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The spread of novel coronavirus has made us very aware of hygiene-related prevention such as using masks and hand sanitiser, but it’s also sparked broader questions around how to complement those measures by building our general health and immune systems.

Curious about taking a more holistic approach, The Style Sheet sat down with Dr Benita Perch, a sought-after naturopathic physician, senior partner and Managing Director of natural medicine clinic IMI, and vice president of the Integrative Association of Naturopaths (Hong Kong).

The Style Sheet: Can a change in diet strengthen your immune system, and if so how?

Dr Perch: Diet is very important for immunity. You want a diet that’s rich in vegetables and fruit, though stick to two fruit a day as it’s high in sugar, and high-quality protein and fat. Although most importantly, from a diet perspective, it’s about staying away from immune-suppressive foods, such as fried foods and white sugar. Unfortunately, they tend to be the foods that people gravitate towards under stress. Water is important too — drinking a lot of water and staying hydrated is a really simple way of protecting yourself. But addressing diet alone is probably not enough. In Hong Kong, people tend to be stressed, and the air and food quality are variable, so in many cases people need to take supplements to bridge that gap and boost their immune systems.

What combination of supplements would you recommend?

Take good amounts of vitamin C, zinc, vitamin D and probiotics. IMI also recommends antiviral immune support products, which also help boost the immune system and fight off viruses. Look for practitioner-grade supplements, as they’re the best quality.

Naturopathic physician Dr Benita Perch shares her top tips for boosting the immune system

How should we pay attention to lifestyle issues such as sleep during a virus outbreak?  

Sleep is a very simple thing that people can do to protect their immune system. Matthew Walker, who wrote Why We Sleep, recommends eight hours. The earlier hours are a deep, restorative sleep that’s really important for our immune systems, and the later hours are rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is good for our mental health. People surviving on five or six hours of sleep are going to crash, and they’re going to be less protected.

What about exercise?

Exercise can be useful for boosting vitality and the immune system, as long as it’s balanced, such as a mix of cardio, yoga and weightlifting. If your life is intense and you pair that with intense exercise, it can actually weaken your immune system, so it’s about hitting that point between too much and too little.

With many people in a more stressful state than normal, what are some ways to keep stress and anxiety in check?

I recommend mindfulness-based activities such as meditation, yoga, tai chi, reading and praying if you’re religious — anything that can relax the sympathetic nervous system, as everyone is super stressed at the moment. As for natural remedies, go for B-vitamins, magnesium and herbs — things like Siberian ginseng, lavender and lemon balm. The adaptogenic herbs help the body adapt better to stress and strength the immune system, and the nervines help to nourish the nervous system and relieve a bit of the anxiety.

How can we protect and disinfect the space around us?

As much as you can, try and make sure the air you’re breathing is as clear as possible. It seems to be with the virus that exposure to mould and pollution will further weaken the lung system, so air purifiers are a good option for the home and the office. Diffusing essential oils like tea tree oil has also been shown to be antiviral and antiseptic in some cases. It’s an extra you can do that isn’t guaranteed to be protective but there’s no harm. The small things, such as cleaning doorknobs and mobile phones, are important too.