Kellie Blake RDN,LD,IFNCP
Creating a Robust Immune System
There is so much information out there about how to keep your immune system healthy. It's a valid topic, especially in light of the current pandemic. But, I have to admit it frustrates me when I read articles or social media posts claiming the only way to stay safe from viruses like COVID-19 is to wash your hands and socially isolate. There is so much more that you can do to build a robust immune system to keep you safe.
Your immune system is tasked with keeping you safe from outside invaders. But, when the immune response is altered, either underactive as in immune-compromised individuals, or overactive as in those with autoimmune disease or chronic inflammatory conditions, you are at risk for a number of complications.
Think of the immune system on a continuum from early life when immune function is developing, to adulthood where immune function should be optimal, to older adulthood where immune function is declining. There are three mechanisms in place to keep you safe from invaders: physical and biochemical barriers, when those fail to protect you, immune cells kick in and if the offender continues to attack, antibodies are created as the final layer of defense.
As we age, the function of the immune system begins to decline and interestingly, several modifiable factors can compound this process. Nutrition, oxidative stress, and environmental triggers all affect immune function and can exacerbate the decline. While there is a natural decline as we age, we still have a lot of control over our immune system. Lifestyle is powerful and just a few lifestyle changes will enhance immune system function in adulthood, and slow the decline as you age.
Research has proven that poor nutritional status increases the likelihood of acquiring infections and in fact, micronutrient deficiencies are known to affect the risk and severity of infections. As reported in Nutrients, nutritional status can actually predict outcome when it comes to measles, pneumonia, and diarrheal infections.
Micronutrients like vitamins A, C, D, E, B6, B12, folate, zinc, copper and selenium are particularly important when it comes to immune system function. It's no secret that Americans on the whole are lacking in these nutrients. In general, the American diet is low in produce and healthy fats and is overrun with processed foods laden with sugar, additives, and inflammatory oils. This is a dangerous combination, especially when it comes to immune system function.
With regard to Vitamin D, deficiency (very common) has been shown to increase susceptibility to and the severity of infections, especially respiratory tract infections. In addition, vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of autoimmune conditions. Not surprisingly, vitamin D supplementation in deficient individuals has been shown to reduce respiratory tract infections. And this is just one example of the power of nutrients to affect immune system function.
So, when it comes to your diet, it is absolutely a powerful way to enhance immune system function. And, it's the diet on the whole that's important. There are no magical foods or supplements, to recommend, but following some simple guidelines can help improve immune system function. I encourage my clients to think of food as information. You're either providing useful/beneficial or harmful information to your body every time you eat or drink.
Foods/Beverages to include in your meal plan: whole foods in their natural states, a variety of produce, grassfed beef, cage-free eggs, humanely raised poultry, wild-caught fish, beans, nuts, seeds, healthy fats/oils, spices, herbs, and green tea.
Foods/Beverages to avoid include: processed foods, foods you are sensitive to, gluten-containing foods, sugar, artificial sweeteners, conventionally-raised beef and poultry, farmed fish, foods containing harmful additives, soda, juice, energy drinks.
Chronic, toxic stress is another modifiable lifestyle factor that affects the immune system. As reported in Chronic Stress, when acute stress occurs, the immune system responds with catecholamines, glucocorticoids, and other immune mediators. But when that stress becomes chronic, this response is exhausted and the immune system actually becomes suppressed. This suppression makes you more susceptible to germs that wouldn't normally make you sick. Most of us have probably experienced this at some point. Before I started practicing effective stress management techniques, I remember getting a cold or the flu during particularly stressful times.
Some effective stress management techniques include meditation, walking in nature, journaling, healthy exercise (not over-exercising), listening to music, yoga, qi gong, massage, acupuncture, and tai chi. Pick a couple of these and practice them daily for maximum benefit. Don't forget about maintaining strong, healthy social relationships to minimize stress.
We all know the importance of exercise, but did you know healthy exercise can enhance immune system function? Exercise is a modulator of the gut microbiome and the health of the gut is intimately tied to immune system function. In fact, the gut is the largest immune system organ. A healthy amount of exercise is vital to the body, but just as important is the avoidance of excessive exercise. Exercising to exhaustion increases intestinal permeability, inappropriately stimulating the immune system, setting off a cascade of events leading to inflammation.
What is healthy exercise? 150 minutes of cardiovascular training each week, or 75 minutes of vigorous training weekly. 2 strength training sessions weekly targeting each muscle group. And flexibility training daily. Yoga or a short stretching routine will suffice. If you are new to exercise, I generally have clients start with a simple 10-minute walk after every meal and encourage them to build from there. You definitely don't have to run a marathon, which actually may be more harmful overall than helpful.
Lack of sleep is an unbelievable culprit in most chronic diseases, but also suppresses the immune system by creating a low-grade, chronic inflammation. Good quality sleep helps us restore and repair the body and in fact, as reported in Physiological Reviews, quality sleep reduces infection risk and improves infection outcome. The importance of healthy sleep can not be overstated.
Tips for improving sleep quality include creating a sleep routine and sticking with it every day (for example go to bed before 10pm and wake up before 6am), avoid blue light or bright light within an hour of bedtime, get in the light early in the morning, avoid eating within 3 hours of bedtime, avoid caffeine after noon, do not exercise right before bed, take a relaxing Epsom salt bath before bed, and practice a gentle yoga routine before bed.
You have more control over what happens to you than you think. In fact, 90-95% of what happens to us with regard to our health is related to our lifestyle and environment.
Creating an overall healthy lifestyle for yourself, along with targeted nutrition, can work with the hand-washing and social-distancing to keep your immune system ready to protect you.
Check out my immune-boosting Tangy Coleslaw Recipe from my soon to be released The Psoriasis Diet Cookbook
If you want a personalized plan to target whole-body health, contact us for a free 15-minute phone consultation.