As the virus sweeps across our population, people are prioritizing their health more than ever before, and searching for new ways to boost immunity. Vitamin C sales have surged, manufacturers are struggling to meet demands for hand sanitizer, and our communities transition to being entirely indoors and online.
No one wants to get sick, or aid the spread of this virus. What can we do to keep ourselves safe and healthy?
Our number one defense against sickness is a strong immune system. Without an immune system, our bodies would be open to attack from microscopic threats like bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Involving many types of cells, organs, and proteins, this system’s job is to distinguish our tissue from foreign tissue. If the immune system encounters an antigen (aka. pathogen, bacterium, virus, parasite etc.) it triggers an immune response, and the body fights to dispose of this foreign invader.
If your immune system is weak or overall unhealthy, your body’s response will be less able to fight antigens and you’ll be more vulnerable to getting sick and developing more severe symptoms.
What do we do during viral seasons? We load up on vitamins, medications and disinfectants. While I’m not dissuading the importance of these things, it’s important to remember:
The best way to boost your immune response is to improve your overall well being. Are you eating whole, nutrient-dense foods? Are you getting enough sleep and fresh air? What is your overall stress level?
In contrast, here are some easy lifestyle habits that can improve your overall health and boost immunity:
Eat a whole food diet: It is always important to avoid processed foods and prioritize a whole, nutrient-dense diet, but especially when we fear our immune system may become compromised. We’ll get into more details about eating for immunity below.
Get adequate sleep: Sleep is SO essential and most of us don’t get enough of it. While we sleep, our bodies shift into “restoration mode”, producing higher levels of hormones, chemicals and white blood cells which heal wounds and fight infection. This study, which appears in the Journal of Experimental Medicine, explains the core relationship between sleep and immunity.
Right now, as we practice social distancing and home isolation, is the perfect time to catch up on sleep and establish a better schedule for when life goes back to normal. The most beneficial snoozing hours are before midnight.
Minimize stress: Mental stress is one of the most detrimental factors against building immunity. Minor stress is normal. But if your job, relationship or financial situation is eating away at your mental health, keep in mind that it’s doing the same to your physical body. When you’re mentally overwhelmed, the body puts the immune system at the bottom of the priority list.
Keep checking in with yourself. Pinpoint anything that may be causing you unhealthy amounts of stress, and see how you can change or eliminate it.
Wash your hands & disinfect your phone: This goes without saying, but often people don’t realize how many germs we carry on our phones. For hands, use soap and hot water. Wash for 20 seconds, and don’t forget between the fingers and under the nails. Rubbing Alcohol makes a great daily disinfectant for phones and other devices.
Exercise: Observational studies show that those who exercise tend to suffer fewer infections that those who do not. Whether it’s a walk in the park, jog, yoga practice or online fitness class, aim for 30 minutes of physical activity a day.
Get fresh air: Especially when facing a lung-targeting virus, breathing fresh air is imperative. Inside, we primarily breathe pathogen-laden recirculated air. Going outside gives our lungs a chance to discharge toxins, increase oxygen intake and lower cortisol.
Hydrate: A good rule of thumb is to drink at least half your weight in ounces per day. For example, if you weigh 170lbs, aim to consume 85oz (2.5 litres) of water daily. If you feel cold, herbal tea is a great alternative.
Sauna (ideally Infrared): This form of thermotherapy has been used for thousands of years for hygiene, health, social, and spiritual purposes. The extreme heat raises your core body temperature by 1°-2°C, inducing an artificial fever and triggering the body’s defence system accordingly. This study at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia explains on a cellular level how regular sauna use reinforces the body’s defence mechanisms.
Pro tip: alternate between hot and cold (ex. sauna and cold plunge) to maximize benefits.
Lymphatic Massage/Dry Brushing: The primary function of the lymphatic system is to transport white blood cells throughout the body via the fluid “lymph”. It also helps rid the body of waste, toxins and unwanted materials. Our lymphatic system is one of two circulatory systems in the body, but unlike the vascular system, there is no organ responsible for moving fluid around. Adding a daily 10 minute lymphatic self-massage or dry brushing session stimulates lymphatic drainage and assists normal lymph flow.
In addition to improving our lifestyles, there is a plethora of natural supplementation that can have great effects on immunity. Be aware that when purchasing supplements, it’s important to prioritize quality – look for those that have gone through thorough testing, have detailed ingredient lists and are recommended by professionals.
There is some controversy on the effectiveness of supplementation to specifically prevent and treat the virus. Scientists, like Linda Van Horn (chief of nutrition in the department of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine) all over the world agree that “….eating a nutritious diet and getting proper sleep and exercise are the best ways to strengthen your immune system.” That being said, there are many studies stating the efficacy of certain vitamins and herbs in supporting immunity, and it’s never a bad idea to take extra precautions.
During this outbreak of novel virus, it’s important to focus on supplements that support lung and respiratory health. Our lungs’ number one job is to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, but they have a plethora of other functions including: blood pressure regulation, pH balance, infection protection, blood reservoir, mucus clearance, speech and detoxification. When the lungs become compromised, it causes a domino effect throughout our entire body.
Some of the most helpful immunity-boosting supplements and herbs are:
Liposomal Vitamin C: Vitamin C is an antioxidant, aids in the absorption of minerals like zinc and iron, builds collagen, and helps protect organs by bolstering fatty tissue.
What does “Liposomal” mean? Liposomal vitamins are encapsulated in pockets of fat cells (called liposomes) rather than using capsules, tablets or powders. Currently, this technique is the most effective way to ensure proper absorption.
Oil of Oregano: Oil of oregano is nature’s antibiotic. It reduces inflammation, provides antioxidants, treats fungal infections and kills bacteria. It is extremely effective, but be careful not to overuse it or take it for more than two weeks at a time.
Zinc: Zinc is a mineral of many functions, but it is best known for its ability to bolster immunity. There are many studies proving zinc can prevent sickness and/or shorten the length of colds and flus.
Echinacea: Echinacea is a flowering plant that grows in North America, and it’s been used as medicine for centuries. Clinical results have been inconclusive thus far, but scientists believe it can help prevent respiratory infection.
Vitamin D3: Referred to as a vitamin, Vitamin D also acts as a hormone in the body. This review of 25 randomized trials finds that taking V4itamin D has a protective effect against respiratory-tract infections. It’s very hard to get adequate vitamin D from food – the best source is sunlight – so it’s a great supplement to take, especially during the winter. Look for Vitamin D3/K2 combo in gel caps or liquid form.
NAC (N-Acetyl Cysteine): NAC is an antioxidant that has been shown to reduce phlegm and cough, loosen mucus and decrease the deterioration of lung function. It helps replenish glutathione levels in the lungs and decrease bronchial inflammation.
Omega-3: Almost all of us are deficient in Omega-3s. This essential fatty acid is chronic for reducing inflammation. Try to consume foods like salmon, tuna, mackerel walnuts, pumpkin seeds, in addition to adding a supplemental dose of Omega-3.
Elecampane Root: This root has been long-used to treat lung diseases including asthma, whooping cough, and bronchitis. Elecampane contains the effective phytochemical “inulin” which coats and soothes the lining of the bronchial tubes and helps clear the lungs of congestion. It’s a powerful root to take as both a preventative and a treatment-aid.
Curcumin: Most commonly found in turmeric, curcumin is a powerful antioxidant that has been shown to reduce airway inflammation. Traditionally used in Asian medicine, it’s safe at high-doses and can be taken on it’s own or deliciously added to foods like rice, coffee, eggs and curries.
Briefly mentioned above, I’d like to reiterate the importance of eating an immune-boosting diet. Here is an easy guideline you can follow to make the most out of your meals!
Eat whole, nutrient-dense foods: Avoid all processed & packaged foods, and always check the ingredient list. Recommended items to keep on hand are: eggs, grass-fed beef, pork belly, bone-broth, yams, squash, zucchini, high-fat plain yoghurt, almond butter, 90% chocolate, avocados, cheddar cheese, nitrate-free sausage, frozen berries, spinach, canned salmon, olive oil and coconut milk.
Moderate alcohol: Excessive alcohol usage can increase inflammation and disrupt immune response.
Avoid sugar: Eating or drinking too much sugar slows down the immune system by putting your white blood cells in a coma-like state.
Cook with garlic and ginger: Garlic is an immunity-boosting superstar (and it keeps the vampires away!) Rich in organosulfur compounds, it is used for its antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties. In fact, garlic was the main preventative of Gangrene during both world wars. Consuming raw garlic is best. And most widely known as an antiemetic (anti-nausea), ginger is also a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
Eat vitamin C rich foods: Citrus, bell pepper, broccoli, kale, strawberries and parsley are all examples of vitamin C rich foods. Taking a supplement is advantageous, but it’s always better to eat your nutrients when you can.
Dark chocolate: Dark chocolate (at least 85%) may help protect the body’s cells from free radicals due to the antioxidant theobromine.
Eat flavonoids: This 2016 study notes that flavonoids play an essential role in the respiratory tract’s immune defence system. Consume them by eating blueberries, grapes (including red wine), tea, onions, kale, broccoli and tomatoes.
A healthy immune system is necessary for survival – and it starts by leading a healthy lifestyle. By making some of these small changes in habits and diet, you can make a big difference in the strength of your body’s defences.
There is a lot here, but start simple: Eat a whole food diet, take vitamin C, sleep well, drink more water and less alcohol, and go for a 30 minute walk once a day. Then you can start stacking more of these items into your routine to maximize potential immunity benefits.
Incorporate as many of these immunity-boosting hacks as you can to help keep you, and your family, strong and healthy during this time.