Nurses are constantly exposed to various pathogens — a reality that existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic began. Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an effective method for staving off infection, but there's an internal shield that plays an important role: the immune system.
A healthy immune system is capable of creating a barrier that prevents "invaders" from entering the body. The stronger one's immunity, the stronger the barrier. Unfortunately, varying factors can chip away at this armor. In order to keep immune systems strong, there are a number of strategies nurses can implement.
1) Move Your Body
The last thing nurses want to think about after a long shift or string of shifts might be exercise. But moving the body is an excellent way to build up the immune system. Nearly any type of movement has been shown to have immune-boosting benefits, but one study revealed the heightened benefits of walking as opposed to the movement that occurs during a busy, on-your-feet shift.
A study published by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Library of Medicine indicated that, "walking caused modest and short-lived changes in immune parameters, most notably for neutrophil and natural killer blood cell counts." Even 30 minutes provides a measurable impact.
An added benefit is that exercise is also a proven stress reliever as it pumps up the brain's feel-good neurotransmitters (endorphins) — something all nurses can use during this time.
2) Get Plenty of Z's
During sleep, the body and brain perform critical restorative functions, including reviving the immune system. This is only optimized when you achieve REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM typically initiates 90 minutes after you fall asleep, so it's important to take measures to allow your body to enter that deeper state.
Experts recommend making the bedroom a "sleep sanctuary," ensuring it's dark, cool and quiet. Use blackout curtains or an eye mask if needed. Some individuals benefit from using a white noise machine to drown out undesirable sounds. Earplugs are also helpful if noise is an issue. To prepare yourself for sleep, a meditation app may help calm the mind.
3) Optimize Nutrition
Nurses who are constantly on the go often turn to a vending machine or a microwave meal just to get some semblance of sustenance. However, these types of processed foods actually work against the immune system. Alternatively, fresh fruits, vegetables and other foods that contain certain micronutrients can build up immunity. Nutrients that have been identified as critical for growing and optimizing immune cells include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, iron and protein. Outside of produce, focus on nuts, nut butters, lean protein, seafood, beans and seeds.
4) Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
Nurses expend an incredible amount of energy during their shifts. They're almost like athletes in that sense, which means they require adequate hydration to perform optimally. Hydration's role in immunity is to bring precious oxygen to the body's cells and ensure organs function properly.
With nursing's constant activity, it's easy enough to forget to hydrate. Try to keep your closed-lid water bottle with you as much as possible to eliminate the "out of sight, out of mind" issue. If plain water doesn't appeal to you, try using different flavor additives or opt for tea.
5) Jolt Your Cells into Action
After a hectic shift, nurses may find solace in a long, hot shower. For immunity's purposes, a cold shower is actually the way to go. Cold therapy was even used by Hippocrates to treat serious illnesses centuries ago. When exposed to cold temperatures, the body goes through a series of responsive mechanisms and adaptations that positively impact the immune system.
6) Do What You Can to Mitigate Stress
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in enormous amounts of stress, particularly in the medical community, and it's not going away anytime soon. Given its influence on immunity, stress needs to be mitigated as much as possible.
One way nurses can approach the inevitable stress is to incorporate mindfulness into their daily routines. This may mean listening to a meditation app, taking five-minute breaks throughout the day to perform breathing exercises or engaging in healthy activities that give your brain a break like adult coloring, puzzles or watching comedic shows/movies.
Limiting news media and social media to only a few minutes a day may also help reduce anxiety and prevent "headline stress disorder."
Be on the Right End of the Immunity Spectrum
Individuals who are most at risk for infection, coronavirus or otherwise, are described as immunocompromised. It should not be a surprise then that people who take proactive steps to boost their immune system reap immunity benefits. By implementing these six practices, nurses and nursing students can help ensure they stay healthy throughout the pandemic and beyond.
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