Compounding the Problem: Pandemic Lifestyle, Toxic Load, and Immune Health

There’s no doubt about it — the global pandemic and quarantine have caused many of us to slip into an unhealthy diet and lifestyle habits. Maybe you’ve found yourself routinely turning to high-fat, sugary comfort foods or a glass of wine (or two or three) in the evening to calm your nerves. Maybe you’ve found yourself without a place to exercise and have spent much of the past four months sedentary. Combine this with late nights spent watching Netflix to wind down (one more episode can’t hurt, right?), disrupted sleep, and overarching anxiety, and you have a recipe for a major health setback.

As we re-enter the world, many of us are looking to improve our health, righting some or all of these unhealthy behaviors. We’re seeing two aspects of overall health that need to be addressed as we move forward into a changed world: toxic load and immune health.

Toxic Load: Causes and Effects

The term “toxic load” is used to describe the accumulation of toxins that our bodies take in from the environment, including the foods we eat, the water we drink, and the air we breathe. You may be wondering, “Why should I care about my toxic load right now? Aren’t there more important things to worry about, like getting sick? It turns out that one’s toxic load has a significant impact on the immune system, and it’s safe to say that immune function is top of mind right now. To have a well-functioning immune system, you must address your body’s toxic load.

A growing body of research indicates that toxins can diminish our immune resiliency against external threats. Unfortunately, the “pandemic lifestyle” has worsened our toxic load in several ways. For one, consuming processed foods and alcohol burdens the body’s detoxification pathways. Secondly, inactivity slows down the flow of lymph, the fluid that circulates throughout our body and facilitates detoxification. Finally, stress, which is at an all-time high for many people, keeps the body in a sympathetic, fight-or-flight state that blocks natural detoxification processes and exacerbates toxic burden by disrupting gut health, a vital pathway for detoxification.

As we slowly navigate into a post-quarantine world, swapping out unhealthy “pandemic lifestyle” habits for healthy habits may help reduce your toxic load, recharge your immune function, and improve your resilience to external stressors

Immune Function and the Pandemic Lifestyle

The upheaval in our routines caused by quarantine has altered many aspects of our lifestyles. Let’s take a more in-depth look at how quarantine and the “pandemic lifestyle” have impacted four pillars of health: diet, exercise, sleep, and stress management.

Quarantine Eating Habits

A study conducted in Italy, one of the hardest-hit countries in the pandemic, found that nearly half of the population had drastically changed its dietary habits since the beginning of quarantine. In fact, 46 percent of respondents reported eating more food than usual during quarantine; 42.5 percent reported higher consumption of processed comfort foods; and 19.5 percent reported weight gain.[1] While the occasional comfort meal is not a game changer, we run into problems when this becomes the norm, for months on end.

Frequent consumption of high-fat, sugary, processed foods disrupts our bodies’ inflammatory balance and reduces the function of our frontline immune defenses. Easing yourself out of your quarantine-induced mac-and-cheese bender and transitioning to a diet centered around whole, unprocessed foods is one powerful way to support your health post-quarantine.

Over the past few months, you may also have noticed the number on your bathroom scale creeping up. If you have, you’re not alone! Research suggests that excess body fat is not something to take lightly in the current global pandemic. Like an unhealthy diet, excess body fat disrupts the body’s inflammatory balance and may impair internal defenses against foreign invaders.[2] Shedding some extra quarantine pounds with simple diet and lifestyle changes may help you move forward in a healthy way.

A Sedentary Lifestyle Stagnates Immune Function

If your motivation to exercise has diminished over the past four months, you’re among friends — change in routine and elevated stress doesn’t exactly inspire an early-morning run or exercise class. The bad news is that a sedentary lifestyle may thwart your efforts to stay well by compromising immune function. With this information in mind, there’s no better time to reincorporate physical activity into your routine.

Regular, moderate-intensity physical activity supports healthy immune function by enhancing immune surveillance. Immune surveillance is how our immune system sends out squads of frontline defenders (our immune cells) to scour our bodies for bad bugs. Approximately 150 to 300 minutes of exercise per week may be ideal for supporting healthy immune function.[3]

Be careful not to overdo it, though! Heavy exercise may downshift the activity of your frontline immune defenses.[4] When it comes to exercise and immune health, it’s all about striking the right balance.

Sleep and Stress Management: Immune Health Essentials

Sleep and stress have far-reaching effects on almost every aspect of our health, including our immune function. Studies show that people who don’t get high-quality sleep or enough rest are more likely to get sick from external immune threats.[5] Chronically stressed-out people are also more susceptible to external immune threats because stress alters important neural pathways involved in immune function.[6]

Taking some time to create healthy sleep habits, such as going to bed at a regular time every night, minimizing blue light exposure before bed, and managing stress with activities such as meditation, are small changes that can offer profound benefits for your immune health.

Your Simple Guide to Detoxification

As you can see, the suboptimal lifestyle behaviors many of us have engaged in throughout quarantine aren’t doing us any favors to keep us resilient in a time when our immune function needs to be on point.  Couple that with an increase in toxic load and we are setting ourselves up for increased risk. In fact, mixtures of toxins may be even more harmful to immune function than any single toxin. This is why we need to take a comprehensive approach to detoxification to reduce our bodies’ toxic load across the board.   

There’s no better time than now to start tackling your toxic load with safe, effective detox strategies. Our bodies have an elegant system that allows us to neutralize, bind, and excrete toxins. Successful detoxification hinges on the activities of multiple organs, systems, and biochemical pathways. All of these elements must be aligned for successful detoxification to occur.

The Gut

Your gut harbors an array of microorganisms that aid in digestion, immune function, and detoxification, among other important processes. Unfortunately, many environmental toxins, including pesticides and plastics, disrupt our beneficial bacteria and make it harder for us to detox properly.

Clearly, maintaining gut health should be a top priority as we work to reduce our toxic burdens and amplify our health post-quarantine.

What can you do to support your gut health right now? Eating a whole foods-based, unprocessed diet that nourishes your gut bacteria is an excellent first step. Fermented foods, rich in probiotic bacteria, may also help. Even if you don’t have significant gut-related issues, such as bloating, constipation, or diarrhea, you can still benefit from improving or properly maintaining your gut health.  

The Liver

The liver is the master organ of detoxification. It captures and neutralizes toxins, preparing them for excretion in bile and stool. The liver detoxification process includes several phases. Phase I processes toxins via cytochrome P450 enzymes, converting the toxins into less harmful forms. Phase II transforms toxins into water-soluble metabolites, preparing them for elimination by the body.[7] Phase III involves the transport of transformed toxins in and out of cells and, finally, into the bile or urine for excretion.

Bile is a digestive fluid made in the liver and secreted by the gallbladder that regulates bowel movements and toxin elimination into the stool. When bile flow is sluggish, toxins may get trapped or reabsorbed in the gut. To support healthy bile flow, try incorporating bitter vegetables and herbs into your diet, such as arugula, broccoli sprouts, dandelion, and milk thistle.

The Kidneys

Your kidneys filter and cleanse your blood a whopping sixty times a day, flushing out toxic metabolites produced by the body as well as external toxins. Kidney function can be impaired by a high detoxification demand caused by a heavy toxic load.

The kidneys are especially vulnerable to mercury, bacterial endotoxin, the herbicide glyphosate, and medications such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen.[8],[9] To support your kidney function, be sure to drink plenty of water and watch your liver and gut health, as these organs can help reduce the detoxification burden placed on the kidneys.

The Skin

The skin is technically our bodies’ largest organ and an effective route for detoxification. Sauna therapy, which causes profuse sweating, has long been regarded as a cleansing and healing modality. Research indicates that sweat is a significant reservoir for toxins, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.[10] Regularly breaking a sweat, either through sauna use or high-intensity exercise, may facilitate toxin elimination.

The Glutathione System

Glutathione is the body’s master antioxidant and the most important detoxifying molecule. Without adequate glutathione, toxins cannot be efficiently neutralized and transported out of cells.[11]

Glutathione deficiency is linked to impaired immune function, with reduced resistance to infection. Glutathione is key to the production and function of important immune system molecules like white blood cells.  Glutathione is also particularly important for respiratory health.[12],[13],[14] Glutathione connects detoxification and immune function, reminding us of the powerful connection between these two facets of health.

Immune Health Is in Your Hands

By supporting your body’s four primary organs of detoxification — the gut, liver, skin, and kidneys — and enhancing your glutathione levels, it is possible to fortify your immune system against foreign invaders and stay well. Our current environment may feel frightening, but know that you have extraordinary power to safeguard your own health. Diet and lifestyle behaviors can profoundly impact your toxic load and immune health, building resiliency for long-term health.

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[2] Maffetone PB and Laursen PB. The perfect storm: Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic meets overfat pandemic. Front Public Health. 2020; 8: 135.

[3] Nieman DC. Coronavirus disease-2019: A tocsin to our aging, unfit, corpulent, and immunodeficient society. J Sport Health Sci. 2020. [Epub ahead of print].

[4] Simpson RJ, et al. Can exercise affect immune function to increase susceptibility to infection? Exerc Immunol Rev. 2020; 26: 8-22.

[5] Watson NF, et al. Transcriptional signatures of sleep duration discordance in monozygotic twins. Sleep. 2017; 40(1): zsw019.

[6] Morey JN, et al. Current directions in stress and human immune function. Curr Opin Psychol. 2015; 5: 13-17.

[7] Zamek-Gliszczynski MJ, et al. Integration of hepatic drug transporters and phase II metabolizing enzymes: mechanisms of hepatic excretion of sulfate, glucuronide, and GSH metabolites. Eur J Pharm Sci. 2006

[8] Jayasumana C et al. Drinking well water and occupational exposure to Herbicides is associated with chronic kidney disease, in Padavi-Sripura, Sri Lanka. Environ Health 2015 Jan 18; 14(): 6  View Abstract

[9] Hörl WH. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and the kidney. Pharmaceuticals (Basel). 2010;3(7):2291–2321.

[10] Sears ME, et al. Arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in sweat: A systematic review. J Environ Public Health. 2012; 2012: 184745.

[11] Guarner F et al.  Gut flora in health and disease. Lancet. 2003;361(9356):512–519.

[12] Rahman I et al. Oxidative stress and regulation of glutathione in lung inflammation. Eur Respir J. 2000 Sep;16(3):534-54.

[13] Rahman I.  Regulation of glutathione in inflammation and chronic lung diseases. Mutat Res. 2005 Nov 11;579(1-2):58-80.

[14] Morris PE e al. Significance of Glutathione in lung disease and implications for therapy. The American Journal of the Medical Sciences. 1994 (307):2: 119-127.

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