Is Lockdown Hurting Your Immune System?

Updated: Oct. 19, 2020

Did all that time you spent social distancing, staying indoors, and avoiding people during lockdown actually weaken your immune system?

As Covid-19 swept across the nation, we’ve spent weeks, if not months, in coronavirus quarantine, or lockdown, only leaving the house for essential errands like a trip to the grocery store or doctor. Our efforts have helped us avoid catching or spreading Covid-19, but did all this time spent social distancing, staying indoors, and avoiding people actually weaken our immunity? Despite what you may’ve heard, the short answer is no, says Sten Vermund, MD, dean of the Yale School of Public Health, New Haven, Connecticut.

Initially, there was concern that by limiting exposure to germs, people might set themselves up for other illnesses when lockdowns were lifted. But, a few months of lockdown is not likely to have dramatic effects on your immune system’s strength, according to Dr. Vermund. Nonetheless, you can still take steps to make sure your immune system is primed, especially as cold and flu season approaches.

The hygiene hypothesis

The concern about a weakened immune system started off as an offshoot of the hygiene hypothesis, which states that individuals who are exposed to a variety of germs in childhood build better immunity. Young children who have early exposure to different types of germs are less likely to develop allergies and other diseases when compared with children who grow up in sterile, clean environments.

But this hypothesis can’t really be applied to a few months of lockdown during a pandemic, Dr. Vermund explains. “If you are 30, your immune system has been battling invaders for 29-plus years, and four months of lockdown and a home-based lifestyle won’t make a difference. Your immune system is built over a lifetime of exposure,” he says. “Four months of being relatively isolated is not going to harm you because of lack of exposure to pathogens, as you have been exposed for your whole life.”

Newborns and toddlers won’t face long-term repercussions from lockdown on their immune systems either. “This is just a small delay in that child’s natural exposure, and the child will make up for lost time once they are exposed to germs,” Vermund adds.

“We don’t need constant bombardment with viruses to keep our immune system going,” agrees Len Horovitz, MD, pulmonary specialist, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City. (Here are some of the worst super spreader events since the start of the pandemic.)

Higher levels of body inflammation

That said, there are some ways that lockdown and the isolation it requires can put dents in your immune system, Dr. Horovitz says. In an analysis of 30 studies, published in May in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, researchers found that social isolation and loneliness are linked with higher levels of inflammation in the body. Inflammation can cause or worsen a host of diseases and conditions. In this study, social isolation was associated with the presence of C-reactive protein, an inflammatory marker, and higher levels of fibrinogen, which, in excess, can increase the risk that a blood clot blocks a vein. This can obstruct blood flow and causing a heart attack or stroke, among other complications. In addition, loneliness was linked to higher levels of another inflammatory protein known as interleukin-6. Still, the researchers note, more research is needed to confirm these findings.

Young woman with laptop and cup of coffee sitting on the couch at home looking out of windowWestend61/Getty Images

Mental illness may exacerbate preexisting conditions

Stress, anxiety, depression, and loneliness make everything worse, Dr. Horovitz explains. “COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] and heart disease patients who are depressed, don’t have the same outcomes as those who are not depressed,” he says. “More anxiety and depression will give you a worse course of whatever disease state you are experiencing.” What’s more, Covid-19-related stress and anxiety may raise broken heart syndrome risk, which can mimic the symptoms of a heart attack.

Tips to boost your immune system

If you are depressed and socially isolated, you may not do the things you know you should do to stay healthy, such as engage in regular exercise, eat well, and get good-quality sleep. Instead, you may engage in unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol. American adults have dramatically increased their consumption of alcohol during quarantine, with women increasing their heavy binge drinking episodes by 41 percent, according to a new study by RAND Corporation, a nonprofit think tank.

This doesn’t mean you are powerless. There are things to do to keep your immune system up to snuff, which can help protect you from all sorts of diseases and conditions, including Covid-19. Here are a few expert-recommended tips.

Get your vitamin D

Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin because your body produces it when exposed to sunlight, and it stands to reason that your levels may be lower than they should be due to time spent indoors during quarantine, says Dr. Horovitz. “Vitamin D can boost immunity,” he says. The current recommended daily amount of vitamin D for adults is 600 International Units per day. It’s hard to get enough vitamin D from food, which is why most doctors recommend a supplement. A blood test can tell you where you stand, he says.

Get a good night’s sleep

Aim for seven to eight hours sleep per night, Dr. Horovitz says. Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark and conducive to good sleep. Don’t engage in stressful activities before bed, which may include reading the news or tracking Covid-19 cases in your zip code. Sleep loss can hamper your immune system and leave you more vulnerable to colds and the flu.

Exercise regularly

Try to be physically active every day. It helps keep your immune system strong, possibly by flushing bacteria out of your lungs and airways to reduce your chance of getting a cold, flu, or other illness. “It also boosts brain chemicals known as endorphins and keeps your spirits up,” Dr. Horovitz says.

Eat well

Eating a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables and maintaining a normal weight will keep our body in optimal shape so it is better able to fight off diseases, according to Dr. Horovitz.

Get the flu shot

It’s also important to make sure you and your family are up to date on all vaccines. The flu shot this year is no exception.

Wash your hands

Taking steps to avoid infection, such as washing your hands and wearing a face covering when social distancing isn’t possible, can help you stay healthy.

If you drink alcohol, drink in moderation

If you do drink alcohol, do so in moderation, he says. The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans define moderate alcohol consumption as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. A drink is defined as 1.5 fluid ounces of distilled spirits, 12 fluid ounces of regular beer, or 5 fluid ounces of wine.

The takeaway

Avoiding these habits that might be harming your immune system can help keep illness at bay. These measures may be especially important for older people, advises Dr. Horovitz. Advancing age is known to zap your immune system of some of its power. “We know the immune system naturally as we get older doesn’t have the robust qualities it had in childhood,” he says.