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How To Keep Your Immune System Healthy Through The Pandemic


If the past year has left you feeling extremely run-down, that might mean your immune system is taking a beating. There are ways to boost your body's natural defenses, but expensive organic superfoods, fancy supplements and regular workouts just aren't within everyone's reach, right? However, there are things we can all do to stay as healthy as possible. Dr. Rosaura Licea, who practices family medicine at Cicero Medical Clinic, is here to tell us what those are.



GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you tell us a bit about the community you treat and what sorts of questions they ask you about maintaining their health right now?

LICEA: Yes. We're in Cicero, which is a highly Latino patient base. I think the questions range from, what can we do to stay safe? Should we take the vaccine? Who should get the vaccine? And that's it for now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, you know, we're hand-washing. We're wearing masks. We're social distancing. So when we hear about strengthening or supporting our immune system, for example, so that we can stay healthy during a pandemic, which is so important, what does that actually mean?

LICEA: You know, I have a vision of my patients at a store with this huge aisle of all of these supplements and vitamins, probiotics and - anywhere from $8 to $50 or even more. And truly, I'd have to say they don't have to take any of that. There's not much proof that we can boost our immune system by taking zinc or any other vitamin supplements that's, you know, in the common press now.

They can do healthy things at home at very low cost and be just as effective - things like sleep, which hardly anybody ever gets eight to 10 hours sleep anymore; healthy meals, which, you know, if they're going to have a nice rainbow of salad, that would be perfect for their immune system. They can exercise for free in their home. They can go up and down the stairs. They can time themselves with their steps. They can - if the weather permits, they can go outside with a mask.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How about vitamins? I mean, Dr. Fauci has mentioned the importance of vitamin C. And for those who are deficient, like I am - vitamin D - is there any point to loading up on other vitamins?

LICEA: I'm glad you mentioned vitamin D. That's the only one, if any, I would mention because we're - well, we're in Chicago, and so we don't get any sunshine here. It's unusual. And it's - you know, social distancing - we're all locked in our homes anyway. So we are vitamin D-deficient. So that one - we could boost that one. All vitamins can be obtained from our diet because everything is enriched.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And you talk about exercise, and you're saying maybe, you know, we don't need to do sort of this dedicated workout routine. I mean, for example, you know, I just got a very inexpensive watch that tracks my movement. Is that something that's good?

LICEA: Yes, that's actually good for multiple things. Now, you mentioned about the watch, but you can do it on your cellphone. Most people have cellphones now, and it has in health - a health app on there. You can keep it in your pocket, and it'll track your steps that way, too.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what about the role of vaping, alcohol? These are things that obviously a lot of people are using right now because of the pressures of the pandemic.

LICEA: Yeah, and very young patients are using that. It's terrible. It's the worst thing that we could do for our lungs. And as you know, COVID is a multiorgan problem, but the lungs are affected primarily. And so it would be terrible, devastating for a young person to - who's vaping and then getting COVID pneumonia. So I would stay away from that. Alcohol is always, always to be in moderation. And again, that fits in with the recommendations of a healthy lifestyle in general.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So for me, the thing that really helps me is really making sure that I'm able to get out of the house. Some days, it's a struggle 'cause I'm teaching my kids, and I'm working. And it's - you know, it's hard, but that helps my mental health and gets me active.

LICEA: Yes. You know, one of the things that we should mention is the balance of emotional well-being - not just what we're putting into our bodies and what we're doing and hopefully doing - you know, healthy things. But our emotional wellbeing during this pandemic is just so important. So yes, going out, seeing the light versus, you know, being in your home just resets your biorhythms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things that there is a lot of discussion about now is gut health. And we get marketed a lot of probiotics, right? You know, we're seeing expensive probiotics sort of thrown at us all the time. What can we do to sort of promote our gut health if we can't afford probiotics?

LICEA: I think incorporating a plant-based diet as best and as much as we can. You know, it's expensive to buy, especially in our area - they're - you know, we have food deserts, and it's very difficult. But if you can find it in your budget and maybe drive a little bit further to find some cheaper vegetables, that would be ideal for the gut.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Dr. Rosaura Licea.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LICEA: Thank you. Be well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'll try (laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.