On Your Health

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Natural Ways to Boost Your Immunity

Let’s face it. No one likes being sick. It can cause major disruptions in your work and personal life and have a trickle-down effect to your mental psyche.

But, as we’ve recently learned with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to avoid bacterial infections and viruses, especially if you work or live in densely populated areas.

Even if illness may often seem inevitable, are there ways to better prepare your body for a potential onslaught of invaders? Yes and no. You won’t find a magic immunity pill anywhere, but we’ll provide tips on how you can boost your immune system naturally.

Immune system function

It’s easy to underestimate how powerful your body is. Each day, your immune system works as a defense mechanism to keep bacteria and viruses under control — either by preventing new infections or fighting against current illnesses.

Your immune system has many integral parts. For example, lymphoid organs release white blood cells called lymphocytes that help regulate the immune system. This response causes inflammation, similar to how your body produces a scab and swells up if you scrape your arm.

Generally, this response is acute or short-lived and your immune system returns to normal. But, prolonged inflammation can impact your health and make it difficult for your body to defend against common illnesses. You can also become prone to other chronic ailments, such as heart disease or cancer.

Where does food come into play? You need vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to keep your body in peak form. You can cause harm to your immune system with poor diet choices — refined sugars, refined carbohydrates, processed and packaged foods, and certain fats (especially trans fat) can cause inflammation.

These foods can trigger the C-reactive protein (CRP), which alerts your body of an inflammatory threat. Many processed and refined foods are also void of important vitamins and minerals. Diets low in iron or vitamins A, C and D could lead to decreased production in white blood cells.

You’ll see us refer to foods that have anti-inflammatory or antioxidant benefits. As a general rule of thumb, natural anti-inflammatories can help keep inflammation in check and limit symptoms when you’re ill. Antioxidants protect you from free radicals and can also repair cells and tissues that become damaged during an inflammatory response.

Foods that boost your immune system

You can use the Harvard University Health Plate as a food consumption guide for establishing healthy eating habits. In general, you should strive for 50% fruits and vegetables, 25% whole grains and 25% lean meats and proteins.

Here are some common examples of food groups to choose from.

Fruits and vegetables:

  • Leafy greens (lettuce, kale, spinach and Swiss chard)
  • Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower)
  • Tomatoes
  • Apples
  • Citrus fruits (grapefruit and oranges)
  • Berries (blackberries, blueberries and raspberries)

Whole grains:

  • Whole wheat
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Brown rice

Lean meats and proteins:

  • Seafood
  • Poultry
  • Beans (legumes, lentils and peas)
  • Nuts (almonds and walnuts)

Many fruits and vegetables, particularly berries, leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables, are high in antioxidants. Kale, one of the more popular superfoods, also boasts omega-3 fatty acids.

Omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood, nuts and certain vegetables help ease inflammation. For breakfast, add chia seeds, flaxseeds or walnuts to your yogurt or oatmeal. Opt for baked or steamed salmon instead of fattier cuts of beef and pork. Other types of seafood, such as oysters, contain high levels of zinc that help regulate the immune system.

Cook with olive or canola oil instead of butter and other oils high in saturated and trans fat. Don’t be afraid to add herbs and spices, either. Basil, cinnamon, curry, oregano, rosemary, thyme and turmeric can help reduce inflammation.

Here are more examples of ways you can boost your immunity through your diet.

Garlic

Yes, garlic is a building block for many food dishes, but did you know it has health benefits? Garlic releases allicin when impacted by some sort of friction, such as chopping or chewing. This sulfuric compound has antioxidant properties that can help protect your cells and produce more white blood cells.

Ginger

Ginger is similar to garlic in that it isn’t a primary food, but its addition to meals or drinks can give your immune system a boost to fight infections. The use of ginger for medicinal purposes dates back thousands of years. When you’re not cooking with ginger, try adding it to your tea.

Prebiotics and probiotics

Gut health is key to the microbiome diet. Probiotics and prebiotics help replace the good bacteria your body loses when fighting infections. Think of probiotics as live bacteria that help your digestive system, while prebiotics are dietary fibers that provide food for probiotics.

Greek yogurt and other fermented foods have high levels of probiotics. You can also find probiotics in kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir and kombucha. Many common high-fiber foods, such as apples (leave the skin on), bananas and beans, contain prebiotics.

Vitamins C & D

Vitamin C is an important antioxidant that can help control infections by increasing white blood cell production. Oranges, lemons and grapefruits are popular sources of vitamin C. It may come as a surprise to know they’re present in vegetables, too. Feel free to load up your plate with bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.

You won’t find vitamin D present in as many foods, but it still can help with immune health by reducing inflammation. Your best bet is fatty fish such as salmon, tuna or mackerel. Many commercial milk products have vitamin D added, and cheese, mushrooms and egg yolks contain small amounts of vitamin D. Your skin also absorbs vitamin D from the sunlight, so take advantage of the warmer temperatures outside.

Supplementing your diet

Your neighborhood store or favorite online shopping retailer likely have hundreds of supplements that claim to work wonders for the immune system. These supplements can help you if you have a deficiency, but natural foods remain the best way to absorb key vitamins and minerals. Vitamin D supplements remain popular because it’s harder to get your daily amount through food. You can take anywhere from 600 to 800 International Units of vitamin D. Anything more than that can actually cause harm.

Elderberry supplements have become widely publicized for its potential medicinal uses. The jury is still out on how effective elderberry is, but it’s full of antioxidants that could help your immune system. There are several types of elderberry. Sambucus nigra, which is native to Europe, is the most common for medicinal uses. Unlike other berries that you eat raw, consuming elderberries in unripe or raw form can cause digestive problems. This is why elderberry products are commonly sold as pills, gummies, syrups and teas.

Supplements can interact with other medications or preexisting medical conditions, so consult with your doctor before starting a new regimen.

Immune-boosting teas

Teas have been popular for thousands of years, primarily for their health benefits. Our guide on the basics of tea provides a refresher on the types of tea and their uses.

All forms of tea come from the Camellia sinensis plant. This plant has polyphenols, which are micronutrients that can boost the immune system, improve heart health and lower cholesterol.

Matcha, a type of green tea, has recently increased in popularity. Matcha is rich in polyphenols and high in fiber to assist in digestion.

Stick to natural forms of tea and avoid teas with added flavors or sugars. While matcha tea lattes may taste good, the health benefits can be negligent if they’re full of dairy and sugar.

Create an exercise plan

We live under constant stress, even if you aren’t aware of it. Negative thoughts contribute to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems, but they also impact your immune system. When stress occurs, your body produces a hormone that leads to increased cortisol levels. In the short term, cortisol helps fight inflammation, but chronic cortisol production can actually lead to inflammation over time.

We often think of exercise as strictly for health benefits, but it can help manage stress as well. Try to log 30 minutes of exercise three to five times a week. You don’t need a gym to achieve this, either. Take advantage of the outdoors and walk around the neighborhood or maintain social distancing with a hike or nature walk. Try cardiovascular or strength training at home to get your heart rate up. Check out these tips on staying active when you’re at home.

You can also incorporate meditation or yoga into your routine. Yoga has dual benefits of relaxing your body while also increasing strength and flexibility your muscles need to function at a high level. Check out this mindfulness series with meditation expert Sarah McLean for tips and techniques. Many local yoga studios now offer virtual classes. 

Get a good night’s sleep

A good night’s sleep doesn’t just leave us feeling recharged and refreshed for the upcoming day. A steady sleep regimen with proper rest can also help boost your immune system.

Your body produces cytokines while you sleep to help regulate immunity and inflammation. Certain cytokines are needed to fight off infection when a cold or the flu attacks. Any irregular sleeping patterns can decrease production of these cytokines as well as antibodies. Shoot for at least eight hours of sleep. If you have children, they may need anywhere from nine to 10-plus hours of sleep depending on their age.

Contact our team of primary care physicians if you want to learn more about how changes to your diet and exercise regimen can help boost your immunity. You can contact us here, or look up an INTEGRIS physician near you to set up an appointment.

 

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