get soupy.
Many of us grew up on canned chicken soup and saltine crackers when we were sick. Though rooted in a good place, these are a sort of sad representation of a traditional food to help keep our immune systems strong. A broth, either made from animal or fish bones, mushroom, seaweed, vegetables or herbs is a long, low temperature decoction in water that gently coaxes the tightly held goods found deep within the cells of whatever plant, fungi, animal ingredients you are extracting. All you need is: 1) a pot (preferably stainless steel or enamel); 2) water (spring or filtered is best); 3) an acidic liquid such as vinegar or wine to help extract minerals; 4)  a strainer; 5) some glass jars for storage; 6) any combination of veggies, herbs, meat, bones, mushrooms 7) a source of heat; and 8) time…

To get the nourishing and deeply healing elements of a chicken broth, try using the whole chicken (throw some giblets in there!). The organs of the chicken pack in important minerals and vitamins, and chicken feet are particularly high in gelatin, which turns into collagen once digested, and is reparative to mucous membranes (especially those of the digestive system). Collagen is also necessary for skin and joint health. As the bones of the chicken disintegrate into the water, more minerals are released. We recommend the the cookbook Nourishing Traditions, or really anything by Sally Fallon

Raid the spice cabinet.
Some of our most helpful herbs in both preventing and battling illness are herbs that many people already have in their fridges or spice shelves. Raw garlic is profoundly antimicrobial, as are mustard seeds and prepared mustard (without sugar), cooked garlic, and onions are lung supportive, and all of our pungent cooking spices like rosemary, thyme, oregano, even bay leaf are antimicrobial and help to fight off illness. 

Pesto is a great way to add garlic, lemon (also antimicrobial), herbs and nuts into everyday meals. It can be mineral and vitamin rich, full of good fat, support a healthy immune system and lower inflammation. Basil can be hard to find and pine nuts are expensive, so we recommend playing with whatever you have! Here are some tasty options (combine all with fresh garlic, lemon juice and olive oil): 

  • Fresh cilantro, soaked and toasted pistachios, dried coriander
  • Fresh arugula, toasted walnuts
  • Fresh dandelion greens, toasted pumpkin seeds
  • Fresh spinach and thyme, toasted almonds

Throw in some dried paprika, turmeric, salt and pepper if ya have it. The basic recipe? Chop all ingredients or throw in a food processor/blender and add olive oil until it’s smooth enough to eat with a spoon. Eat liberally.

Get to know our plant friends.
If you have the opportunity to get outside and enjoy the warmer, brighter, and longer (yay!) spring days then take a moment to familiarize yourself with the little plant buddies all around us. Tiny shoots are popping up all over from the park to the sidewalk cracks and our stalwart city trees are beginning to bud and flower. Maybe strike up a one-sided conversation with a new leafy friend. This one will certainly help with social distancing (trust us). On almost every block you can find blooming crocus, hellebores, forsythia, and daffodils as well as our springtime medicinal friends like dandelions, cleavers, and red clover.

Nature moves forward no matter what, nature reminds us that life continues on and nature is incredibly soothing. Download a plant identification app on your phone like PlantSnapp, FlowerChecker, Plantifier, LeafSnap etc. NYC street tree guides can be found at the NYC parks website. There are plenty of plant ID books available online, you may even have one tucked away in your apartment just waiting to be opened. Additionally a donation-based botany class that takes place entirely online starts this week (check it out here). Plus: spending time in the park can be an excellent way to beef up your microbiome (just keep your distance from other humans doing the same thing). 

Care for each other.
Consider the small businesses impacted by this mass social change. In addition to supporting frontline healthcare workers in whatever way makes sense for you, if you do order delivery, tip higher than normal to make up for what is sure to be a huge loss of wages in coming weeks. We encourage purchasing gift certificates from local restaurants/home good stores, art from local artists, paying for online yoga classes as your local spots transition to the web, supporting your favorite local bookstores who just opened go fund me accounts, donating to organizations (here, here, here) for tipped workers who are now jobless, venmo-ing your hairdresser the tip you would’ve given them this week, and generally trying to take care of all of the humans who will be losing income disproportionately due to this because it is impossible for them to work from home via zoom.  

As we navigate our new reality, remember that we are all in this together, we are all confused, scared, anxious, and wondering what our future looks like. This quiet, idle time can offer us an opportunity to take stock in what is important, what really matters to us. It is, no question, a time for change. How we embrace that change and move forward together is our choice. Let’s be thoughtful and take care of each other as best we can. 

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