By Andrea Fay, Nutritionist
Having a stellar immune system is always the goal – but not always a reality; we’re human, and sometimes we lack information or we simply don’t do the things we already know (making reminders helpful). Right now, with Covid-19 running rampant in many parts of the country, a lot of us want to know what things we can do to increase our immune system’s ability to fight the things that come our way. Genetics factor into people’s immune response; we don’t have control over all of that—but we do have control over what we do with our time and what we choose to put in our bodies, so we’ll focus on those things.
I’m a firm believer that every person’s body is different, and nutrition isn’t a one-size-fits all type of gig, but there are some basics that are fairly universal. Inflammation is one of those. Our immune system uses inflammation as a response to attack things it identifies as foreign or bad for us, but if inflammation becomes chronic, it increases our susceptibility to sickness and disease by lowering our immune system’s ability to fight as a whole.
There’s also oxidative stress—which is basically an imbalance of free-radicals compared to antioxidants. This type of stress affects our immune system because free-radicals do damage to our bodies (which elicit a response from our immune system—often inflammation comes with it), increases our chances of disease and is the force at work to age our bodies (oxidative stress will happen…we can just slow the speed). There are foods, vitamins, and lifestyle choices that can help to decrease oxidative stress, inflammation and help to increase our own body’s ability to fight the diseases, viruses and bacteria that come our way by boosting our immune system.
1. Moving Your Body
Studies have shown that moderate exercise is the best for immunity. A group of three different mice were injected with influenza (I know, bear with me). The first group was sedentary, the second did moderate jogging for 20-30 minutes and the third ran, full speed for 2 + hours. It sounds a little morbid, but fifty percent of the first group, twelve-percent of the second group, and a whopping seventy-percent of the third group died. Now, mice are not humans (obviously)…but the study showed that both sedentary and excessive exercise both lower the immune system. Eighty-eight percent of the group that did moderate exercise for 20-30 minutes a day had a pretty great response to a virus that’s devastating to rodents. There’s some evidence that there’s only a temporary reduction in immune response for more strenuous workouts and it doesn’t affect our long-term immunity.
But it’s the current recommendation for humans to exercise moderately for 20-30 minutes a day for health. This type of exercise sends oxygen to our organs and cells allowing them to perform at their best. It also allows for the lymphatic system to move lymph fluid throughout the body—which is one of the body’s main immune defenses. It’s a passive system—meaning, it doesn’t have an organ pumping the fluid–so it depends on the body’s movement to provide it’s movement. Moderate exercise also lowers inflammation and increases overall health. There’s a lot of other theories on how exercise helps increase immunity (and they may be true) but nothing that’s been proven in studies.
2. Get Enough Sleep
It’s my nemesis. I mean damn, I love it, but my brain won’t turn off and somehow I’m deluged into thinking that I’ll solve all the world’s problems in the middle of the night. It’s beyond annoying because I know that quality sleep is something that affects the health of your body as a whole. Sleeping decreases stress hormones (reducing inflammation) and also oxidative stress on the body. During sleep our bodies release different cytokines (proteins) that are used in the immune system to regulate, communicate and protect our cells, it also sends out antibodies that help fight viruses or bacteria. When we have a lack of sleep, those don’t get released at the rate needed to support the immune system’s ability to fight. Getting adequate sleep is important to have a well-functioning immune system.
3. Eat a Boatload of Antioxidants
When looking at what to eat, antioxidants are one of the things we should focus on, because it helps reduce inflammation and reduces oxidative stress. These are mostly found in fruits and vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Eat a variety of fresh or lightly cooked produce. Berries, kale, lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, kiwi, cabbage, mushrooms, peppers the list goes on and on. They’re also high in vitamins, minerals, fiber, phytochemicals and pretty much all things good. For a simple picture of balanced meals, make your plate at least half vegetables and fruit, a quarter (or less) complex carbs and a quarter protein.
4. Limit Eating Sugar
Eating a diet low in sugar is great for balancing hormones in your body which is amazing for your health. But specifically in the immune system when someone eats higher amounts of sugar, it increases inflammation and their white blood cell activity is reduced by 40%. And that reduction happens for about four to five-hours after eating it. White blood cells are one of our immune system’s ability to seek out and destroy viruses, debris and bad bacteria by engulfing them or destroying them. If their ability to do that is lowered—we’re more susceptible to viruses and bacteria replicating for those hours after eating sweets, and we can get sick from what our bodies come into contact with during that time.
It can take practice and real will-power to not eat it. And if you’re one that has a sweet tooth, there might be some good ol’ fashioned sugar withdrawal, because it’s also been shown to be extremely addictive. It’s worth it for your body’s overall health.
Now, does that mean you can’t ever have sugar? It could, I suppose. But what it can mean, is maybe you don’t have sugary things in your house. A confession; my family eats sugar–sometimes. But we make it a treat, and not the norm. We do things like go on a special ice cream date—and drive an hour away for a day trip to our favorite ice cream shoppe. Or everyone bakes a special something together for a rare treat. It doesn’t happen often, but it makes it special when it does.
5. Stay Hydrated
Getting plenty of fluids is important for your immune system to stay healthy. Water is one of the main ingredients (if you will) of the lymphatic system and in order to have a strong, healthy, free-flowing, sickness-fighting lymph system, it needs the right hydration. Water also helps put oxygen in your blood (and increases the volume of your blood too) in order for your organs to function the way they should. And it works to flush out toxins, bacteria and viruses from your body, which is vital to a healthy body.
An average woman needs 9 cups a day, and an average man needs 12 cups per day. But if you’re sick you’ll need to increase that by 2 or more cups per day (depending on heat, fever, humidity of the air etc.).
Zinc is a mineral that does quite a bit in the body. It’s known to help the immune system communicate and determine what cells turn into what type of immune cells (differentiation), and the amount of them produced when they’re needed (proliferation). Because it’s an antioxidant, it works to stabilize cell membranes and prevents free-radical damage (decreasing inflammation). And it also helps T-cells (killer cells) to function correctly. There’s a whole host of other things that it does in your body as well (like help make DNA and proteins).
In studies, it’s been shown to decrease the amount of lower respiratory infections a person has and how long they suffer with them. It can also make your cold symptoms almost disappear, especially when taken within 24-hours of when the cold started.
You can find zinc in: meats, oysters, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, dairy, eggs, and whole grains.
7. Vitamin C
Humans need vitamin C in their diet. Most animals don’t because their bodies naturally produce it. But our bodies require it in our diet to function and survive. It has a role in many areas, and one of them is the immune system. Killer immune cells need Vitamin C to work correctly and create the most damage to invading viruses and bacteria. It also works like zinc does by helping with differentiation and proliferation of immune cells. Vitamin C is also an antioxidant that prevents free-radical damage and reduces inflammation.
Studies show that it helps to “prevent and treat respiratory and systemic infections.” So it’s a natural go-to for anything related to health. Don’t underestimate this vitamin… just because it seems like old news. Oh. Hell. No. There’s a reason eating an orange feels so good when you feel like crap.
Foods that are high in Vitamin C are: berries, peppers, broccoli, cantaloupe, kale, kiwi, oranges, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower
8. Elderberry Syrup or Extract
These little berries are shown to be effective against 10 strains of the flu. Studies show that it shortens the time a person suffers from flu symptoms (from the normal 7-10 days) to 3-4 days. People that took elderberry had higher antibodies (things that go after bad stuff in your body) in their blood and it both protects the body from infection and also stimulates the immune system if infection happens. It’s also an antioxidant and usually decreases inflammation. It’s super high in vitamin C (if you eat the ripe fresh berries, once they’re cooked or put through the extraction process, that vitamin usually doesn’t hold up).
But it can stimulate the production of inflammatory cytokines which can actually increase inflammation and shouldn’t be taken if symptoms don’t improve or start to get worse after a 48-hour time period. Also, for medicinal levels, check with your healthcare provider before taking it.
Raw garlic contains alliin (which gives it its distinct flavor and smell). When it’s crushed an enzyme converts alliin to allicin. Which is the active– bacteria, virus, disease-fighting-superfood compound in garlic. It’s sensitive to heat, and takes about 10 minutes exposed to air before it fully converts, so after crushing it, let it sit for that time frame.
The best form to take for health is raw garlic, but that can be hard to swallow (pun intended). There is an aged garlic supplement but that typically doesn’t contain allicin. There are some supplements that state that they contain allicin, but they’re not regulated by FDA, so find a brand you trust that has a 3rd party to test potency. Otherwise, 2-3 cloves a day (I take mine crushed in raw honey, not on an empty stomach and with a water chaser) or 600-1200mg of aged garlic supplement is amazing for your overall health. Garlic has been proven to lower infection by 63% and the duration of infection by 70%.
Garlic also tells your adrenal glands to produce less stress hormone, which decreases inflammation and aids in a better functioning immune system.
Turmeric is an immune powerhouse. It’s been known for its anti-inflammatory properties for quite some time. But it also has the ability to activate T-cells, B-cells and many other immune cells to go out and fight viruses, bacteria, and cancer. It also has the ability to decrease inflammatory cytokines. It can lower blood sugar and thin blood, so before you take this in medicinal levels, you should talk to your doctor or naturopath.
A teaspoon of ground turmeric contains about 200mg. It’s best absorbed when taken with an oil (since the active curcumin is fat soluble) and black pepper helps it to absorb as well. A way I get this in my diet is to make turmeric tea: hot water, a teaspoon of turmeric powder, a dash of black pepper, 1 teaspoon of coconut oil, a teaspoon of raw honey. There’s also commercial turmeric teas you can purchase.
Speaking of tea, it is chalk-full of antioxidants and there’s a huge amount of different teas you can choose from. Specifically in green tea, there’s an antioxidant called catechins that kills flu viruses. Drink a cup a day.
12. Vitamin D
There’s a Vitamin D receptor on all immune cells (and many other cells throughout the body)—that should tell you how important this vitamin is to the immune system. A study of 19,000 people showed that lower levels of vitamin D showed an increase of upper respiratory infections. Another study showed that with vitamin D supplements, people who were given the vitamin had a 42% decrease in influenza incidences (based on throat swabs). It decreases inflammation in the body and also plays a big role in bone health. A deficiency in vitamin D is also associated with autoimmune diseases.
Foods to eat are: Eggs, salmon, tuna, mackerel, mushrooms and other vitamin D fortified foods. Cod liver oil is also a good source. The sun is an excellent source, and 10-30 minutes of sun on exposed skin each day can also provide the amount of vitamin D needed. Those with darker skin need more sun exposure to produce vitamin D.
13. Probiotics/Fermented Foods
These foods or supplements have shown to be helpful to a whole host of issues in the body. They increase the immune system’s ability to work at its best level and decreases inflammation. They compete with harmful pathogens by binding to receptors on cells (which lessens a pathogen’s ability to invade cells). They also help to make some nutrients more bioavailable (where your body can actually use them) by regulating the gut pH and increasing the area for them to be absorbed. They stimulate immune cells and improve overall intestinal health, which is the largest immune organ.
Foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, yogurt, kombucha, tempeh and miso are great to add to your diet every day. Also, a probiotic supplement is helpful to take.
14. Bone Broth
There’s something special about broth in general. It’s warm, tastes like savory heaven and sipping it makes you just feel good. And that feeling is real. Bone broth made with vegetables has 19 essential and nonessential amino acids, multiple vitamins, glutamine, glutathione, and helpful minerals in a liquid, easy to digest, form.
Gelatin from the bones also make their way into the broth which is used to help seal leaky gut syndrome (intestines that become permeable and allows for things to make their way from the intestines into the bloodstream—it can cause the immune system to go into overdrive and can influence autoimmune issues as well as cause bloating, gas, cramps, food sensitivities, aches and overall feelings of being unwell).
Collagen is also present in bone broth, which is good for supporting a healthy digestive tract as well as other things like skin, hair and nails. Studies show that traditionally made chicken soup helped with upper respiratory infections and had an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. So generations and generations of soup makers already knew what science is able to confirm.
15. Omega 3’s
Omega 3’s are also great for inflammation and the health of your body. It’s shown to help regulate immune cell function, but there aren’t a lot of studies that prove that Omega 3’s aid immunity, and supplements aren’t allowed to state that claim on their packaging. What we do know is that Omega 3’s are great for overall health and something to be sure you get in your diet.
Food sources are: salmon, tuna, mackerel, walnuts, pecans, chia seeds, sesame seeds, and flax seeds.
16. Allow Yourself to Relax
There are a lot of ways to boost your immune system and the final way is to rest. Stress can drastically affect whether or not you’re susceptible to illnesses. A once in a while freak out session isn’t going to cause you to be couch-bound. But a consistent feeling of stress can, eventually. During this time in history, it can be hard to relax, but it’s more important than ever. Find the things that do it for you, and then do them. Put your phone down and take a bath, pray, meditate, sing, dance, laugh, breathe, do yoga, or pick your phone up and call a friend.
The things mentioned in this post aren’t just a once and done type of thing. It’s a lifestyle. If a lot of this is new, start incorporating the easier things. Buy the foods that will benefit you, slowly lessen your sugar intake and gradually increase the amount of water you drink. Maybe start drinking a cup of tea in the afternoon instead of coffee. It can be simple. Food is the best source of most of these nutrients, but if you think a supplement will help you get what you need, a whole-food vitamin is the best type—because food works in synergy.
Be healthy, be safe.