Immunity and Epidemics: Ideas to Stay Healthy

In this time of global health focus and the helplessness many feel regarding the coronavirus, I’ve found some reflection on Ayurveda’s view of immunity to be helpful. While I also find it useful to study what is currently known about this new, or newly prolific, coronavirus, I’ve appreciated considering an ancient perspective on the larger phenomenon of resilience.

Ojas is a concept in Ayurveda that is commonly correlated to the immune system. Ojas is the reserve of nourishment and energy that protects us from getting worn down. Those folks who never get sick have healthy Ojas, while those with weak Ojas tend to catch every passing cold and are easily exhausted and depleted.

Ojas is lubricating, nourishing and rejuvenating. It is considered the most refined aspect of Kapha dosha, a deep storehouse of bodily nurturance from which we draw strength to defend our “borders.”

It includes not only the fighter cells that ward off harmful bacteria, viruses, and parasites, but also the neurochemical elements that keep our system robust – the hormones and neurotransmitters that lift our spirits and our sense of connection like oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin.

When we are with people we love, feeling connected and supported, the production of oxytocin rises (the bonding hormone also generated in a breast-feeding mother). Dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters implicated in our experience of pleasure and satisfaction. These inner resources are also part of Ojas.

This view of immunity points to the idea that our resilience and ability to fight off infection is directly supported by a sense of stability, happiness, and peace. Foods that increase Ojas include dates, soaked almonds, ghee, saffron, honey, fresh in-season fruits, whole grains like basmati rice, and organic warmed milk.

By contrast, the energy generated by cortisol, produced when we feel anxiety and fear, is drying and depleting to the bodily tissues. If cortisol runs through our body over a long period, it depletes the system, ultimately reducing immune function. In this way, fear and hypervigilance are counterproductive to shoring up our inherent immunity.

Other things that deplete Ojas include excessive vigorous exercise, rushing through the day, stress, alcohol, stimulants like caffeine and refined sugar, psychological trauma, too much raw or frozen food, and insufficient nutrition.

So what can we do to support the production of healthy Ojas during a time of global nervousness? 

For starters, after taking in the relevant facts about coronavirus transmission, it can be beneficial to turn away from the news or other sources of ongoing anxiety and engage proactively in activities that create the inner chemistry of happiness, connection and peace. 

We can enhance Ojas by connecting with the people we love and acting with generosity. What could you do for someone in your family or neighborhood today? Reach out to offer something they might need, and this act will trigger oxytocin production in you and in the other person, offering you both a boost of Ojas. 

Generosity is one mechanism by which disasters can draw a community together and make its individuals literally stronger than before. The dose of serotonin or dopamine we get when we feel the satisfaction of helping others actively boosts our own health and resilience, while isolation actively diminishes it.

Even if we are not physically next to our loved ones, we can focus on their presence in our life and our gratitude for those relationships. Call a friend or loved one tonight and tell them you care about them. Enjoy the positive hormones and neurotransmitters that this conversation will unleash in you.

Then ask them what’s making them happiest in their day-to-day life this week. Getting them to focus on their happiness encourages a flow of positive emotions and associated neurochemicals. Be ready to share what’s making you happiest as well.

And one more thing: get some extra sleep tonight. Create a firm cut-off time for media consumption and enforce it. Treat yourself to a slow wind-down with some warm tea or hot milk, a bath, and reading an uplifting book or something that makes you smile. Watch a few videos of your favorite comedian on YouTube. Look for a podcast that will make you smile. Listen to a guided meditation on the free apps Calm or Insight Timer. Place your mind in a state of peace so your body will reap the physical benefits.

Just as illness can be contagious, health can be as well. As a global community, we have made it through countless epidemics before, and we will make it through countless more in the future. Today let’s look for ways to shore each other up, to lovingly limit hypervigilance, to seek out and create peacefulness, and to set ourselves up to rest in trust and faith. 

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