The latter is especially important, according to Rafael Máñez, head of the intensive care unit at Bellvitge University Hospital, near Barcelona, Spain, because of COVID-19’s “severe” phase, which happens in around 10 percent of those stricken with the disease.
During this phase, infected individuals develop what is known among experts as a "cytokine storm" or an uncontrolled inflammatory response of the immune system. This "storm" is what causes most of the critical conditions and eventually, fatalities, in infected individuals.
"The exact mechanisms of cytokine storms are pretty much unknown," said Roger Paredes, Head of the Infectious Diseases Section at Germans Trias i Pujol Hospital in Spain, noting that while the body’s inflammatory response is a natural immune system reaction that’s necessary to repair cell damage, the cytokine storm triggered in COVID-19 patients actually does more harm than good.
"With normal pneumonia, germs damage the pulmonary tissue and the immune system generates an inflammatory response to stop it. The immune system ‘kills’ some cells to repair the damaged tissue. What is happening now with coronavirus is that instead of sending a few cells it’s sending tonnes of cells that generate an uncontrolled inflammatory response, not only in lungs but can be widespread in the body," Paredes explained.
"The problem is that we don’t have a treatment, neither against the virus nor for the inflammatory response," Máñez said in an interview with Euronews, adding that they only have supportive treatments, which are meant to protect the patient's vital organs.
Complicating matters further is that the SARS-CoV-2 virus, the pathogen that causes COVID-19, isn’t the only thing that doctors have to take into account when it comes to treating the disease -- they also have to consider the patient’s response to the infection.
"There’s a big difference in how people handle this virus," said Robert Murphy, a professor of medicine and the director of the Center for Global Communicable Diseases at Northwestern University, noting that the phenomenon is "very unusual."
“None of this variability really fits with any other diseases we’re used to dealing with,” Murphy said.
As of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of 192,125 people and infected over 2.7 million others around the world.
According to medical experts, maintaining an optimal and balanced immune system can help ward off infections such as COVID-19. This can be done by following simple lifestyle and dietary guidelines.
One step you can take is to, at the very least, decrease the presence of stress in your life, since stress -- especially the chronic type -- can trigger the production of the hormone cortisol.
In an interview, clinical immunologist Leonard Calabrese said that while small amounts of cortisol can help support immunity, too much of it in the blood opens the body up to the risk of uncontrolled inflammation.
Cabrese said chronic stress also contributes to a decrease in the body’s lymphocyte levels. Lymphocytes are white blood cells that fight off infections in the body.
Among the steps you can take to minimize chronic stress, Calabrese said, is to engage in activities such as meditation and yoga, since these two practices help calm the mind and relax the body.
Another factor to consider when it comes to strengthening and supporting the immune system is the elimination of added sugar from one’s diet.
Nutritionist Monica Reinagel, in a column published on Scientific American, said excess sugar may put white blood cells into a "temporary coma," thereby rendering them ineffective against threats such as bacteria and viruses.
Experts also recommend adding more whole plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes to one’s diet. According to a study published in the journal Current Pharmaceutical Design, these foods are rich in immune-supporting nutrients and antioxidants that can give your immune system an edge against harmful pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2.
"What we want to do is give our body the nutrients we need so that our main system functions optimally so we can stay healthy and fight off any bacteria or viruses that we come in contact with," said dietitian Jessica Siegel.
Aside from whole plant foods, fermented foods and probiotic-rich food products such as kimchi, kefir, yogurt and sauerkraut can also help strengthen the immune system. Studies have shown that fermented foods and probiotics help the immune system identify and target potentially harmful pathogens.
One other thing that you can do to bolster your immune system is to remove as many pollutants and allergens as possible from your home, especially since the average house contains many potentially toxic and dangerous chemicals and pollutants.
Ridding one’s home of these chemicals, according to experts, is important since the constant exposure to toxins, heavy metals and other chemicals can overwork and eventually overwhelm the immune system.
To eliminate these pollutants, you can start by changing the plumbing, especially if it was installed before 1986. Pipes and other plumbing fixtures from that era were often tainted with lead, a toxic heavy metal. Charcoal filters may also be installed in showerheads and faucets in order to filter out stray toxins that are present in the water supply itself.
To filter out airborne allergens, a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter may be a good option, since it can filter out pollen, pet dander, smoke, dust mites and mold spores from the air.
While it is true that no measure is guaranteed to protect yourself from COVID-19, some practices, such as the ones listed above, can help support your immune system, which is ultimately your main defense against diseases.