I don't know about you, but I'll do anything to keep my immune system strong so I don't get sick, especially right now when we're in the midst of cold and flu season with a global pandemic still looming over us. While a healthy immune system might not stop you from getting COVID-19 entirely, it might help you fight it. And anyways, keeping your body strong is always a good thing overall.
It's not just about taking various immunity supplements and tinctures and calling it a day. Sure, some of those things can work, but if you're not incorporating healthy lifestyle habits into your routine, it will all be pointless.
"According to Harvard Health, there are a number of nutrition and lifestyle activities that can support everyone's immune system," says Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, of Brooklyn-based Maya Feller Nutrition. "Because immune health is systemic and not a singular 'thing' that a person can do, the idea is to engage in multiple areas."
It's important to keep in mind that some groups of people are more prone to weakened immune systems. Steven Gundry, MD, author, medical director at the International Heart and Lung Institute, and founder of Gundry MD, says that if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, elevated fasting glucose, diabetes, prediabetes, or an autoimmune disease, you have a weakened immune system.
If you find yourself sick frequently or constantly fatigued, that might also mean your immune system is not in tip-top shape. "I would also say that if you are constantly experiencing stress or having digestive issues, it would be likely that your immune system isn't working at its best," says Serena Poon, CN, CHC, CHN, chef, nutritionist, Reiki master, and founder of the Culinary Alchemy program. "The good news is that if you are feeling run-down, you have pretty simple tools at your disposal to help your immune system regain its strength."
So how can you make sure you're doing the most when it comes to taking care of your immune system year-round and especially during vulnerable months? We asked the experts.
1. Eat the Right Foods
It all starts with your diet. Are you getting enough vitamins and nutrients through your food? If not, you're not doing your immune system any good. "Eating at least 10 servings of fruits and vegetables daily helps to ensure adequate vitamin, mineral, and phytonutrient intake," explains Tamar Samuels, MS, RDN, NBC-HWC, a registered dietitian, a national board–certified health and wellness coach, and co-founder of Culina Health. "Fiber supports a healthy digestive system, and diversifying colors/incorporating fruits and vegetables from every color is most beneficial."
You'll want to pay attention to your consumption of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals. "There is good evidence examining the link between diets rich in fruits and vegetables and risk reduction in developing inflammatory conditions and some cancers," Feller says. "While there is no one nutrient responsible for immune health, the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University highlights vitamins A, D, B12, and B6, folate, iron, and zinc as nutrients involved in the production and development of cells. Additionally, zinc, iron, copper, selenium, and vitamins C and E are antioxidant rich and, therefore, may protect cells from free radical damage. Free radicals can instigate systemic inflammation, and by reducing their activity and possible systemic inflammation, one would be improving overall health."
Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, LD, intuitive eating registered dietitian and founder of Street Smart Nutrition, likes to think about what to avoid during flu season. "Avoid foods that have a higher risk of contamination or food-borne illness such as undercooked proteins or foods with mold/signs of spoilage," she explains. "This is a best practice to use year-round, but as we attend holiday parties, catered work parties, or other seasonal events that coincide with cold and flu season, it's more important than ever to ensure you avoid potential risks.
You'll also want to avoid overly processed and sugary foods, as they might also compromise immunity.
3. Get Enough Rest
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Good sleep hygiene is important for a strong immune system. "I recommend getting adequate rest and sleep to help battle stress from daily life and exercise," Harbstreet says. "For example, taking a rest day or eating enough to fully recover instead of continuing intense workouts is one strategy I often recommend."
"I recommend really focusing on fluid/water intake during vulnerable times of the year," Samuels says. "Being adequately hydrated ensures that all of our cells and tissues can operate optimally to help support our immune system. I recommend at least 64 ounces daily, but more is often needed."
Vanessa Rissetto, MS, RD, CDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and co-founder of Culina Health, recommends washing your hands and doing it often. You're probably used to the 20-second handwashing rule by now, but if you're not, make sure you're doing it!
"Limit your exposure to toxins, including smoking and alcohol. If you consume alcohol, light to moderate consumption is the most supportive of health," Feller says.
9. Take Supplements
If you do all of the above and need an extra boost, you can choose to take supplements. But you'll want to consult your doctor or a healthcare professional first and read the labels carefully, as some supplements are a little too good to be true.
While a food-first approach is always recommended, it might not be enough in some cases, and that's where supplements can help. "For immune support, a slow, steady strategy may prove better than quick-fix mega doses (such as downing multiple doses of Airborne when you feel a cold coming on)," Harbstreet says. "Your body can store certain forms of vitamins and minerals and use them for other body functions, so when they are ingested in adequate amounts over longer periods of time, you reap the other benefits in addition to having a well-supported and robust immune system that's ready to respond under pressure."
This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be used in the place of advice of your physician or other medical professionals. You should always consult with your doctor or healthcare provider first with any health-related questions. See our full health disclaimer here.