Throughout this past year of the pandemic, we’ve been bombarded with information on ways to avoid contracting COVID-19 via news outlets, physicians, social media, magazines and word of mouth. Mandates and recommendations like social distancing, mask-wearing, hand washing/sanitizing, touching our faces less, avoiding crowds, and getting vaccinated are some examples to reduce our risk of getting COVID-19.
While these suggestions may be valid, there is little to no talk about how you can alter your diet and lifestyle to strengthen your immune system. A strong immune system may not only help to prevent you from contracting COVID-19, but it may also reduce the severity of the virus if you do.
Fortunately, in the United States COVID-19 cases are on the decline and restrictions are being lifted in many instances. However, we must remain diligent about taking care of our bodies and begin or continue to create healthy immune systems which can withstand the many health challenges that will come our way.
First Avoid Weakening Your Immune System
Before we jump into ways to support immune health, it’s important to understand what weakens it. Three offenders are sugar, alcohol and processed foods. It’s fair to say that most of us are aware ofhow harmful sugar is for our bodies. At the most basic level, sugar increases inflammation, putting one at higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, obesity, fatty-liver disease and many more health complications. Sugar hides in many foods and has a laundry list ofother names it’s disguised as.
Another culprit is alcohol. Stress levels have been high and liquor stores have been busier than ever, but drinking too much or too often can be damaging to your health. “Alcohol has diverse adverse effects throughout the body, including on all cells of the immune system, that lead to increased risk of serious infections,” saidDr. E. Jennifer Edelman, a Yale Medicine addiction medicine specialist. Alcohol intake can kill normal healthy gut bacteria which help promote health and reduce risk of infection. Increased drinking can make people even more vulnerable to respiratory diseases like COVID-19. In the lungs, alcohol damages the immune cells and fine hairs that have the important job of clearing pathogens out of our airways.
Lastly, processed foods (packaged food made by humans in a factory) weaken the immune system. They tend to contain unhealthy fats, sugars and additives which work to improve their taste, texture, and shelf life. Rather, foods from the earth such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes actually stimulate the immune system, while processed foods do just the opposite, making us more vulnerable to diseases.
5 Ways to Support the Immune System
Our incredible immune system is made up of different organs, cells and proteins that work together to fight off outside invaders. These include bacteria, viruses, parasites, substances and cells that can cause disease. It plays a major role in helping the body feel energized and healthy. Without further ado, here are the top five things you can do to boost your immune system.
1. Chill Out
Easier said than done, but this is highly critical and why I mention it first. Our immune system and nervous system maintain extensive communication with one another. This includes the sympathetic (fight or flight response) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest mode). When we spend more time in our sympathetic nervous system…stressed…the body’s attention is not going to our digestion (where 70% of our immune system dwells), heart rate, hormone secretion and many other physiological functions.
We all experience stress differently. Examples of stress expressing itself are (but certainly not limited to) difficulty sleeping, weight gain/loss, stomach issues, irritability, teeth grinding/clenching, panic attacks, headaches, heartburn, fatigue, feeling overwhelmed, etc.
Stress management must be a part of our everyday routine, without question. We are living at a level of stress and intensity that we were not designed for. Our true nature is peace, love and joy; and, to achieve this we must quiet ourselves to find calm each day through a stress management practice. There are several ways to manage stress, and it’s up to you to find what feels and works best. Some examples of stress management are a daily exercise routine, nature walks, a gratitude practice, designated tech/media breaks, a positive/light attitude, a meditation practice, a creative outlet/hobby, a journaling practice, or discussions with a therapist, etc. My personal all-time favorite meditation tool is theMyLife app. It’s a user-friendly, practical way to take a break during your day to check in, breathe and be guided through a simple, yet rejuvenating, meditation practice.
2. Never Underestimate Sleep
“A good laugh and a long sleep are the best cures in the doctor’s book,” according to an old Irish proverb. Given the current COVID-19 pandemic, there may not seem like there’s much to laugh about. But neuroscientists are learning thatgetting a good night’s rest can be one of the best things you can do to keep your immune system – as well as your general mental health and well-being – in healthy shape. If you don’t already have a bedtime, declare one for yourself (at a reasonable hour, preferably 10pm) and stick to it. Make your bedroom conducive to resting: dim the lights as you wind down from your day, play soothing music, free yourself of distractions by turning off your tablet or phone, keep your favorite book or magazine at your bedside, make yourself some herbal tea…you get the idea. If you find yourself waking at night having a hard time falling back to sleep, try asimple breathing exercise.
3. Stay Hydrated
Hydration is key to avoid colds/flu. Pure, filtered water, or decaffeinated herbal teas, soups, broths (especially bone broth), andwater-rich fruits/vegetables all count towards your daily hydration. Get creative with flavoring your water naturally with sliced fruits or fresh herbs. To determine approximately how many ounces of water per day that your body needs, take your body weight and divide it in half. Remember to hydrate beyond just what you eat/drink. Keeping a humidifier in your bedroom at night while you sleep and keeping a simple drugstore saline solution in your bathroom/bag/bedside/car, etc. will help to keep your sinuses hydrated.
4. Nourish Your Gut
Your gut bacteria affects everything from your appetite to your immune system to your neurological function and even plays a key role in determining your mood. If you want to support a healthy gut microbiome, there are a range of things you can do. Chewing food very well, drinking filtered water, and reducing stressors (especially during meal times) are all a great start. Eating probiotic-rich foods daily is the easiest way to get a full spectrum of healthy bacteria that your gut/immune system needs to function. These include sauerkraut, organic kefir, organic plain yogurt, miso paste, apple cider vinegar, kimchi, and many more. The best part is that you don’t need very much at all; a tablespoon or two is sufficient to get in your daily dose! Remember, sugar, alcohol and processed foods diminish the integrity of your gut – all the more reason to eat healthful foods from the earth instead.
5. Eat Everyday Superfoods
By superfoods, I mean fruits and vegetables! Vitamin A has an important role in the healthy maintenance of the heart, lungs, kidneys and other vital organs. It can be found in the orange colored fruits and vegetables, along with (but not limited to) salmon, liver, goat cheese and grass-fed butter. Vegetables are nutrient dense and full of life that our body needs to thrive on. Veggies are also rich in fiber, which is important to consume so that toxins can be flushed regularly out of the body. Plenty of everyday fruits/vegetables are packed with vitamin C such as bell peppers, kiwi, sweet potatoes, brussels sprouts, broccoli, pomegranates, and papaya.
Mushrooms are particularly loaded with vitamin D and are known for their immune-boosting and cancer-fighting abilities. Try adding shiitake mushrooms to stir fries, soups, or include them into meat mixtures, casseroles or frittatas. Cordyceps (a type of medicinal mushroom) are now easily found in grocery stores inpowder form to drink. Dark leafy greens purify the blood and seaweed (such as dulse and/or kelp flakes) boost immunity because of how nutrient dense they are. Aim for at least one dark leafy green per day for great immune health!
At the very least, we must remind ourselves that we are responsible for our own health and should make a commitment to strive to make good choices when it comes to warding off infections, as COVID-19 and the inevitable influenza and other threats that we constantly face. By concentrating on building healthy immune systems we should be able to respond to these challenges with healthier attitudes and bodies.