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After months of isolating, are our immune systems out of practice?

By Dr. Larry Wu | August 12, 2021 | Healthy Lifestyle, Coronavirus

Group of young people stand in line six feet apart

Can social isolation weaken your immune system?

After being cooped up inside our homes for over a year, most of us are itching to resume our “normal lives.” But a lot of us are wondering: After avoiding other people (and their germs) for so long, won’t we be more susceptible to common colds and illnesses?

The answer? Sort of—but not for the reasons you may think.

What is NOT weakening your immune system?

Last year, we talked about how it’s rare to live in an environment that is too hygienic.

This can be confusing based on most people’s understanding of how the immune system works. If you’ve heard of the “hygiene hypothesis,” the idea that people who are exposed to germs and bacteria throughout their childhood build better immunity, you might be thinking “case closed.” After all, if you’re inside and exposed to fewer germs, how can you strengthen your immune system?

This is a common misconception.

According to the American Lung Association, “there is absolutely no scientific evidence that mask-wearing or physical distancing weakens the immune system.”1

In a nutshell, while exposure to certain viruses in childhood may increase immunity to these same viruses, lack of exposure does not weaken the immune system.2

When adults come across germs, our bodies will trigger an immune response. But this doesn’t make our immune systems stronger. So although we’ve encounter fewer germs at home, it’s not hurting us.

With this in mind, let’s talk about the effects of physical distancing on the immune system.

Psychological effects on the immune system

I think it’s safe to say that isolation has been tough on all of us. Many of us have experienced significant loneliness and stress. It’s these psychological factors that can suppress the immune system.

An analysis of 148 different studies found that people who led social lives were 50% less likely to die over a given period than those who did not.3 People with higher levels of social activity were less susceptible to the common cold.

Like loneliness, stress can produce a physiological response. Cortisol – the hormone associated in a stress response – stimulates the production of chemicals that can hinder the immune system.

The best defense for your immune system is eliminating sources of stress, getting good sleep and connecting with others. Remaining connected with others can improve health significantly.

What does self care look like in a pandemic?

Self-care has become a buzzword, but what does it mean, really? It doesn’t have to be complicated. But during the pandemic, it’s become all the more important to take care of our mental and emotional health. Here are some ideas on how to care for yourself.

How to cope with stress and loneliness:

The CDC’s COVID-19 resources offers five healthy ways to cope with stress.

  1. Take breaks from the news. Following the news can be daunting in the times we live in. Take a break from time to time to help relieve stress.
  2. Take care of your body. A happy body equals a happy mind. Exercise regularly, maintain a healthy diet, and get enough sleep to promote good mental health.
  3. Make time for self-care. Read a book, meditate, watch a movie, learn a recipe. Taking the time to step back from work and other stressors is important to alleviate anxiety.
  4. Get social and connect with friends. Work on staying in contact with friends and family while following CDC guidance during COVID. Call, video chat, share photos and updates on social media, or find other ways to connect. Keeping in contact with loved ones removes a barrier of isolation.
  5. Connect with your community or faith-based organization. Reaching out to community members can help lift your spirits and ease feelings of loneliness.

If you need additional support, access to free and confidential crisis resources can be found here.

Sources:

[1] https://www.lung.org/blog/covid-masks

[2] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120322142157.htm

[3] https://medical.mit.edu/covid-19-updates/2020/06/social-distancing-and-immune-system