It’s that time of year, when we’re deep into the cold and flu season. People are traveling and groups are gathering indoors. Viruses spread like wildfire in these situations. Unless you’re a hermit, it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid exposure to viruses.
If you can’t avoid exposures, what’s your best defense against getting sick?
Support your immune system
Your immune system is an intricate and powerful system of cells that protects your body against invaders. It acts as your body’s military system. When an invader such as a virus gets into the body, immune cells raise the alarm and mobilize the troops to kill the invaders. Other immune cells stop the battle when the invader is inactivated, and other immune cells clean up the damage.
You want the immune system to be strong and prepared so it can defend the body against invaders. At the same time, you don’t want it to be overactive and attack the wrong things, such as with autoimmunity and allergies.
How do you keep your immune system in that sweet spot, where it’s strong and well-balanced?
What weakens your immune system
There are several factors that can depress the immune system:
- Age: As we get older, our immune systems tend to function less efficiently.
- Excess weight: Extra fat tissue creates inflammatory processes.
- Environmental toxins: Smoke, air pollution, excessive alcohol and heavy metals impair immune cell activity.
- Poor diet: Nutrient deficiencies cause the immune system to work inefficiently. Sugar, refined carbohydrates and overprocessed oils impair the activity of immune cells.
- Chronic stress: The stress hormone cortisol suppresses immune cell activity when chronically elevated.
- Lack of sleep: Sleep is a restorative process during which infection-fighting compounds are released.
- Poor gut health: The health of your microbiome directly affects your immune system response.
- Chronic disease: Diseases such as autoimmunity and cancer damage the immune system so that immune cells function inappropriately.
How to strengthen your immune system
Fully hydrating your cells ensures that they are able to function at optimal efficiency. Aim to drink at least 64 ounces of filtered water every day and more when sweating. It is also important to get enough electrolytes in your drinks or food to make sure the water is absorbed into the cells.
Adding immune-boosting teas may add an extra kick for your immune system. Green tea, black tea, echinacea tea, elderberry tea, and turmeric tea all have powerful plant compounds that may strengthen your immunity.
Optimize your diet
The immune system needs an array of nutrients to function optimally. Eating a nutrient-dense whole foods diet, such as the Mediterranean Diet, provides these nutrients. Vegetables and fruits should be 50% of your food intake, as they are superstars in providing the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids needed to keep your immune system strong. They also contain prebiotic fiber that feeds the beneficial microbes in your gut. Other important nutrients come from wild-caught fish, pastured animals and organic plant proteins such as legumes and whole grains.
Be sure to get plenty of these essential nutrients for a strong and balanced immune system.
- Vitamin A from meat, fish, dairy, eggs or fruits/vegetables with beta carotene
- Vitamin C from berries, kiwi fruit, mangoes, broccoli, spinach, peppers, citrus fruits, pineapple, potatoes, tomatoes, broccoli and leafy greens
- Vitamin D from seafood, egg yolks, beef liver and fortified foods
- Probiotics from fermented vegetables such as sauerkraut, pickles, kim chi, plain full-fat yogurt, and low-sugar kombucha
- Omega-3 fatty acids from fish and seafood (especially cold-water fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and herring), ground flax seed, walnuts and chia seeds
- Zinc from seafood, oysters, crab, lobster, grass-fed meat, lamb, chicken, plain yogurt, nuts, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, lentils, cashews, mushrooms, spinach and whole grains
- Selenium from seafood, lean meat, whole grains and Brazil nuts
Add additional immune-supporting foods and nutrients.
- Antiviral foods, such as garlic, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper, mushrooms, yogurt, spirulina and coconut oil
- Beta-glucans, found in oats, mushrooms, barley, whole wheat (but don’t eat barley or wheat if you are gluten-free)
- Quercetin, a flavonoid found in apples, onions, berries, capers, red grapes, cherries, citrus fruits, cruciferous vegetables, leafy green vegetables, tomatoes, garlic, ginger, black and green teas
Cut back on sugar and alcohol
Both sugar and alcohol suppress the immune system by negatively affecting the microbiome. They suppress the beneficial bacteria and feed the pathogenic bacteria in the gut.
Sugar and alcohol are usually served at social gatherings, where viruses may be spreading. It’s wise to have a plan for moderating your intake of sugar and alcohol at these gatherings.
Do supplements help?
If your diet is less than optimal, certain supplements can bolster nutrients that you’re not getting enough of. Other nutraceuticals are believed to boost the immune system, though scientific evidence may be sparse. Adding some of these supplements when you’ve been exposed to a virus (or expect to) may help your immune system fight off exposures. Call our office at Radiance Functional Medicine for guidance toward good supplement recommendations.
- A high-quality multivitamin bridges the gap between what you’re eating and what your body needs.
- Vitamin D is difficult to get enough of from food. We also make less of it from the sun during the winter months. Supplement in the form of Vitamin D3 with Vitamin K2, or with cod liver oil.
- Omega-3 fatty acids modulate the immune system. Most people don’t get enough of these anti-inflammatory fatty acids in their diet.
- Zinc lozenges can shorten the amount of time you feel sick from a virus. Chew or suck on these when you’re exposed to an illness. Do not take these indefinitely as they can create imbalances with other nutrients.
- Echinacea is thought to boost the immune system, though studies are mixed about its efficacy.
- Elderberry is believed to shorten the duration of viruses, though studies are mixed about its efficacy.
- Quercetin has antiviral, antimicrobial, antioxidant, anti-proliferative and anti-allergic effects in the body.
- Some supplement companies have excellent blends of anti-viral nutrients and herbs. Call the Radiance Functional Medicine office for a recommendation.
Additional steps to support a healthy immune system
Lifestyle is just as important as diet in supporting the immune system.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking uses up antioxidants such as Vitamin C in the body. It also causes imbalances in the immune system, leaving it more susceptible to infections.
- Exercise regularly. Moderate exercise increases circulation of blood and lymph, taking more oxygen to the cells and circulating immune cells around the body more quickly.
- Prioritize sleep. Certain protective parts of the immune system increase while you sleep. Allow 7-9 hours of sleep each night. Wake and go to bed at the same time every day for circadian rhythm.
- Manage stress. Chronically elevated cortisol suppresses the immune system’s ability to fight off infections. Find stress-relieving activities that you enjoy doing every day, such as exercise, meditation, journaling, hobbies, connecting with friends, being in nature, and deep breathing exercises. Our favorite is 4-7-8 breathing.
- Wash your hands. This age-old wisdom really works. Thoroughly wash your hands before and after preparing food, before eating, after using the toilet, and after coughing or blowing your nose.
At Radiance Functional Medicine, we believe that food is medicine. We hope that you will allow us to help you heal your gut, balance your hormones, or find a way of eating that helps you thrive! Schedule an appointment to get started. Whether you are looking for a Nutritionist or Functional Medicine Doctor in Denver or your local area, we see patients in person and virtually. Call our office at 303.333.1668 to schedule your Initial Nutrition Consultation.