How to protect your immune system from the inside
Updated: Apr 30, 2020
It’s been 6 weeks of quarantine and strict social distancing rules for many of us. Throughout this time many various rules have been implemented to slow the spread of Covid-19. We hear a lot about washing hands, wearing masks, maintaining proper distance when communicating with others and sanitizing surfaces. What we don’t really hear about much is how to protect our health and immune systems from the inside. Our bodies have immune systems for a reason. They’re designed to protect us from foreign invaders, like pathogens and toxins. By providing the right resources and conditions we can reduce our chance of getting sick and developing complications from any disease, Covid-19 included. Let’s talk about preventative measures you can take to protect yourself and your family. These are very simple everyday steps that can really make a difference.
1. Stress management. I deliberately put this as #1 on my list because I believe it’s the most important and most ignored aspect of health out there. Very often we’re a lot more willing to try a green smoothie or add vitamins to our daily regimen than address factors in our lives that make us stressed, and as a result – chronically inflamed and sick. We are living in extremely stressful times, which makes it even more important to acknowledge areas of our lives that need intervention. It’s absolutely ok to worry and be anxious, it’s part of our nature. However, when we’re stuck in the negative thought pattern our bodies continuously release cortisol and create a prolonged stress response of the sympathetic nervous system, which in turn increases inflammation & suppresses our immune function (1) (2).
It takes conscious effort to address specific areas that bring you extra anxiety and stress. If you feel fearful about the world’s events – limit your exposure to the news and social media. News headlines are deliberately made to be extra alarmist in order to attract audience. Let’s filter this information and prioritize our own well-being instead. If you’re anxious about the future for you and your family – try to focus on problems as they come day-to-day. Take small, actionable steps you can handle now vs. being overwhelmed by all the potential challenges in the future. When your mind gets stuck on the worst case scenario – instead of thinking of what can go wrong, think of what can go right, the opportunities that may arise from the situation. Consider doing a mental exercise - when feeling anxious and overwhelmed by negative thoughts, think of 3 positive things you have in you life right now and take action to reconnection with them - hug your child, call your family member, look at old pictures that bring happy memories, play with your dog etc. Introduce stress lowering activities, such as meditation, deep breathing exercises, long warm bath, listening to your favorite music, watch a comedy, go for a walk outside - there are so many choices. One specific breathing exercise I have personally found helpful is 4-7-8 breathing method, check it out here. Most importantly, keep space in your mind for hope and faith that things will get better. After all, research shows that optimism is good for your immune system and overall health, too (3)!
2. Foods that weaken our immune system. What we consume every day can either serve as building blocks that support our bodies, or make our bodies work harder to remove toxins while not receiving adequate nutrients. So it’s extremely important to be aware of the quality of the food we eat, especially now. High calorie low nutrient processed foods are not just a source of empty calories, they also usually contain a high amount of sugar, various additives and preservatives, unhealthy oils such as canola and corn, pesticides and more. All of these increase the body’s inflammatory response. Scientific studies have shown that when junk food is consumed, it induces an immune response similar to that for a bacterial infection (4). Basically, our bodies do not recognize these ingredients as food, but see them as foreign invaders that need to be killed. This type of food also destroys our gut flora and raises the risk of obesity and various chronic diseases, such as type II diabetes, heart disease, various autoimmune disorders, etc.
What’s best to avoid – added sugars, high fructose corn syrup, pro-inflammatory vegetable oils like canola, soy and corn, various preservatives, MSG, genetically modified foods, artificial colors and flavors, etc. Just think about it, if a product requires these chemicals to be added as ingredients, how does that reflect on the quality? Is that really something your body would benefit from? Learn to read ingredients on packages. If there are more than 2 lines of ingredients, including some you can’t pronounce or don’t recognize – it’s best to skip that item and find something better. Look for foods that are as close to their original form as possible. For example, instead of buying chicken soup in a can, buy chicken and vegetables, make your own soup (which is super easy to make, check out this recipe) and enjoy delicious healing goodness. Instead of buying Doritos, which include MSG, artificial colors & flavors and more - choose healthier items, such as Terra vegetable chips, or even make your own chips at home, like this recipe. An added benefit of cooking your own food – during the process of cooking your body starts releasing digestive juices and getting ready to consume what you made. It improves your digestion and absorption of food, which strengthens your immune system and your overall health.
3. Foods for immune health. It’s simply impossible to discuss all the foods that are good for the immune system. Food really is medicine. If you make an effort to clean up your diet and focus more on unprocessed, nutrient dense foods – the benefits to your health will be obvious in no time. Let’s focus on foods that are especially good to eat now during this pandemic. Remember, even though there isn’t research showing that these foods could help protect against Covid-19, there is still plenty of research that shows their overall disease fighting potential against other infectious diseases, as well as overall immune system support. We’re not talking about curing these diseases, but supporting the body and helping it fight against ANY disease.
Garlic - it contains sulfur rich compounds that help the immune system fight pathogens. Research shows that garlic can be helpful when dealing with common colds and influenza viruses (5). These compounds are activated when garlic is crushed or chopped. The best way to utilize benefits is to use fresh garlic, crush or slice it before eating and letting it stand for 10 minutes prior to cooking. You can also take garlic in supplement form, just make sure that you’re using a reputable company with high quality ingredients.
Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kombucha, kvass, kefir, kimchi and more. These delicious foods are rich in beneficial probiotic bacteria that help support gut health. Since 70% of the immune system function is in the gut, healthy gut means healthy immune response and overall improved health (6) (7). Furthermore, many fermented foods are rich in zinc and vitamin C, which enhances their immune system benefits even more. When choosing fermented products, avoid added sugars in yogurt, kefir and kombucha. Read labels to make sure there is no vinegar used to preserve sauerkraut and other fermented vegetables, as vinegar destroys beneficial bacteria contained in these products. Add a small serving of fermented foods to your meals, such as a side dish of sauerkraut with lunch, a serving of unsweetened yogurt with breakfast, drink kombucha when craving soda, it makes a delicious and healthy substitute.
Foods rich in quercetin can also help support the immune system, calm down inflammation and increase antioxidant defense mechanisms (8). Quercetin is a natural bioflavonoid found in many fruits and vegetables, such as apples, onions, broccoli, tomatoes and more. There is research that quercetin and its derivatives were found to inhibit SARS virus ability to enter into the cells of the body, so scientists speculate that the same could potentially apply to Covid-19 virus, too (9). One way I make sure my family consumes more quercetin is when I make chicken soup, I add onion with the yellow skin on. Onion skin is especially rich in quercetin, and during the cooking process quercetin is transferred to the soup, making it more antioxidant rich and anti-inflammatory (10). In addition to eating quercetin rich foods, various functional doctors have recommended taking quercetin supplements to support the immune system during this pandemic.
Sulphur rich foods such as broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts contain sulforaphane, which helps boost body’s production of glutathione, the master antioxidant. It helps fight increased oxidative stress n the body, which is essentially an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in your body. Any illness, whether chronic or acute, means higher oxidative stress, which in turn means higher demand for antioxidants to neutralize the free radicals and prevent cell damage. Glutathione is one of the most effective antioxidants, it helps to reverse oxidative stress (11). For additional ideas on how to best cook and eat sulfur rich foods check here.
Foods rich in other antioxidants - these foods also provide the body resources to neutralize oxidative stress. Plus they contain various other vitamins and minerals that the body needs for optimal immune function and health (12). Examples include blueberries, strawberries, beets, spinach, green tea and more. Cooking can destroy some of the antioxidant benefits, so do enjoy some fruits and vegetables in their raw form. Make sure to aim for a mix of different colors - red, purple, green, orange. The more diverse a rainbow you consume each day - the better. However, not all cooking methods are created equal. For example, stir frying and roasting will preserve more nutrients than boiling and steaming.
Prebiotics are a type of fiber that provide nutrients for beneficial gut bacteria in the digestive tract. Since gut health is directly related to immune function and overall health, it’s important to consume plenty of prebiotic rich foods, such as onions, apples with the skin on, Jerusalem artichoke, chicory root, dandelion greens, bananas and asparagus (13). Consuming probiotics without plenty of prebiotics will not be as beneficial to your gut health as they need continuous nourishment (14). Chicory root, for example, is available as a delicious drink alternative to coffee. Jerusalem artichokes can be added raw to salads, steamed or boiled like potatoes. One word of caution: consuming too much prebiotics at once may cause some abdominal discomfort and bloating. In that case, reduce the amount of prebiotics and slowly increase them again, watching out for symptoms. Prebiotics can also be consumed in a supplement forms, separately from, or in combination with probiotics, most commonly in the form of inulin or fructooligosaccharides (FOS).
Bone broth and other gut healing foods help to restore healthy gut lining, which in turn supports the immune system health. Bone broth is rich in collagen, which helps soothe inflamed gut and reduce overall inflammation. It also contains essential nutrients that help the immune system to function optimally, such as essential amino acids, potassium, magnesium, calcium, vitamins A, D, B and more (15). Other gut healing foods include various soups and stews. Chicken soup, for example, has been scientifically shown to build up immune response and help fight upper respiratory infections (16) (17). You can use your imagination and experiment with various combinations of vegetables and proteins to create various dishes that are healing for your gut and supportive for your immune system, the possibilities are endless.
Spices, such as curcumin, turmeric, cloves, oregano, cinnamon, cayenne pepper and ginger have amazing anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and immune protective properties. Ginger, for example, is well known for its antimicrobial action, as well as respiratory and digestive health aid (18). Cinnamon is known to help reduce inflammation, balance blood sugar and defend against pathogens (19). It's best to use Ceylon cinnamon as opposed to the cheaper and more commonly used Cassia variety. Curcumin and turmeric protect against free radical damage, soothe digestion and have very powerful anti-inflammatory properties (20)(21). Using spices on cooked food, especially deep fried and char grilled, reduces carcinogenic effects and boosts antioxidant content. There are also recipes online for ways to use these spices specifically for health issues, such as cinnamon and honey cough syrup recipe, ginger immune boosting tea, turmeric & ginger hot cider and more.
You can’t magically achieve health from a pill bottle or that one supplement that will fix everything. Health is a journey, it’s a way of life, a series of steps you take every day. It’s the process of learning to listen to your body and provide what it needs to support you, whether it’s food, stress management, meaningful connections or anything else. These everyday measures can have a profound long term effect on your immune function, physical and mental well-being and quality of life. This list above is not complete, there are many more ways you can improve your health. Just don’t try to implement all of the changes at once, do it one step at a time to create sustainable habits and long lasting results. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me for support and resources. Be well!