Even some of the most health-conscious people fall victim to illness from time-to-time. All it takes is an interaction with someone who has a virus to contract it. With the COVID-19 pandemic currently at play, it's more important now than ever to support your immune system, and naturally.
According to an article by Harvard Health Publishing, there is a lot researchers have yet to learn about the "intricacies and interconnectedness of the immune response." The article even states, "For now, there are no scientifically proven direct links between lifestyle and enhanced immune function."
However, this doesn't mean you can't take preventive measures against contracting a virus. It's important to actively keep your immune system strong so that your body can best combat against illness. After all, it's not ideal to be down for the count with a cold or the flu for two weeks. We consulted Dr. Cedrina Calder, preventive medicine doctor and health expert; Sydney Greene, MS, RD; and Elizabeth Ward, MS, RDN, and author of Better Is the New Perfect blog for ways on how to boost your immune system the natural way.
A diet full of these vitamins and minerals can help support your immune system naturally
Calder says diet is one of the top ways you can strengthen your body's immunity to bacteria and virus.
"Eating a healthy diet helps your immune system by providing it with the nutrients it needs to function properly. Certain vitamins and minerals are essential for a healthy immune system because they are directly involved in the immune response," she says. Vitamins B6, C, and E, as well as the mineral zinc, can help your body fight against pathogens, and Calder provided insight on which foods are rich in each.
Vitamin B6: chickpeas, salmon, tuna, chicken, beef, turkey, oatmeal, brown rice, eggs, soy, potatoes, and bananas
Vitamin C: bell peppers, broccoli, spinach, asparagus, sweet potatoes, guava, papaya, citrus fruits, strawberries, and pineapples
Vitamin E: nuts, seeds, avocado, squash, spinach, broccoli, and cooking oils like almond and canola
Zinc: oysters, crab, lobster, beef, turkey, chicken, hemp seeds, tofu, lentils, peas, and cashews
Eating a combination of these foods can help your body combat illness, no matter where it lurks, and it's an all-natural way to boost your immune system. Instead of reaching for an Emergen-C packet, you can look for healthy foods like these that improve your immunity.
Ward also says that Vitamin D may also play a pivotal role in immunity and a lot of people don't get enough of it, especially during this time of year.
"The body makes vitamin D in response to strong sunshine, and coming off the winter months, most people don't have enough stored in their bodies," she explains. "While it's just one component of good health, it's important to consume enough vitamin D from foods."
Vitamin D: milk, tuna, salmon, egg yolks, mushrooms, orange juice and cereals that are fortified with vitamin D
She also suggests taking a multivitamin to ensure your getting your daily dose of vitamin D on a regular basis. In a former Eat This, Not That! article, Nicole Avena, Ph.D. and assistant professor of neuroscience at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, said that studies have suggested that taking 1,200 IU of vitamin D daily and over the course of four months reduces the risk of contracting influenza.
Increasing intake of probiotics and protein may also help ward off illness
Probiotics and prebiotics work in tandem to foster a healthy gut, and probiotics especially work to keep our mental health balanced and immune system strong.
"Often called the second brain, our gut is not only responsible for digestion and absorption but it also affects immune function and mood," says Greene. "Creating a healthy internal environment is key to keeping energy levels up and staying healthy."
She suggests upping your intake of the following foods to help build a healthy gut microbiome.
Probiotics: yogurt, kimichi, and sauerkraut
Ensuring that you're consuming enough protein is another important factor in supporting your immune system.
"Protein is necessary to make cells and other compounds that combat viruses and bacteria, but extra protein is unnecessary," says Ward. "To get enough, make sure to have at least 20 grams at every meal, which is the amount found in two eggs and 1 ounce of cheese; 3 ounces of drained canned tuna fish; or 1 cup tofu, for example."
It's very easy to consume too much protein, especially if you eat meat and animal byproducts such as milk, eggs, and cheese.
She says its best to spread out your protein consumption evenly throughout the day," to give your body the raw materials it needs to make disease-fighting compounds."
Right now, Ward likes to combine 1 cup of frozen cherries, thawed, mixed with 1/2 cup of plain Greek yogurt for a protein-rich snack.
Getting enough sleep is essential to staying healthy
"Sleep deprivation has a negative effect on immune system function," says Calder. Sleep is essential for healing and repairing muscles from exercise, supporting brain function, and even maintaining emotional well-being. So a lack of sleep can actually decrease your body's ability to fight infection, Calder says.
She says that adults should receive between seven and nine hours of sleep each night to keep their immune system strong. "It has been suggested that chamomile tea may have a calming effect on the body, inducing relaxation and promoting sleep. There is a lack of research backing this claim, but it's worth giving it a try," she says.
There are several foods that can help you fall into a restful slumber. For example, a glass of cow's milk contains an amino acid called L-tryptophan, which is known to help induce sleep because of its ability to synthesize serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps to facilitate sleep. Other foods that can help you sleep and contain L-tryptophan (more commonly known as tryptophan) include yogurt, turkey, and eggs.
Limiting alcohol consumption will also help to support your immune system
"We know sleep is crucial for optimal immune function however when we drink alcohol our sleep takes a major hit which then effects our ability to fight off infection," says Greene. "One way this happens is through disruption in REM sleep. Entering a REM state is affected when the body is trying to metabolize the alcohol throughout the night, leading to an overall poorer night's sleep."
Additionally, Greene says new research has showed the pivotal role the gut plays in immune function (hence the importance of probiotics as mentioned above) and the gut is immediately affected upon the ingestion of alcohol.
"Not only can alcohol affect the gut by damaging the intestinal lining, leading to leakage of harmful bacteria out into the body, but it can alter the various microbes in the gut leading to an undesirable ratio of bad bacteria to good bacteria."
If you've ever had heartburn or acid reflux after drinking, you've experienced this shift in bacteria firsthand.
Learning how to cope with stress can help support your immunity
Have you ever heard of the expression "stress makes you sick?" Well, it's true.
"Research has shown that stress negatively affects the immune system and decreases its ability to fight infection," says Calder. "Eating a healthy diet, exercising, and getting adequate amounts of sleep help lower your body's stress levels."
There are a handful of foods that may help alleviate anxiety, which in part helps to prevent stress. Foods that are rich in vitamin C—such as all of the ones that Calder listed above—are packed in the anxiety-fighting vitamin. Research has shown that those who have higher levels of vitamin C are less likely to demonstrate both mental and physical signs of stress in what should be stress-oriented situations. Magnesium is another such mineral that can help alleviate stress, and foods such as almonds are chockfull of it. Pair a serving of berries with an ounce of almonds before a stressful situation, such as an interview, to naturally quell your nerves. However, eating foods that help to calm your nerves is only part of the equation—the other part requires more work on your inner self.
"In addition, it is important to manage your mental ability to cope with stress. Developing good coping strategies is essential, as well as stress reduction practices like yoga, meditation, and mindfulness meditation," Calder says.
Ward concurs with Calder on exercise aiding in with stress reduction, and ultimately a healthier immune system. She says that exercise, "reduces cortisol, which is a hormone that your body produces when it perceives a threat, such as the coronavirus. Stress is a necessary response to threats, but constant stress is harmful to the body and could reduce your immune system function."
During a time when COVID-19 is spreading across the globe, a gym may not be the most sensible place to walk into, as person-to-person is ill-advised. Instead, Ward recommends taking a walk or going for a run outside as you the benefits of both fresh air and sunshine.
Steven Quay, MD, Ph.D. says, "find your favorite yoga video, get your mat out at home, and focus on daily stretching for the next 30 days. When this passes you can translate your new range of motion, from doing more yoga, back into your favorite gym cardio workout."
Stay healthy during this time by following these steps to support your immune system.