By now, we’ve all heard the importance of good hygiene and social distancing to flattening the curve of new coronavirus cases. As a doctor, I want to encourage people to add another layer of effort: namely, best practices to strengthen your own immune system. While having your immune system in tip-top shape doesn’t mean you can ignore COVID-avoidance recommendations, it can help your body fight off infections and potentially lessen the burden on our health system.
A quick intro to your immune system
Your immune system is a complex, body-wide network that includes the lymphatic system, thymus gland, spleen, bone marrow, white blood cells, and antibodies and their complement system. Your skin, lungs, digestive tract, and body fluids like skin oil, saliva, and tears also play a large part in defending your body from invaders.
Did you know your immune system also has memory cells that keep track of every virus your body has ever defeated? It’s a bit mind-blowing and certainly remarkable. Unfortunately, viruses also have tactics up their sleeves and readily mutate, which is why you can still catch the flu or a cold despite having fought similar illnesses in the past.
COVID-19 is particularly problematic for the human race because it is a novel virus, meaning it is completely different , and no one—except the small percentage of people who have already had it and recovered—has antibodies that recognize the virus.
Best ways to boost your immune system
While Amazon may be selling out of zinc, vitamin C, and other supplements that are purported to help our immune systems, popping a few pills each day can only help so much. Consider the volume of food you eat in comparison with a vitamin pill or a zinc lozenge, and you can imagine how attending to your diet can have a much larger impact on your ability to fight off illness. Your daily habits also play a huge part.
When I wrote Eat, Drink, Heal, I didn’t specifically have coronavirus in mind, but the medical research I did is pertinent when it comes to resisting viral illness. In addition to enjoying bone broth for its fortifying effects (here’s my recipe), I have the following recommendations.
Make sure your diet is chock-full of green vegetables
You may already know that veggies provide a multitude of nutrients, plus fiber and prebiotics that support your microbiome. But did you realize cruciferous vegetables play another critical role in your immune system? According to this study that was detailed in Science Daily, green vegetables help ensure that “immune cells in the gut and the skin known as intraepithelial lymphocytes (IELs) function properly.”
Tip: Consider switching to a savory breakfast versus having something sweet to get in an extra helping of vegetables. This Green Shakshuka is one idea, and you can riff on the recipe with ingredients you have on hand.
Brighten up meals with citrus, berries, and other nutrient-rich fruits
Vibrant, flavorful fruits, such as citrus and dark berries, are known for being helpful to the immune system. That’s because they often contain high amounts of vitamin C and other essential nutrients. They can also help you get more benefits out of the greens you eat: having citrus or fruit along with your greens helps with the absorption of valuable iron.
Tip: Make a habit of topping your salads with a handful of berries. The contrasting flavor will convert salad-skeptics into salad lovers. This salad recipe is a great starting point, as it includes greens, berries, and protein. You can sub in your own personal favorites.
Boost flavor with garlic, ginger, and/or turmeric.
All three of these flavorful, aromatic ingredients are excellent for your immune system. Garlic contains sulfuric compounds and can directly stimulate immune cells. The beneficial effects are most powerful if you don’t cook the garlic, but you can still get benefits from using generous amounts in your cooking. Turmeric can also improve immune functions. It has been used in Ayurvedic medicine since ancient times. Ginger, a related plant, also has proven anti-inflammatory effects and is another great thing to include in your diet right now.
Tip: This awesome guide will show you how to make any protein and veg you have on hand into a delicious garlic- and ginger-infused stir-fry. You can also explore simple Indian recipes or try this weeknight curry if you want to enjoy all three at once.
Enjoy nuts and sunflower seeds
Not many of us realize the importance of vitamin E to our immune system—or what foods contain it. However, vitamin E is a “potent antioxidant and has an ability to modulate host immune functions.” Some great sources of vitamin E include almonds, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, and wheat germ oil.
Tip: Besides eating these foods, consider nut and seed butter options. While peanut butter does contain some vitamin E, you can boost your intake 3-4x by switching to almond or sunflower seed butter.
Get takeout or delivery from a cuisine that includes many immune-boosting ingredients
Travel may be limited for some time, but you can treat yourself and your immune system with food from another culture through takeout or delivery. Thai, Chinese, Indian, and Middle Eastern foods include many of the immune-boosting foods mentioned above.
Tip: Focus on dishes that are chock full of both vegetables and healthy proteins. For example, when ordering Thai food, choose a vegetable curry (with a protein of your choice) instead of your usual Pad Thai.
While food can do a lot for your immune system, your overall well-being is equally important to fighting off illness. Here are some key suggestions.
Adopt stress-reduction practices such as meditation or deep breathing
I recognize this is a time when most people’s stress levels are higher than usual, but it’s important to manage it—chronic stress can lead to immune dysregulation. Thankfully, adopting some simple habits can help. First, there’s deep breathing; I love the University of Michigan’s breathing exercises guide. Secondly, there’s meditation. The idea may sound absurd if you are sheltering in place with kids, but even micro-meditations can help. You can also download a meditation app and use it after you’ve put the kids to bed; it’s a great way to prepare for a good night’s sleep
Tip: Digest the news once daily using a source that informs you without unnecessarily fanning your anxiety. You might switch from watching cable news to reading a trusted source online.
There’s no doubt exercise both reduces stress hormones and improves immune regulation. Most shelter-in-place orders allow for walks, runs, or cycling, which bring the added benefit of fresh air. If you are stuck inside, I recommend strength training, YouTube workout videos (check out vintage 80s workouts if you want to be entertained at the same time), or yoga.
Tip: You don’t need any special equipment or much space to enjoy the benefits of exercise—you can even involve your kids. Do a bit of Googling and you’re sure to find options no matter what your limitations may be. For instance, this is a great list of exercises to do with kids and here’s a 15-minute strength-building workout that requires zero equipment.
Don’t consume excess alcohol
I know the combination of stressful times and reduced work schedules can make it tempting to drink more than you usually might. However, alcohol “disrupts immune pathways in complex and seemingly paradoxical ways.” Even more concerning right now is the fact that alcohol has long been associated with increased susceptibility to pneumonia—which is how COVID-19 kills.
I urge you to look closely at your consumption habits and moderate them. You might find that the ritual is more important than actually becoming inebriated. At five o’clock, you can still mix yourself a special drink over ice (this site has recipes as well as a mocktail subscription service) or crack open a non-alcoholic beer (Athletic Brewing has a range of NA brews).
Tip: Virtual toasts are a great way to connect with friends while social distancing, but you don’t have to have alcohol in your glass to participate. A spritzer made with pomegranate juice is festive, refreshing, and immune-boosting!
Get around 8 hours of sleep
Last but not least, let’s talk about sleep. Even if you are otherwise healthy, reduced sleep can produce immunodeficiency. If you’re having trouble, the above recommendations (exercise, stress reduction, and consuming less alcohol) can all help.
Tip: Even though your schedule may not currently require it, follow a daily routine with a set bedtime. An hour before that time each night, avoid screens as well as any activities that could increase your anxiety.
I hope this guide (along with following CDC guidelines) helps you and your loved ones maintain your health even in these challenging times. I encourage you to head over to our Facebook or Instagram for more nutritional tips; you can also stay up to date with the goings on of our practice and simply connect during this surreal time.