How to Support the Immune System (Hint: It’s Not Just Vitamin C)
More than ever, there’s an enhanced awareness around how to support the immune system to prevent disease.
However, this doesn’t mean you need to spend your money on supplements, vitamins, or elixirs.
No one food or supplement can replace a healthy lifestyle.
Also, it’s important to note that with the coronavirus pandemic, no research supports the use of any supplement to protect against COVID-19. Importantly, the best way to prevent illness is avoiding exposure to this virus. (1)
At Everglow Nutrition, we’re committed to bringing you evidence-based approaches to care for your health. That’s why in this article, we bring it back to the basics of simple, yet proven, ways to support your immune system.
What is the Immune System?
First, let’s address the question: what is the immune system? The immune system is a network of cells, organs, and tissues that protect the body from infection. Immune cells can be found throughout the body including in the skin, bloodstream, spleen, lymph, and gut (2). Think of the immune system as your boxing gloves, ready to knock out any germs that come your way.
4 Pillars of Immune Support
The 4 pillars of immune support are similar to Everglow Nutrition’s pillars of well-being. Read more about Everglow Nutrition’s philosophy here. They are nourishment, sleep, movement, and stress management.
Malnutrition is the most common cause of immunodeficiency worldwide (3). Overall caloric deficit (not getting enough calories) or a specific nutrient deficiency (not getting enough of one specific nutrient) can both lead to malnutrition.
Consequently, it’s important to get enough food to deliver nutrients to the immune cells, helping them do their job.
Most noteworthy, the following nutrients play a key role in supporting the immune system and can be obtained from food.
In addition to strengthening the bones, Vitamin D has numerous effects on cells within the immune system. The best sources of vitamin D are fatty fish, like salmon and tuna. Vitamin D is found in smaller amounts in some mushrooms, dairy products or plant-based alternatives fortified with vitamin D, and egg yolks (don’t skip the yolk). (4)
Vitamin C supports the immune system by stimulating antibody production. To include more vitamin C in your diet focus on citrus foods like oranges, grapefruit, and lemon. Other vitamin C rich foods include tomatoes, bell peppers, strawberries, and kiwi. Some cereals come fortified with vitamin C, too.
Vitamin E is a potent antioxidant with the ability to enhance the immune system. For vitamin E rich foods, focus on healthy fats like avocado, nuts, and seeds. More examples include peanuts/ peanut butter, almonds/ almond butter, and sunflower seeds or oil. (5)
Vitamin A is known as the “anti-inflammation” vitamin for its role in enhancing immune function. It helps protect the organs of the immune system. Foods containing vitamin A include orange and yellow vegetables, like sweet potatoes and carrots, broccoli, leafy greens, and eggs. (6)
Zinc plays an essential role in recovery and wound healing. Obtain zinc from foods like lean meat, seafood, nuts, beans, and whole grains. High doses of zinc, like in a supplemental form, can interfere with iron absorption. Therefore, it’s appropriate to speak to your doctor or dietitian first, to evaluate your zinc levels before adding a supplement.
Probiotics are referred to as “good” bacteria for the gut. Current evidence shows promise to the positive effect of probiotics on immune health. () Foods rich in probiotics include yogurt, kefir, fermented veggies. Probiotics feed on prebiotics, which can be found in garlic, whole grains, and other fruits and vegetables. In summary, it’s important to include both prebiotics and probiotics for optimal well-being. (7)
Now is the time to let go of restrictive eating behaviors, and focus on food as nourishment. If you’re looking for individual support in healing any restrictive thoughts or behaviors around food or have concerns regarding nutrient deficiency, schedule a discovery call with me today.
As mentioned previously, the immune system is made up of a large network of cells. One type of immune cells, T cells, have been studied with sleep. A recent study showed that quality sleep enhances the ability of the T cells in adhering to and destroying infected cells (8). The National Sleep Foundation recommends 7-9 hours of sleep per night for adults (age 18-64).
Here are a few strategies worth trying to support better quality sleep:
- Stick to a sleep schedule. Try to go to bed and wake up around the same time each day. This may help anchor your sleep cycle, making it easier to fall asleep faster and wake up more easily. Bonus if you get some sunlight exposure upon waking up!
- Create a bedtime routine. Develop a bedtime routine that feels grounding and relaxing for you. Select 1-3 relaxation techniques, and combine them into a mini routine that you do each night. Examples include: reading for 20 minutes, spraying lavender on your pillow, taking a hot bath or shower, writing in a journal, stretching or meditating.
- Establish a “power down” time for electronics. The light emitted from electronics interferes with the body’s natural production of sleep-inducing hormones. You can still enjoy your favorite TV shows in the evening, but try to create a “buffer time” between electronics and bed. Whether that be 1 hour or 30 minutes, select a time that feels realistic and achievable to you.
What are your favorite bedtime rituals? Nothing is better than waking up feeling refreshed!
Similar to a balanced diet, physical activity promotes general health, therefore supporting the immune system. Physical activity enhances blood circulation, which allows the cells of the immune system to efficiently move through the body. Even 10 minutes of light movement is shown to have benefits on mental, physical, and emotional well-being. (9)
It’s important to note that more exercise isn’t always better. Illness risk may be increased with repeated cycles of strenuous exercise and heavy exertion. Include rest and recovery days as a part of your exercise routines. Additionally, if you’re feeling under the weather, prioritize rest and chill.
For more movement tips and how to maintain a healthy relationship with exercise, read How to Embrace Intuitive Movement.
4. Stress Management
Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to the demands of life. When your brain perceives a threat, it signals your body to release a burst of hormones that increase your heart rate and raise blood pressure. This “fight-or-flight” response fuels you to deal with the stress.
Your body is meant to return to a normal, relaxed state once the threat is gone. Unfortunately, the high demands of everyday life keep some people in this heightened state of stress.
Stress management is all about incorporating techniques that help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the restful state, and counter some of the negative effects of stress.
At Everglow Nutrition, we love teaching mindfulness for stress management.
Mindfulness is paying attention (on purpose) in the present moment, without judgment.
In other words, mindfulness is a focus on the here and now, versus getting caught up in the worry of the future or past. Mindful breathing, body scan, and yoga are ways to practice mindfulness. Other relaxation techniques include reading, spending time with loved ones, arts and crafts, or spending time in nature.
In short, whatever relaxation techniques for you, make it a point to incorporate them into your daily life.
Everglow Nutrition’s Key Takeaways
No one food or supplement can prevent illness, but a well-balanced eating plan and health-promoting lifestyle behaviors can support the immune system.
- The body needs enough food to function properly. Key nutrients are obtained from a well-balanced diet. It’s important to speak with a dietitian or doctor if considering supplements.
- Movement is helpful, but don’t overdo it. Allow for rest and recovery.
- The average adult needs 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Above all, try incorporating at least one relaxation technique before bed.
- Not all stress is bad, but we can counter some of the negative effects of stress with mindfulness and relaxation techniques.
What are your key takeaways for how to support the immune system? Let us know in the comments.
Published by Rachel Helfferich, RD, LDN