“Have you been called yet?” That’s the question echoing among friends and family at the moment. Here in the UK, we eagerly await our first or second Covid vaccine, and with it – we hope – the start of a return to a life more like the one we remember, pre-pandemic.
Debate still ranges about which vaccine is most effective (and safest) but, to be honest, I’m grateful to have any of them. They’re our best chance of ageing well, at the moment, aren’t they? There’s no bigger step we can take to protect our health, both by reducing our risk of contracting Covid, and by helping the world to open up more quickly. Then we can get back to the things which really do increase healthspan and longevity: spending time with friends and family, exploring the world (or at least leaving the neighbourhood!) and seeking out new experiences.
Both Annabel and I are having our first shots this week. You may be waiting for yours, or counting down to your second. There are a few simple steps we can take which may – emphasis on the ‘may’ as much of the research into vaccines has been on flu jabs not Covid – make the shot more effective and help us produce more antibodies.
Supporting our immune system
A vaccine puts our immune system to work, tricking our bodies into thinking that an invader is on the way. Our body responds by producing T-cells and antibodies which are ready to pounce if the real thing – Covid, in this case – comes along. The more effective our immune system, the better, but they weaken as we get older. We can gently support immunity with regular exercise, lots of phytonutrient-packed fruit and vegetables – particularly those rich in vitamin C such as citrus, greens and peppers – and a vitamin D supplement. Annabel wrote a detailed post about immune support last year and you can try my favourite immune-supporting recipes for soup, salad and a raft of smoothies.
Vitamin D, exercise and a plant-rich diet are all great for our gut microbiota. About 70% of our immune system is in the gut, so we certainly want to nurture it pre-jab. And those T-cells go through a sort of ‘boot camp’ in the gut, learning how to do their job. Our gut microbiota love to feast on prebiotic-rich, high-fibre plants and enjoy making new friends with the microbes in fermented, live foods like kimchi, kefir, yogurt and sauerkraut. Your gut is also partial to coffee, dark chocolate, aged cheeses (particularly camembert, apparently) and red wine.
Can I have a drink?
But talking of red wine…… Drinkaware offers precautionary advice that ‘as far as alcohol is concerned, we advise that you consider not drinking for two days before, and up to two weeks after you’ve been vaccinated, to try to ensure your immune system is at its best to respond to the vaccine and protect you.’ So no cracking open the champagne to celebrate post-jab, then. However, a friend of Annabel’s asked at the vaccination centre if they were allowed to drink afterwards and were told ‘yes, but not too much!’
Sleep and showers
Research published in the journal Sleep revealed that vaccines are less effective when we’re not getting enough kip. Recipients of the Hepatitis B vaccine had their sleep tracked for six months after receiving their jabs, with those who slept poorly being less likely to make enough antibodies in response. “Sleeping fewer than six hours conferred a significant risk of being unprotected as compared with sleeping more than seven hours per night,” said the researchers.
Cold water showers – and swimming (did you read Annabel’s post on her icy English Channel dip recently?) – also give the immune system a boost. I always end my shower with at least 30 seconds of cold water. It’s exhilarating!
SHOULD I EXERCISE BEFORE OR AFTER I GET THE JAB?
Scientists leading the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing (Tilda) have recommended that people over 60 should consistently incorporate some form of exercise such as a brisk walk at least two to three times per week prior to vaccination. One report found that people over 65 who took moderate exercise for 25-30 minutes three days a week for 10 months, had a stronger immune response to the flu vaccine.
Research on athletes (obviously a subset of the population who exercise more than most of us, but still interesting findings) found that there was no difference in the efficacy of a vaccine (the flu jab in this case) depending if they’d last exercised two hours or 24 hours before the injection. A report in The Lancet suggests that ‘physical training…… could in fact improve vaccination response’.
Another study found that people over 70 who’d exercised for 45 minutes before their flu jab were less likely to react to the vaccine and its efficacy was unaffected.
How am I going to feel afterwards?
We’ve heard a whole range of post-vaccine reactions, from a couple of days of flu-like symptoms to…. absolutely nothing. According to a report in The Lancet, about 50% of recipients of both the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccine reported headaches and fatigue afterwards (they didn’t detail how long that lasted). The second dose of AstraZeneca seemed to have less of an effect, although more aches and pains were reported after the second dose of Pfizer. It’s not surprising that the vaccine makes many feel a bit rough, when you consider how vaccines work. A physical response is a sign that, hopefully, our immune system is working to generate the defences it needs against the virus. And, frankly, I’ll put up with headaches and fatigue for the world to be a little more normal.
What about my arm?
Even the hardiest of souls are reporting a sore arm for a day or so after the jab. But, again, that’s part of the process. Researchers at Birmingham University found that people who exercised their arm six hours before a flu vaccine had more antibodies than those who rested before the injection. Specifically, the exercisers undertook ‘eccentric contractions of the bicep and deltoid muscles’. In exercise terms, ‘eccentric’ refers to the ‘extension under load’ part of the exercise, in this case the downward motion of a bicep curl or lowering a raised arm. So look out for me performing strange left-handed exercises outside the Science Museum (the rather unexpected, but appropriate, location for my vaccination) later today!
Age-Well Upgrade – a free masterclass!
I’m always on the lookout for simple ways to help you make your age well lifestyle choices even more effective. I’ve put together some of my favourite strategies – the things I do every day to help me age well – with the latest scientific research into nutrition for a brand new free masterclass:
Age-Well Upgrade: power up your nutrition with five simple, science-based strategies
I’ll be sharing how we can make the strategies we already know – like eating greens and intermittent fasting – even more effective with a few simple hacks that we can do right now.
Join me on Monday March 29th at 7pm BST (GMT+1). It’s completely free and I’ll have a few giveaways and goodies up my sleeve too! Tickets available via Eventbrite here. If you can’t make that date and time, I’ll record it and send you a link. So do grab a ticket anyway and you’ll get the link within 24 hours.
Do leave any questions in the chat below this post. I really do want to get to as many as I can, so keep them coming!
Photo credit: Daniel Schludi
I have Rheumatoid Arthritis and take an immune suppressing drug. I am always confused when articles talk about boosting the immune system, when my drug is working to suppress it. What to do?
Susan Saunders says
Hi Tricia, you raise a really good point here. We shouldn’t really talk about ‘boosting’ the immune system, what we aim for is ‘supporting’ it to function as well as possible. Boosting suggests we want it to go into overdrive, which – of course – we don’t. I was talking about ‘boosting’ the efficacy of the Covid vaccine, if possible. The most important thing is to follow the advice of your medical practitioner. Susan x
Katherine Lindann says
Greetings Susan and Annabel,
I’ve been following you both now, for quite a few years, and always enjoy hearing about your latest discoveries and events etc. I have adopted many of your suggestions about preserving one’s health and sanity! I feel pretty fit and fortunate as I am living in Perth, Western Australia, and we have experienced a very different Covid life to the rest of the country. In my 70’S now, I’m awaiting my first jab, although there seems to be a bit of delay and confusion about when and how the mass immunisation will happen!
Anyway, I just wanted to say thank you so very much for your continued ‘life support’! and dedication to showing a very happy and healthy way of living a good life.
Cheers, Katherine Lindann.
Susan Saunders says
Thanks so much for getting in touch and so pleased you’re enjoying the blog. Stay fit and well! Susan x