Boost your immune system in the time of Corona.

The one thing I learnt from all my years of Wellbeing research is to keep my vagal nerve firing to optimise my immune response. This necessitates keeping your ‘heart-primate brain–vagus nerve axis’ online throughout your day. Something that is only possible if you first disengage your Fight or Flight response. Arguably my biggest challenge upon returning to research following my cycling accident. 

I was desperate to find a technique that worked with my severely disabled body rather than my having to engage in something (e.g. hard exercise) that demanded more from my body.

When our Research Unit received funding to run the StressEraser project it presented me with a make or break opportunity. An exercise scientist by training I would not have survived long in the research game had I gotten this wrong. I.e. backed the wrong horse as it were. Not only did I have to become familiar with a whole new research literature, I also had to master new measuring techniques such as heart rate variability analyses and brain wave recordings. I embraced this opportunity wholeheartedly given its promise of delivering many health and wellness benefits.

I was particularly keen to find interventions that would help me settle my jangled nerves from the effort required in reclaiming my life. I had lost 4 years of productive work towards my PhD to complete intense physical and mental rehab. After graduating with my PhD and starting postdoctoral research, I examined the physiological changes in the heart-brain axis accruing from HRV biofeedback based deep, slow breathing. The real beauty of vagal nerve activation via deep, slow 10 second breathing is that it enables one to both monitor the state of one’s heart & viscera as well as effect regulatory control over the same. I did not know what we were going to find nor indeed if we even would find anything.

The results were way more impressive that I could ever have imagined.

Restorative deep, slow HRV paced breathing not only massively increased heart healthy vagal drive, it also significantly improved cognitive performance. 

Five highly cited research articles stemmed from this data. Keeping your Immune System in tip top condition to give it the best shot at fighting of the coronavirus it is thus highly recommended. Your heart needs to be ‘restored’ every single day via deep, slow, 10 second breathing to activate your heart healthy vagus nerve. A great time to do so is during your lunch break. The serene feedback from your restored heart after 10 minutes of vagal nerve activating breathing will then help to calm your Primate brain.

This is the first step to Keeping Calm, the next step is to remain composed when your vagus nerve is ‘switched off’ during high pressure situations.

The worst thing you can do for your natural immunity is to remain in a state of constant stress. This happened to me a few years after completing the StressEraser project when a series of emergency situations, demanding immediate attention, kept me on high alert for the bulk of the year. Towards the end of the year I could feel something snap in my brain and the next morning I was unable to get out of bed. I was one step away from total burnout. Deep, slow breathing was just not enough to bring me back from the brink. At the time I was busy with an innovative research project with Performance and Natural Movement Coach, Andre Oelofse, involving a Tai Chi based natural movement and boxing intervention.

 I could hardly believe what we discovered.

After the 4-week training intervention there was a significant correlation between the body posture and joint angles of the soccer players during boxing performance and their HRV (a good marker of vagal nerve activation). This means that after Andre taught the pro soccer players how to move ‘from the spine’; the more ‘front footed’ they were during a mock boxing performance round the higher their HRV values were. A finding that is so contradictory – the closer to the challenger the players were the more relaxed they felt – that I went through the data analyses a number of times to make sure I did it correctly. Andre and I subsequently created a 4-session training intervention that teaches individuals how to balance their brain chemicals and settle their nerves when performing under pressure. This ensures that the sympathetic nervous system is kept under control of the spine that then also enables one to switch off one’s Fight and Flight response as soon as the pressure situation has been effectively dealt with. This works with your heart-Mammalian brain-spine-heart axis.

 Switching off one’s Fight and Flight response is crucially important for sustaining a healthy immune response able to overwhelm the coronavirus before it has time to settle in one’s body. BUT chronic stress will downregulate and weaken your natural immune response and leave you vulnerable to the coronavirus. It is thus crucial for you to disengage from chronic stress and maintain heart healthy vagal activity to allow your immune response to fire up the moment viruses or bacteria invade your body. Somewhat paradoxically it is your Fight and Flight response that enables your body to quickly mobilise a whole host of white blood cells to mop up the coronaviruses before they have time to settle and multiply.

Remember your Fight and Flight response is an emergency response only. If you keep your emergency response going it will eventually ravage all your bodily systems and organs and saddle you with lifestyle diseases. I therefore listen to my heart to help me sustain a good measure of heart healthy vagus drive throughout my day, but my number one priority always remains preventing my Fight and Flight response from getting any traction. Unless it is a real emergency.

 If you would like to learn these two immune boosting techniques for yourself to help strengthen your immune system during the COVID era, please contact us to find out more about our 4-session Composure training module and our 2 session Restoration training module.