We are living in a historic time. A time that we will, hopefully, be able to look back on and say we lived through – a pandemic! What a story we will have to tell our grandchildren and great grandchildren.
While it is recommended and/or required to wear masks when out in public, maintain physical distance, avoid crowds, and maintain hand hygiene, there is more we can do to better our chances of avoiding contracting this virus. If we do contract it, these same practices will allow us to have a better chance of fighting it and recovering faster.
We don’t have many choices lately, so it is empowering to know that we have a choice in our health.
Our body has an amazing capability to protect itself from harm, if only we would treat it right and provide the proper ammunition. Our greatest protector is our immune system. There are numerous natural strategies we can take to enhance our immunity and antiviral protection. While the process is complicated and beyond the scope of this article, the steps are very simple. We know that children are less likely to get sick and there have been few pediatric deaths in comparison to the older population. This is due to the health and strength of the immune system and the resilience of our bodies. We naturally lose this reserve as we age, but we do have the power to slow that loss down dramatically. It’s not all about genetics! It is, however, about how and what we eat, how we handle stress, how we move and exercise, and other lifestyle factors. The choices we make affect our resilience.
Studies have shown that some of those hit hardest with COVID-19 are overweight, obese, suffer from high blood pressure and/or diabetes, have cancer, or live with chronic neuromuscular disorders such as MS and ALS. These immune compromised members of our population are at greater risk. We can change this! All of the above conditions have one thing in common: diet and lifestyle. These two factors have a huge impact in their onset as well as recovery by safely reducing excess weight, managing blood sugar levels and fortifying the body with the essentials.
How can we build and strengthen our immune system? Read on…
- What You Eat Matters: Every process our body undertakes begins in our gut. What we eat, drink, and absorb finds its way into our bloodstream by way of our digestive system, and is either aided or hindered by our gut bacteria. The microbiome creates a defense that prevents infection-causing toxins from entering the body. When this microbiome is disrupted, risks of infection increase. Simply put, we need to keep the ration of ‘good’ bacteria and ‘bad’ bacteria at levels where the good bacteria is keeping the bad bacteria in check; where the good bacteria are in control and the bad bacteria are following orders (bad bacteria do play an important role). So, what and how should we eat?
- Eat whole, nutrient-rich, organic, properly prepared foods rich in zinc, vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin C, and other immune enhancing nutrients. Lack of nutrients is the primary factor in immune deficiency. Our regular diets are low in important and absorbable vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients but high in ‘empty’ yet harmful calories.
- Avoid (or limit) processed foods: anything with added sugars, refined/enriched, comes in a box or through a drive-thru window.
- Probiotics have been shown to strengthen the immune system by feeding the good bacteria, thereby decreasing risks of intestinal infections, asthma, allergies, eczema, and shortening the length of the common cold. We can protect these good bacteria by eating whole, high fiber foods that are high in pre- and probiotics such as beans, nuts and seeds.
- Not a food but bears mentioning: avoiding antibiotics unless absolutely necessary. Antibiotics kill off bacterial infections but they also kill off the good bacteria. It is important to note that antibiotics are ineffective in killing viruses and do more harm than good. Most times, the body can heal with nutrition, hydration, and rest…
- Get Your Sleep and Rest: Netflix, Hulu, Prime… there are way too many options that keep us up past our bedtime. Getting between 7 to 9 hours of sleep is important for most people and critical for the immune system. It is when we sleep that the brain has a chance to detox and get rid of the byproducts of its hard work throughout our waking hours. While we are asleep, the body is detoxing and rebuilding. Here are a few suggestions to get more sleep:
- Turn off electronics (tv, computers, cellphones) at least 2 hours before bedtime.
- Read, journal, or call a friend.
- Keep the bedroom dark, cool and free of distractions.
- Turn off the lights at least an hour before bedtime. This lets your body know it is time to sleep and it begins to release melatonin and decrease cortisol. Modern life has affected our natural circadian rhythms. Take this time to meditate, stretch, and spend time with loved ones.
- Rest is more than sleep. Rest is mental restoration. Take a break during the workday by taking a walk, stretching, calling a supportive friend… resist the urge to work all the time and take advantage of those breaks! Especially to relax and unwind…
- Manage Stress: Stress is one of the biggest threats to the immune system. Finding ways to reduce or manage stress is critical for keeping the immune system strong and able to fight off infections before you even feel the effects! Some stress reduction steps can include:
- Breathing exercises
- Exercising & Movement
- Movement & Exercise: Movement is different from exercise and also necessary for the immune system. We need to move our bodies frequently, even with a regular exercise routine. One hour of exercise a day does not remove the risks of sitting or being sedentary the rest of the day. Studies have shown that a sedentary lifestyle can be dangerous for health and leads to being overweight, developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression & anxiety, and more.
Exercise and movement should be moderate and consistent. Working out intensely one or two hours once a week is not as effective as exercising moderately for 30 minutes every day. It is also important not to over-exert as that also puts a strain on the immune system. Regular, moderate exercise and frequent movement is proven to strengthen the immune system by improving the activity of natural killer cells. These are the cells that are always ready to attack invading infections and destroy abnormal cells. There are many ways to incorporate more movement into our days:
- Schedule your workouts. They are as important a part of your day as any meeting or conference call.
- Set a reminder to get up and move/stretch every hour.
- Take frequent walks.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator. If you live in a high-rise, stop the elevator at a lower floor and take the stairs the rest of the way.
- Park your car farther away and get in those extra steps.
Movement, managing stress, getting adequate sleep and consuming the right foods – these factors create the perfect recipe to strengthen the immune system. The best and most natural way to obtain nutrients and probiotics is from whole, organic foods that are properly prepared. Nature has provided everything we need in the right forms and combinations so our bodies can best utilize them.
Of course, there are times when whole foods may not be enough. In times of illness, extreme stress, or healing after surgery, or even in the case of some genetic mutations that prevent the body from adequately absorbing or converting specific nutrients from foods leading to deficiencies – these situations may require the aid of supplements.
Supplemental vitamins, minerals, probiotics, herbal nutraceuticals, essential fatty acids and electrolytes may be necessary to prevent and address deficiencies.
I cannot stress enough the importance of ensuring the proper sourcing and lack of contaminants and harmful additives in these supplements we take. Anything you put into your body should be organic and pesticide/hormone free. Get a recommendation from a nutritional expert when it comes to your health and the health of your loved ones.
Another important factor to consider is that while fundamentally our bodies all work the same way, we are each unique individuals, and our bodies respond and react differently to different foods and supplements. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to health and nutrition. Our genetics, lifestyle choices, the foods we eat, how we handle stress all play a role in how our bodies respond.
So, you may find that you need different nutrient supplementation, or different dosages of various nutrients than another person. Some programs and methods may not work for you at all, while working perfectly for others. Some supplements may also interfere with prescription or over-the-counter medications – so, please consider guidance from your healthcare provider. It is always a good idea to get guidance from a nutritional expert who is educated and is willing to work with you to determine your unique, bio-individual needs.
Let’s take a closer look at some nutrients that are important for immune health in either protecting against viral infections or decreasing their severity/duration:
- Vitamin A:
- Vitamin A is very important in immune health. Immune health begins in the gut, where the microbiome contains extremely large amounts of species of bacteria. Vitamin A is what enables the gut to make the correct decisions. It plays an important role in fighting infections by enhancing antibody responses.
- Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin. Fat-soluble means you need good fats in order for it to be absorbed into the bloodstream and utilized.
- In addition to supporting a healthy immune system, it protects eyes from age related decline, lowers cancer risk, reduces risk of acne, supports bone health, and protects reproductive health and pregnancy.
- Being fat-soluble, vitamin A is stored in the fat cells of our bodies and excess could lead to toxicity.
- Best sources: fatty fish such as wild-caught salmon, liver from grass-fed animals, cod liver oil, eggs from pasture raised chickens, raw or organic cheese (if tolerated), and various organic fruits and vegetables. When eating vegetable or a salad, add a good fat source to aid in absorption, such as extra-virgin olive oil.
- Vitamin C:
- Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin that plays a very important role in immune health. It enhances the function of various immune cells and their ability to prevent infection.
- Being necessary for cellular death, vitamin C plays an important role in keeping the immune system healthy by getting rid of old cells and replacing them with new, healthy ones.
- Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant protecting against free radical damage that leads to various diseases. It aids in skin health and collagen production.
- Vitamin C supplementation reduces the duration of respiratory infections including the common cold, especially in people under high stress such as professional athletes, members of the military, and most of us!
- The body does not produce or store vitamin C so it must be replenished daily.
- Best sources: Vegetables and fruits such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, citrus fruits, persimmons, papaya, lychee, strawberries, fresh parsley and fresh thyme. Organic is best to avoid harmful pesticides and chemicals.
- Vitamin D:
- Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient that is vital to the functioning of the immune system. Fat-soluble means you need good fats in order for it to be absorbed and utilized. This vitamin is actually a hormone, best created in the body from natural sunlight. It enhances the infection fighting effects of the white blood cells while also decreasing inflammation.
- Vitamin D deficiencies may lead to an increased risk of upper respiratory tract infections, including the flu and asthma. Some studies have shown that vitamin D supplementation may improve response to antiviral treatments in people with infections.
- Best sources: direct sunlight, wild-caught salmon and other fatty fish (herring, sardines, halibut, mackerel), cod liver oil, eggs from pasture-raised chickens, and wild mushrooms.
- Zinc is a mineral that is required for supporting the activity of over 300 enzymes that aid in healthy digestion, nerve function, and metabolism.
- Zinc also supports brain health and its concentration is highest in the brain. Changes in zinc balance in the brain have been linked to age-related cognitive decline, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Zinc is involved in helping the body heal, cell membrane repair, maintenance of healthy skin, and DNA repair. It is needed for immune cell development and plays a large role in inflammatory response.
- Deficiency can result in the immune system’s inability to function properly, leading to skin problems, delayed/impaired wound healing, loss of smell and taste, and increased risk of infection and disease. Zinc deficiency is very common in the older adults.
- Zinc supplementation is beneficial in those who are already sick as well as healing from surgeries, decreasing the duration of infections and time of healing. This is due to the body utilizing zinc in the healing process. Stress also depletes zinc.
- The body does not store zinc so it must be replenished daily. Excess may interfere with copper absorption which could increase risk of infection.
- Best sources: whole foods such as grass-fed red meat, shellfish, legumes (not as well absorbed due to phytates but a good choice for vegetarians), seeds, nuts, raw or organic dairy (if tolerated), pasture-raised eggs, whole grains (also not well absorbed due to phytates), and dark chocolate.
- Other Supplements with Immune System Boosting potential: There are many natural supplements that have been used for generations such as in eastern medicine that have been studied and continue to be studied today. Always consult your healthcare provider before use as some herbs may be harmful for those with auto-immune conditions.
Without going into too much detail here, these supplements should not be overlooked as we endeavor to find ways to further strengthen our immune system:
- Echinacea: antiviral effects
- Elderberry: antibacterial, antiviral effects against upper respiratory tract infections
- Medicinal mushrooms: cordyceps, lion’s mane, maitake, shitake, reishi, turkey tail. Can be found in tinctures, teas and supplements.
- Selenium: mineral found in brazil nuts and walnuts
- Garlic, Ginger: anti-inflammatory, antiviral, immune-boosting
- Licorice root: antiviral, boosts potency of other herbs
- B complex vitamins: especially B6 and B12
- Curcumin: anti-inflammatory
It cannot be repeated often enough that the best source of nutrition is through whole foods. Supplements should not and cannot replace a proper diet, regular exercise, adequate sleep and stress reduction. Our lifestyle choices hold the key to either good health or challenging health. Our choices to smoke, drink alcohol and/or do harmful drugs all play a significant role in our future. While there is no 100% ironclad guarantee that we can prevent harm from coming to us, we can certainly take the steps to reduce the chances and if we do get sick, we can fight off the infections faster with less stress to our precious body systems.
Reach out to a healthcare or holistic nutrition provider that will look at the whole body and lifestyle rather than simply treat the symptoms and send you home to deal with the underlying causes on your own. Your body, your mind and your spirit will thank you.