How to Support Your Immune System During a Pandemic (and Beyond)

Everywhere you look, there’s information about how you can boost your immune system to stay healthy and ward off illnesses. Makes sense since we’re in the middle of a pandemic and stuck at home with time to read. But, the fact vs. fiction minefield of ‘internet nutrition’ & ‘guru-based health advice’ makes it hard to sift through all the junk to find the gems of science. When you’re reading online information about nutrition and immunity, it can feel like the game two truths and a lie. Let’s have some fun, make it simple and keep it real:

Here’s the truth, our immune system already knows what to do. It’s incredibly sophisticated and complex. We just need to give it the optimal environment and fuel, then get out of the way and let it flourish. Kind of like parenting!

It’s most effective to focus on what we can take control of, the areas where what we do can make a significant impact on our health and how we feel. While at the same time, letting go of uncertainty and the things we can’t control. This balance can help us manage stress. BTW, don’t let this stress you out but… stress is bad for our immune system! 

1. Be mindful and follow the recommended guidelines and regulations. We’ve all heard these over and over, but they remain as important as ever (especially since some may be experiencing social distancing fatigue.) 
  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly
  • Wear a face mask or covering when leaving home
  • Avoid touching your face when you are out
  • Maintain appropriate physical distance (6 feet whenever possible)
2. Take care of your mind and body - lifestyle habits impact your immune system.
  • Sleep: Get 7-9 hours/night for adults. (Put those phones away at bedtime!)
  • Exercise: Aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity 5 days a week
  • Meditate: Aim for at least 2 minutes a day
  • Connect with others: Maintain physical, not social distance
  • De-stress: What can you do to infuse joy into your day?
3. Eat a healthy, balanced diet. (I know, easier said than done.)

Another essential way to boost your immune system is through your diet. Eat healthy, get the right nutrients, and limit your consumption of alcohol, sugar and processed foods.

Aim for 50% of your plate to be veggies, 25% whole grains or starchy vegetable and 25% protein. This helps you maintain a healthy weight, even when ‘cheat meals’ are more prevalent. Weight management is important for immunity - obesity can increase the risk of infection and make it more difficult to recover from illness.

Alcohol in moderation can be a stress reliever, but in excess it can compromise our immune system and contribute to poor sleep, stress, depression, weight gain and risk for illnesses.

Sugar and ultra-processed foods may seem safer right now because grocery workers and shoppers aren’t touching surfaces you will eat (like an apple), but these foods are typically devoid of nutrients and loaded with unhealthy fats, sodium and additives. Just like alcohol, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying a cookie or frozen pizza in moderation. (Pro tip – keep these items tucked away in the back of the cabinet or freezer to reduce temptation when boredom or stress strike at home.)

The good news is there are plenty of foods and nutrients that can help boost your immune system. Let’s breakdown the science on nutrition and immune support.

Protein

Fun fact: our immune cells are made from proteins! Between baking sessions, add some protein to your day to help give your immune system what it needs to stay strong; your muscles will thank you too!7 

 Good sources of protein include:

  • Fish
  • Chicken
  • Lean meat
  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Nut butters
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Tofu
  • Peas

Phytonutrients

You’ve probably heard ‘eat the rainbow’. That’s because the compounds in plants that help defend them in nature, like their pigment or pungency, also support our body’s defense systems. Getting an array of colors helps to flood our system with the right variety of nutrients — like antioxidants, anti-inflammatory and anti-viral/bacterial/fungal compounds — to keep us healthy & happy. Phytochemicals can also help our cells communicate better, protect our DNA from environmental and age-related damage, and promote natural detoxification processes.1 

 Good sources of phytonutrients include:

  • Colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Beans
  • Legumes
  • Herbs & spices, like ginger, turmeric, echinacea, oregano

Fiber

Did you know that 70-80% of your immune system is in your gut?!2,3,4  Maintaining gut health also supports brain health, mood, a healthy weight and of course good digestion.

 Good sources of fiber include:

  • Whole grains (oats, quinoa, brown rice)
  • Beans
  • Lentils
  • Nuts
  • Seeds
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables

Vitamins & Minerals

These nutrients are essential for life and now more than ever deserve the spotlight they’re getting. We will highlight a few key nutrients because of their starring role in your immunity.

Vitamin C

We all know and love this health hero. Besides being a champion antioxidant, Vitamin C also supports our skin; one of our largest immune organs. Who doesn’t want glowing skin during quarantine?!

 Good food sources of Vitamin C include:

  • Oranges
  • Lemons
  • Limes
  • Grapefruit
  • Elderberries
  • Cauliflower
  • Bell peppers
  • Spinach

Vitamin D

It’s not just for strong bones; it’s necessary for strong immunity and especially helpful for our lungs. Vitamin D is a hormone that plays a vital role in many processes throughout our bodies.  Our main source of Vitamin D is the sun, making it a challenge to get sufficient amounts for those living in northern regions or when you’re stuck inside.

Previous research links insufficient levels of Vitamin D to higher risk of many illnesses, including cancer risk and lung diseases.5,6  Early research looking at nutrition in the fight against COVID-19 suggests that maintaining sufficient levels of Vitamin D may help reduce the severity of symptoms and mortality rates, especially in people who are deficient or have insufficient blood levels.7,8,9    

 Good food sources of Vitamin D include:

  • Fatty fish and seafood (tuna, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, oysters, shrimp)
  • Fortified nondairy milks
  • Milk and other dairy foods
  • Egg Yolks
  • Mushrooms

But our main source of Vitamin D is sunshine, so try to get some sun or consider taking a supplement if you are unable to get enough sunlight.

Zinc

Zinc is an essential mineral that helps our body run optimally – facilitating enzymes, immune function, protein synthesis & wound healing.10 We even need zinc for taste and smell (lack of smell is one of the COVID symptoms). Consuming zinc is important because our body lacks the ability to store this nutrient long term.

 Good food sources of zinc include:

  • Meat
  • Shellfish
  • Poultry
  • Beans
  • Nuts
  • Whole grains

Selenium

Selenium is a trace element, meaning we don’t need a large amount. However, this mineral plays a vital role in supporting mechanisms throughout our body. Most notable are protection from oxidative damage and infection, thyroid metabolism, reproduction and DNA synthesis. Selenium deficiency has been linked to increased risk for infertility in men, osteoarthritis, certain cancers and other illnesses. Much of the selenium in foods come from healthy soil levels.11

 Good food sources of selenium include:

  • Brazil nuts
  • Fish
  • Meat
  • Dairy
  • Grains
  • Vegetables

Magnesium

Magnesium is an essential mineral that supports many important functions in your body, including your immune system, nervous system, muscles and bones. Magnesium supplementation is also often recommended when taking vitamin D supplements, as it helps activate vitamin D, which plays an important role in immune and respiratory health.

 Good food sources of magnesium include:

  • Avocados
  • Nuts
  • Legumes
  • Tofu
  • Seeds
  • Whole grains
  • Salmon
  • Bananas
  • Leafy greens

4. Take supplements that support immune function if you aren’t able to get enough of the necessary vitamins and minerals from your diet alone.

Science supports a food first approach to getting the nutrients your body needs, but there are times when an individual can benefit from including a supplement, based on personal health and lifestyle factors. For example, if you live in a northern region, taking Vitamin D may be advised. It's always smart to talk to your doctor before starting a new supplement regimen, especially if you have a health condition or take medications.

To summarize, there is a lot we can do to boost our immunity and stay healthy during this pandemic, and beyond. Just remember to focus on what you can control —and a stronger immune system is within reach!

  • Follow your community's recommended guidelines and regulations.
  • Take care of your mind and body – get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and reduce stress.
  • Eat a healthy, balanced (and delicious!) diet.
  • Take supplements if you are unable to get the optimal amount of nutrients through diet alone.

  

References:

  1. https://www.livescience.com/52541-phytonutrients.html
  2. https://www.eatright.org/health/wellness/preventing-illness/support-your-health-with-nutrition
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2515351/
  4. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/research/advancements-in-research/fundamentals/in-depth/the-gut-where-bacteria-and-immune-system-meet
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4776550/
  6. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/12/141202082539.htm
  7. https://nutrition.bmj.com/content/early/2020/06/09/bmjnph-2020-000089?versioned=true
  8. http://imj.ie/vitamin-d-and-inflammation-potential-implications-for-severity-of-covid-19/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7189189/
  10. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
  11. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/

 

About Stacy Kennedy

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