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22 February 2022

By Dr. Helena Popovic
February 2022

For two years we’ve been inundated with daily news about Covid-19 — the numbers, variants, hospitalisations, vaccines and lockdowns. But with all the noise, the most important information has been drowned out: how to boost our immune system. We have an inbuilt mechanism designed to ward off infections. Sometimes this needs a little help from modern medicine in the form of antibiotics, antivirals or vaccines. But there’s a lot we can do to strengthen our immune system from the inside. So let’s get started.

Our most powerful protective factor is having good relationships and feeling connected to each other. The irony of this is not lost on me. We’ve spent two years enduring varying degrees of social isolation and yet loneliness is the very thing that weakens our immune system more than anything else.

Loneliness diminishes the quality of our sleep, lowers production of antiviral compounds called interferons and activates genes that promote inflammation.

At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, 276 volunteers had cold viruses (not Covid-19!) dripped into their noses and were quarantined for five days. Those who had a wide range of friends and acquaintances developed a cold at one-quarter the rate of people with minimal social networks.

Extraordinary as it seems, loneliness even reduces the effectiveness of vaccines. Eighty-three university students were asked to list up to 20 members of their social circle whom they contacted at least once a month. Those who recorded the fewest friends and felt the most lonely produced the fewest antibodies in response to a flu vaccine. Similar results were found in another group of students in relation to receiving a hepatitis B vaccine: those who could name at least one confidante and felt they had a strong social support network had a better response to the vaccine. The same is true for seniors. People in happy marriages have stronger natural immunity to coughs and colds and receive better protection from influenza after getting the vaccine compared with seniors in unsatisfying relationships.

It’s important to distinguish between feeling lonely and being alone. If you enjoy time by yourself and don’t feel that your life is lacking by having limited social contacts, your choice to have fewer friends is not necessarily harmful — for some people, one confidante is enough. However, if you’re anxious or unhappy about being socially isolated, your body produces stress hormones such as cortisol which interfere with memory and immune function. Loneliness is a biological drive akin to hunger and thirst. Like physical pain, loneliness is a signal to take action and relieve the discomfort. Feeling lonely is our brain telling us to seek out companionship.

My overriding message is that there has never been a more important time to prioritise building and maintaining our relationships through whatever means are available to us — phone, Zoom or old-fashioned letters. We need to have authentic conversations, allow ourselves and others to be vulnerable and create small and large supportive communities. Relationships don’t just give our lives a sense of meaning and purpose — relationships are the meaning and purpose of our lives. If you take away all the people I care about, you take away the meaning of my life. What do my goals matter if they don’t in some way bring peace, joy, beauty, healing or comfort to others?

How can you strengthen your social connections? Is there a community project, book club, team sport, card game, choir, shared interest group or volunteer organisation you’d like to get involved with — either remotely or face-to-face, depending on your circumstances? Is there a neighbour you can get to know? Is there someone whose day you can brighten through a kind gesture, a thank you note or a caring conversation? Take a break from reading and do so now.

Please forward this Health-e-Byte to anyone affected by Covid-19.

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