Your immune system consists of a complex collection of cells, processes, and organs that constantly defends your body against invading pathogens, including viruses, toxins, and bacteria. Understanding how to support your immune system is key to preventing infection and disease. There is no one single food or supplement that can do this; rather, it’s a holistic approach that includes diet, exercise, sleep and many other aspects of a healthy lifestyle.
The stronger your immune system is, the more effectively it can fight off infections and viruses like the coronavirus. This is why – now more than ever – it is so important to do all that you can to support your body’s internal defense mechanism! Keep reading to learn all you need to know about how to support your immune system.
Nutrition for Immune Health
There is no one single food or supplement that can boost your immune system. However, research has shown that some foods have certain vitamins, minerals, or substances known to support immune function. All of the following foods are great for general health and wellness, and they are extra helpful if you are trying to support your immune system:
- Foods high in Vitamin C, including citrus fruits, kiwis, papaya, and red bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli – it’s one the most nutrient-dense veggies!
- Garlic, which contains an immune-boosting compound called allicin
- Ginger and turmeric – they help decrease inflammation
- Spinach – full of vitamins and antioxidants
- Yogurt for probiotics, the good bacteria that are vital to gut health
- Green tea or matcha – both are antioxidant powerhouses
- Chicken soup – good for the soul and the immune system because it contains B vitamins and protein
- Nuts, such as almonds and sunflower seeds – a good source of vitamin E and healthy fats
- Shellfish – high in zinc
You’ll notice that each of the above suggestions offers something unique in supporting the immune system. This is just another reason why it’s so important to eat a variety of whole, unprocessed foods.
Foods & Behaviors to Avoid
Certain foods or activities can actually suppress immune function, including the following:
- Sugar & refined carbs – sugar in all of its forms can lessen the effectiveness of white blood cells that fight pathogens. Avoid soda, chips, white bread, bagels, white rice, candy, pastries and baked goods
- Alcohol – drinking too much alcohol can damage certain types of cells which play a vital role in the immune system. Try to keep it to one drink/day, but the less the better! (I know, I’m sorry)
- Smoking – smoking makes you more susceptible to infection through impairing the function of immune cells and lowering levels of antioxidants, including Vitamin C
Certain vitamins, minerals, and herbs have shown to provide an additional benefit in terms of supporting the immune system
- Vitamin C – Vitamin C supports the immune system in several ways: it functions as a powerful antioxidant, is necessary for eliminating old cells and replacing them with new ones, supports immune cell activity, and can help prevent and lessen the duration of the common cold
- Vitamin D – Several immune cells have Vitamin D receptors, which make this Vitamin essential for optimal immune function. Low levels of Vitamin D are also associated with an increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections.
- Zinc – Zinc is needed for immune cell development and communication, and may actually help decrease the duration of the common cold
- Elderberry – Elderberry could support the immune system by possessing antiviral and antibacterial activity, which lessens symptoms associated with these infections
- Medicinal Mushrooms – There are many types of medicinal mushrooms and they all have been shown to have immune-enhancing effects. For example, cordyceps can be used in the treatment of tuberculosis to reduce inflammation and bacteria in the lungs.
Sleep helps strengthen your body’s T cells, which are a certain type of cells that specifically fight off intracellular pathogens, such as flu-infected cells. Also, your body releases proteins called cytokines during extended periods of sleep that help regulate the immune system.
- Aim for at least 7 hours a night. 8 is ideal.
- Sleep in a cool, dark room
- Avoid blue light (from TVs and phone) a n hour before sleep, and leave your phone in another room
- Exercise helps you sleep better, as well as avoiding caffeine and alcohol
When the body is under stress, it releases stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which is normal and even helpful. However, the chronic release of these hormones impair the body’s T-cells, a key component of the immune system. So managing stress is super important! Here are some suggestions:
- Adequate sleep
- Try meditation – use an app like Calm or Headspace
- Connect with a friend or loved one.
- Bath, face mask, paint your nails
- Read a book or watch Netflix
- Disconnect from technology
- Go on a walk
Exercise is important for so many reasons. It helps keep your weight in check, helps reduce stress and inflammation, and improves sleep and mood. Specifically related to immunity, exercise accelerates the circulation of white blood cells, which help the body fight infection. Here are some suggestions to incorporate more movement:
- Aim for 75 minutes of intense exercise, or 150 minutes of moderate exercise
- If you aren’t exercising at all, start small and increase frequency over time
- Find what you enjoy – or you won’t do it!
Wash Those Hands!
Limit your exposure to germs to avoid illness. This is basic but often overlooked. It’s estimated that we touch our faces about 16 times an hour!
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds as often as possible.
- Cover your mouth or nose with a tissue before coughing or sneezing, then throw the tissue away
- Use an alcohol based hand sanitizer
- Disinfect shared surfaces: keyboards, phones, doorknobs, remote controls, grocery carts
I hope this was helpful in helping you understand how to support your immune system. Let me know in the comments if you have any further questions, or how you personally keep your immune system in tip top shape!