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How Bariatric Patients Can Boost Their Immune System During The Coronavirus Pandemic

How Bariatric Patients Can Boost Their Immune System During The Coronavirus Pandemic

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      With growing awareness of the Coronavirus Pandemic, also referred to as COVID-19, many people are wondering what measures to implement to remain safe and free of illness. Understanding how COVID-19 is transmitted and general safety precautions will help reduce the spread of the virus.

      COVID-19 diagram.
      COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

      COVID-19 is caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). The disease was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei, China in December 2019. It is spread by human-to-human transmission via respiratory droplets.  General tips for prevention include:

      • Avoid close contact with sick individuals
      • Wash hands frequently with soap and water. If soap and water are not available, using a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol can help
      • Avoid touching the eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands
      • Practice good respiratory hygiene, such as covering the mouth and nose with your hand or a napkin when coughing or sneezing.  Be sure to wash your hands after coughing or sneezing.

      The risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 is higher for people who are close contacts of someone known to have the disease, for example, healthcare workers, or household members. Symptoms of COVID-19 include initial flu-like symptoms, such as fever, coughing, breathing difficulties, fatigue, and muscle aches. Some people report having an itchy and sore throat, as well.

      Diagram of a person with germs surrounding them.
      The immune system protects the body by creating a barrier against and fighting viruses and bacteria.

      How Does the Immune System Work?

      When a virus or bacteria, commonly referred to as a “germ,” invades the body, it can reproduce and cause illness.

      Viruses and bacteria cause common illnesses such as cold, influenza, and AIDS.

      The immune system protects the body in a few different ways:

      • It creates a barrier that prevents bacteria and viruses from entering the body. Unbroken, healthy skin is considered the “first line of defense” against illness.
      • When bacteria or viruses do invade the body, a healthy immune system will detect and try to eliminate it before it can reproduce and cause harm.

      Does Bariatric Surgery Affect the Immune System?

      The rapid weight loss that occurs after bariatric surgery is beneficial in the reduction and prevention of comorbidities associated with obesity. However, some patients who have bariatric surgery may experience poor wound healing, malnutrition, and infection as their immune systems adjust to the decrease in food consumption that occurs after surgery.

      It is of vital importance that bariatric patients take vitamin and nutritional supplements as recommended by their doctors to help promote good immune health.

      What Things Affect the Immune System?

      Several factors can contribute to a compromised immune system. Some of the most common include:

      Stress

      Chronic stress means the body is exposed to a constant stream of the stress hormone, Cortisol, which can impair the function of infection-fighting T-cells.  It is essential to take some time to clear your mind and try to reduce stress.  Go for a walk, read a book, write in a journal, or paint a picture.  Anything you can do to occupy your time and prevent constant worry will help prevent stress-related immune compromise.

      Woman crying with her hand on her arm.
      Stress can greatly contribute to a compromised immune system.

      Sedentary Lifestyle

      Inactivity can lead to an impairment of the immune system and inflammation of the joints, as well as other chronic diseases.  Getting at least 30 minutes of exercise into your daily routine can help.

      But what about the “shelter-in-place” order? There are endless resources of online exercise videos that you can do from home.  The critical thing is to move.

      Grief

      Any loss or tragic event that causes grief can weaken the body’s immune response. Bereavement, or grief, is associated with increased cortisol response within the body and immune imbalance.

      During this time of uncertainty regarding COVID-19, it is not overreaching to suggest that some people may experience grief.

      If you have been affected by not being able to go to work or church, or if you or someone you know has been ill, feelings of grief may be present.

      Take the time to call friends and loved ones to chat.

      Although social distancing is being encouraged, this does not mean you can’t talk to others on the phone, on video calls, or using online sources.  Use whatever measures you can to maintain communication with others and encourage one another.

      Poor Diet

      Choosing foods that boost immune health is important for long-term health and wellness.  Avoiding some foods can help protect your immune system.  For example:

      • Fast Food:.  Studies have shown that regularly eating fast food can change the way the immune system reacts to potential issues.
      • Alcohol: Alcohol reduces the function of cells, called macrophages.  These cells break down foreign invaders (viruses and bacteria).  This can impair the production of T and B cells, which act as protectors within the body.
      • Diet Soda: Diet soda is full of artificial ingredients, such as aspartame and sucralose, which can hinder immune responses. These ingredients have been shown to reduce the levels of good bacteria in the gut.

      Ways Bariatric Patients Can Boost Their Immune System

      While taking measures to improve the functioning of the immune system is essential for everyone, bariatric patients should implement as many measures as possible, as their immune systems may already be compromised due to surgical changes.

      Picture of people eating from a table full of healthy food.
      Healthy eating is essential for good immune health.

      As previously mentioned, there are general safety guidelines to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19.  In addition to practicing social distancing, washing hands, and disinfecting homes, there are some other ways to boost the immune system.  Some of those include:

      • Take probiotics: Probiotics are live bacteria and yeasts that are good for you, especially for the digestive system. This is important because up to 70% of the immune cells in the body are located in the gut. Eating fermented foods such as yogurt and sauerkraut can also help balance the normal flora (good bacteria) in the stomach and support the immune system.
      • Increase protein intake: Good quality protein can be found in sources such as meat, legumes, and eggs. Protein is often referred to as the “building blocks” for immune cells.
      • Nutrients: Nutrients such as vitamins C and E, zinc and selenium are known for supporting the immune system.  Eating a diet that consists of vegetables and colorful salads can provide a good source of these and other essential nutrients.
      • Vitamin D: Also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” is essential for good immunity. Being told to practice social distancing and to work from home can make it challenging to get enough vitamin D. Try to spend at least 15 minutes each day outside in the sun.
      • Healthy eating: Eating healthy foods is essential to good immune health.  Staying in and being less active often leads to the temptation of binging on refined carbohydrates and simple sugars such as cookies, pasta, bread, and cakes.  However, these are not good for your gut health.  These foods are more likely to feed unwanted or unhealthy bacteria and yeast in the gut, which means you can experience an overgrowth of yeast and bacteria, resulting in a compromised immune system.

      Know When to Call Your Doctor

      Bariatric doctors and healthcare specialists give patients guidelines of foods and activities that are important for successful post-surgical outcomes.  Additionally, these clinicians offer support when the “unexpected” happens.

      If you feel ill, call your physician’s office. It’s imperative during this critical time to limit social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Individuals who are sick or who require a doctor visit can be advised by their clinician when he/she calls. Otherwise, taking measures to protect yourself from the possible transmission is the safest measure you can practice.

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        Darby Faubion, RN, BSN, MBA

        Author

        Darby is a nurse and Allied Health educator with over twenty-five years experience. Most of all, she loves empowering patients with the knowledge they need to live full, healthy lives.

        Gintas Antanavicius, MD, FACS, FASMBS

        Medical Reviewer

        Dr. G is a co-founder of BariBuilder. A US-based expert surgeon with over 10 years of bariatric experience, he regularly publishes research in medical journals like SOARD, Obesity Surgery, etc.