Focus on the immune system has increased since COVID came to town. Whether you’ve been vaccinated or not, most people seem interested in how they can improve their immune system. 

When I learned the intricacies of the immune system during my nutrition training, I was amazed at how efficient and complex it truly is. Our bodies have three lines of defense to ward off foreign invaders. If any pathogens get past the first barrier of defense (our skin, for example), the second barrier goes to work, and so on. Multiple specialized cells recognize, seek out, and destroy any intruders the body doesn’t recognize. So if the body is so efficient at finding and destroying pathogenic intruders, why do we still get sick? Like any machine with multiple moving parts, we need to take care and provide what it needs to work optimally. So how can we provide our bodies—the most complex working “machines” I know of—what they need for optimal immune health? Below I offer up five suggestions to get you started.

1. Feed your bugs. 

We have more healthy bacteria living in our gut and in other parts of our body than total human cells! We are outnumbered by these microbes, but that is a good thing. Healthy bacteria, especially those living in our gut, help stimulate our immune system, feed epithelial cells (the lining of all external and internal surfaces in the body), and crowd out the bad bacteria that can cause illness. These bacteria live and thrive on fiber-rich foods. Fructan fibers are soluble fibers found in plant foods like onions, garlic, grains, beans, berries, and other vegetables. Cellulose is an insoluble fiber that our bodies can’t digest but still feeds our gut bugs. Examples include broccoli stems, carrot peels, and other tough, chewy plant parts we often throw away. Fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi also provide good bacteria for our gut.

2. Press the snooze button. 

Or, get to bed earlier. When we sleep our body systems go through a cleanout, getting rid of unhealthy cells and repairing damaged ones. Look at other lifestyle choices as well, such as smoking, drinking, and exercise. Eliminate smoking if possible, and decrease the amount of alcohol consumed, which can place added stress on several organs. Exercising regularly can lower blood pressure, improve cardiovascular health, control body weight, and protect against disease (Harvard Health Publishing, 2021).

3. Rethink your grocery list. 

This sounds obvious, but our cells function best when given proper nutrients. Look at your dinner plate and aim to have a good balance of macronutrients: proteins (grass-fed, organic meats), carbohydrates (organic veggies, whole grains), and fats (non-processed, non-GMO oils and fats). If you have had a history of digestive issues, you may want to try a digestive enzyme with your meals to help you absorb the nutrients you eat. Try to avoid excess sugar, as it is known to deplete your immune system for up to five hours (Sanchez et al., 1973). Skip the ginger ale next time you’re sick, and make yourself a homemade tea with peeled ginger instead!

4. Reach for the medicine cabinet. 

For supplements, of course. Modern farming practices have depleted our soil of vitamins and minerals, so the broccoli we eat today has only a fraction of the nutrients the broccoli our grandparents ate years ago had. We need to supplement with quality vitamins and minerals. Micronutrients like zinc, selenium, and vitamins A, C, and D are critical to a working immune system. Other supplements that have been helpful for boosting the immune system include quality probiotics (see above), medicinal mushrooms, which can provide beta-glucans and N-Acetyl Cysteine (NAC), found to be especially helpful in the fight against COVID-19 (Shi & Puyo, 2020).

5. Take a deep breath. 

Modern western medicine is starting to recognize the link between mind, spirit, and body. For example, anxiety can cause stomach upset, and anger can be harmful to the liver. Chronic stress, which can be a result of illness, relationship problems, and challenges at work (to name just a few), can put our bodies into a prolonged “fight or flight” mode. This state was only meant to be helpful to us in times of acute stress (like slamming on our breaks when a child runs into the street). Your heart will race for a moment, but your body eventually goes back to a more calm state. If we are consistently in a stressed state, hormones secreted can interfere with immune cell function (Padgett & Glaser, 2003). Finding time during your day to practice deep, meditative breathing will help your body return to a more relaxed state.

It seems most of us are busy and stressed these days. Now is the time to simplify and focus on improving our immune systems and overall health. I recently misplaced my cell phone at the airport when I was returning home from a short trip. I was without my phone for four days, which helped me realize how much time I spent (wasted?) on the device. It was a good reminder for me that I needed to take better care of myself physically and emotionally. I hope you do the same. Your immune system will thank you for it.

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