The immune system is your body’s defense against harmful substances. When the body senses these “antigens” (e.g. a bacteria, a virus or a toxin), it produces and sends specific antibodies to “mark” or target those antigens. Then a different group of antibodies are sent to destroy the marked, invasive antigens. The specialized antibodies remain in your body and this is how you build immunity to certain illnesses.
The immune system requires balance and harmony to work as it appears to be interconnected to several factors such as health, exercise, age, psychological stress and more. And while you can’t technically “boost” your immune system, you can do things to help it function properly. Here are 7 ways to give your immune system the upper hand. It is important to note that none of these can prevent COVID-19–only proper hygiene can.
1. Eat enough protein each day
Protein is typically associated with muscle mass, hair, skin and nails, but did you know it also supports your immune system? Whether from plant or animal sources, dietary protein contains the amino acids needed to form antibodies. Antibodies are produced by your immune system to help fight off harmful substances like bacteria, fungus, and viruses such as influenza and corona viruses. Without enough protein each day your body may fall short on protective antibodies when you need them. Specifically, low protein intake can lead to:
- an impaired immune response
- greater severity of infection
- a reduced ability to recover from infection
Find out how much protein you individually need each day and make sure you are getting enough to keep your immune system strong.
Here is an infographic on protein's role in immunity:
2. Take some probiotics
Probiotics are “live and active” beneficial bacteria found commonly in yogurt, in dietary supplements sold as powder or capsule-form and even in some fermented foods like kefir or tempeh. Contrary to misconception, though all fermented foods are made with living bacteria, not all fermented foods contain probiotics in their final form, as final processing methods like heat or drying can "kill" the once live friendly-bacteria. Look for fermented foods that can confirm the dose and specific strain of bacteria found in the final product.
Consuming probiotics helps balance the amount of good and bad bacteria in your gut and intestinal tract; it can also help to replenish good bacteria after it’s been lost (for example, after having taken a course of antibiotics). Studies have found that a healthy colony of gut bacteria helps to keep harmful pathogens at bay.
3. Soak up some Sunshine!
Vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) plays a vital role on immunity as nearly all immune cells contain vitamin D receptors. According to the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health, "once [vitamin D] binds to these receptors, it helps certain immune cells called monocytes transform into specialized cells called macrophages that can kill bacteria and viruses. Also, metabolites of Vitamin D regulate production of proteins that can directly kill microbes and help reduce infections."
Studies are increasingly showing there might be a connection between vitamin D (the sunshine vitamin) and risk of Covid-19. Though a causal relationship was not established, a recent study showed an association between vitamin D deficiency and increased Covid-19 severity and mortality in hospitalized patients.
Because everyone's skin receives sunlight so differently, there aren't concrete guidelines on how much sunlight is best for obtaining vitamin D synthesis. However, vitamin D researchers suggest loose guidelines of approximately 5-30 minutes of daily sun exposure directly onto skin (without sunscreen), between the hours of 10am and 4pm in order to provide the body with enough vitamin D. If sunlight isn't an option, then certain foods or supplements can be consumed to get what you require (see more on this below). Most adults below age 70 require 15mcg (or 600 IU) vitamin D per day.
4. Eat a healthy, balanced diet (for the most part)
“For the most part” means you should aim for at least 80% of your diet to come from whole, nutrient-dense foods including plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains and lean cuts of meat, fish, poultry. This will ensure that you are getting the needed range and amounts of beneficial vitamins and minerals to support your immune system. Why not 100% healthy diet? Because it’s not realistic…especially not if your lifestyle has changed drastically due to the pandemic. It’s perfectly ok (and generally not detrimental) to enjoy and indulge in non-nutritious foods once in a while, when most (at least 80%) of your diet is healthy and nutritious.
The following nutrients play a key role in supporting the immune system. Try to eat more foods (or supplements) rich in those nutrients to help support your immune system:
- Vitamin C: citrus fruits, red bell peppers, papaya, kiwi, strawberries
- Vitamin A/beta carotene: sweet potato, spinach, carrots, sweet red peppers, cantaloupe
- Vitamin D: exposure to sunlight, fortified milks or orange juice, UV-treated mushrooms, cod liver oil or other fatty fish
- Vitamin E: nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters, wheat germ
- Zinc: baked beans, pumpkin seeds, cashews, chickpeas
Antioxidants and Anti-inflammatory compounds such as found in:
- Cruciferous Veggies (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, etc)
- Green Tea
5. Get enough sleep
Not doing so, may impair your immune system, among other things. In particular, sleep appears to benefit T cells, the antibodies that help to kill or destroy targeted antigens. Here are some natural ways to get better sleep too.
6. Exercise regularly
Exercise has many benefits, including mental and physical health. Therefore, it too contributes to a healthy functioning immune system. Exercise can help the immune system find and deal with harmful substances, and it can also slow down changes that happen to the immune system with ageing therefore reducing the risk of infections. A recent analysis challenged the view that too much exercise may weaken the immune system and found that infections were more likely to be linked to inadequate diet, insufficient sleep, psychological stress and exposure to pathogens at gatherings rather than too much exercise.
7. Manage your stress
For many of us, stress is an inevitable part of life–whether it be from parenting, a stressful relationship or job. And lately it’s probable your stress levels have augmented exponentially due to drastic lifestyle changes brought upon by the coronavirus pandemic. The problem is stress (particularly chronic stress) can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to illness.
Chronic stress affects your immune system in two ways: 1) by creating chronic inflammation that harms body tissues and 2) by suppressing immune cells needed to fight infection.
While you can’t avoid the stress response, it is important to find a way that works for you to manage your stress. Simple home exercises or stretches, deep-breathing techniques, aromatherapy, meditation or prayer are just a few quarantine-friendly ways you may consider for stress management.
8. Don’t smoke
Cigarette smoke contains over 7,000 chemical compounds. These compounds can damage all types of cells in the body including those in the immune system. Smoking weakens the immune system and makes your body less successful at fighting infection.
By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian
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