How to Support Your Immune System With Food and Lifestyle Habits
Now is the time more than ever to take care of our health.
With the given phase of life, we’re experiencing right now, being intentional about our health and how we’re choosing to nourish our bodies from a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual perspective is more important than ever.
It’s a great time to pay gratitude to your health, your body, and all the amazing things it allows you to do each day like think critically, experience love and community, call your loved ones, to use your voice to speak up and spread compassion, and so many other amazing things we often take for granted.
In addition, just like with any news or collective event that happens, everyone has something to share about it so I want to make sure you’re getting the most accurate, helpful, and healthy resources for your health, your family, and your community. That’s why here in this article you’ll learn what foods can support your immune system, what supplements we know can contribute to supporting your immune system or specific health conditions.
The key here and whenever you’re reading articles online related to your health and coronavirus is to keep in mind since this is such a new virus there are no specific studies just yet that are conclusive stating that one specific food or supplement or lifestyle action can prevent, treat, or cure this virus.
So what you’ll find in this article are the studies and health conditions or ways foods, supplements, and lifestyle interventions impact the immune system and how. In addition, I always list out resources for you in case you want to do a deep dive to learn more!
Simple Habits To Support Immune System Health
We know physically nourishing our body on a cellular level contributes to overall health and allows our bodies to function optimally including our immune system.
Health is a daily practice and taking those small actions every single day to nourish your body, mind, and spirit are so key to your health and longevity. That’s why we start with nutrition and making sure our bodies are given the best opportunity to function optimally because we’re feeding it the nutrients it needs to not just survive but to thrive.
1. Foods That Help Your Immune System
Eating a diet rich in whole foods no matter what you label it, is the most important thing to support a healthy immune system. An easy way to ensure you’re eating all the macronutrients (protein, healthy fat, and carbohydrates) is to use my checkbox system I’ve been using for a decade in coaching thousands of my clients called the Foundational Five.
The Foundational Five is rooted in nutrition science 101 utilizing what we know about the synergy of whole foods and how they work together.
For example, making sure you’re consuming high-quality protein sources, these could be animal or plant-based sources is important for rebuilding lean body mass, keeping yourself full and satiated, and amino acids play a role in thousands of cellular functions in the body. In addition, eating enough protein specifically supports our immune health because our body needs protein to create antibodies, immune system cells which help our bodies repair and build tissue and fight viral and bacterial infections. (1)
Examples of proteins can be found here!
Studies have shown a diet rich in refined sugars (i.e. highly processed carbohydrates and sugars) can suppress our immune system so now is the time to check in with what types of carbohydrates you’re consuming. Opt for whole food starchy carbohydrates that also contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals along with potential additional macronutrients versus refined carbohydrates which are not as nutrient-dense.
Examples of starchy carbohydrates can be found here!
Which brings us to non-starchy carbohydrates! Did you know vegetables are carbohydrates? These are your fiber-rich veggies such as dark leafy greens, cucumbers, bell peppers, lettuce, artichokes, etc. These foods represent foods that contain a good amount of fiber which is essential in supporting our gut microbiota, which in turn supports our immune system.
Eat the rainbow when you’re considering this food group! The more color the better and try to consume a few cups or servings per meal, ideally as many vegetables as you can get into your diet is going to ensure you’re eating enough fiber, obtaining antioxidants, phytonutrients, and key vitamins and minerals that support overall immune health.
Examples of non-starchy carbohydrates can be found here!
Healthy fat not only keeps us feeling nice and full, but it also supports our bodies in absorbing fat-soluble vitamins which also play a key role in immune health such as vitamin D. Healthy fats include focusing on omega-3 rich foods which can be found both in animal and plant-based sources and monounsaturated fats such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, and seeds.
Examples of healthy fats can be found here!
2. Supplements That May Support Immune Health
Nourishing your body with whole food should always be your first step! After trying your best to nourish your body with food, if there are any gaps you fill need to be filled, please first consult with a Registered Dietitian who can fully help you understand what supplements if any, you would benefit from. From the research, the following supplements have been shown to support or impact the immune system.
Before you head to your nearest store or online shop to purchase these, again, consider making an appointment with an RD who can professionally assess what you may need and why. We offer free Exploration Calls with our Wellness Coaches, for this reason, so sign up here today to get this support!
Vitamin C is one of the most popular, marketed, and well-known vitamin with cold and flu season approaches us. Vitamin C is one of many powerful antioxidants found within food sources and in supplements. It’s been used in clinical practice ranging from preventing (reducing the duration and severity) the common cold, flu, repairing oxidative stress and cell damage in smokers/ex-smokers, decreasing the risk and progression of cataracts, reducing certain types of cancer, reducing high blood pressure, enhancing non-heme iron, and nail health.
There are many forms of vitamin C, yet there isn’t compelling research stating one form is more effective over others. It’s important to chat with your RD about dosage, but in general, taking more than 1000mg per day over long periods of time can increase the chances of loose stools and may increase the risk of kidney stones. A typical dose is 500mg up to 1000mg per day.
Zinc plays a vital role in immune health, wound healing, brain health, vision, and reproductive health. While zinc deficiency isn’t super common it can still take place particularly in high-risk groups such as vegans, vegetarians, seniors, and some infants.
In particular, zinc may help increase immune function and prevent respiratory tract infections in those who are deficient.
Eating foods rich in zinc year-round is key and if you think you may need to fill the gap, speak with your RD to make sure an assessment is done prior to supplementing with zinc. Again, a deficiency isn’t super common so it’s better safe than over-supplementing with a singular mineral your body may not need more of.
Zinc is found in animal proteins and shellfish especially, and plant-based foods such as pumpkin seeds, beans, almonds, and whole grains like oatmeal.
When most of us think about Vitamin D, we also think about calcium and bone health, but did you know vitamin D plays an integral role in our immune health?
Vitamin D has been researched widely related to the impact it has on mood, depression, bone health, immune health, inflammation, autoimmune health conditions, allergies, COPD, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and so much more. Those who are deficient or have low levels of vitamin D are more susceptible to colds and the flu than those with normal ranges.
Doses of vitamin D range widely depending on many factors including where you live, skin tone, time outside, diet, and lifestyle factors. A general recommendation is 1000-2000 IU per day which can be adjusted in the winter months or depending on your needs. (S)
Just like any good thing, too much isn’t good so be mindful of supplementation and always chat with your RD.
Probiotics have the potential to improve your digestive, cardiovascular, immune and mental health as well as your metabolism and skin. Having a good balance of gut microbiota (i.e. good bacteria in your digestive tract) is key for immune health and general wellbeing.
It’s important to note, that along with probiotics we should also talk about prebiotics which feeds probiotics. Examples of prebiotics are a common food in food sources you may already be enjoying such as garlic, bananas, artichokes, onions, and oatmeal.
Multivitamins have their place in someones daily routine if you want the extra insurance of key nutrients, if you’re a vegan, vegetarian, senior, or have any other health conditions that limit your absorption of key nutrients commonly found in multivitamins such as vitamin B12, folate, and vitamin D.
To get specific supplement recommendations for your unique body and lifestyle, please consult an RD, check out our Free Exploration Calls to do that today!
3. Hydration is Key
Staying hydrated has a huge impact on our overall health, but how does hydration directly impact our immune systems?
For starters, drinking water helps deliver oxygen throughout your entire working body which helps all of the systems in the body to function properly.
Water also helps our body do what it already does best, detox, by flushing unwanted toxins from the body (i.e. urination) and transports the nutrients (particularly water-soluble vitamins) from our food which keeps our cells healthy.
If drinking water seems like a task and hard for you to do, try incorporating warming liquids like hot tea, broths, or soups. They’re super comforting and can even help you to relax.
Be sure you’re drinking filtered water as much as possible, check out the only water filter I use and recommend here.
4. Get Moving
Exercise can be beneficial for both your mental health and physical health. In fact, keeping your body moving regularly is an important factor in maintaining a healthy immune system.
It’s been shown that that one 20-minute session of moderate exercise can stimulate the immune system, producing an anti-inflammatory cellular response.
Not to mention sweating through our skin, which is one of our largest detoxification organs, is also beneficial.
If you’re already under the weather, skip your regular workout. Instead, focus on light movement. Even just small stretches or getting up of the couch can help keep your lymphatic system moving.
5. Sleep, Rest, and Chill Out
We talk about this often at NS, but it’s important to know your limits. If you feel like you need some extra rest, listen to your body and give in to that feeling as much as you are able to. Getting the proper amount of sleep (7-8 hours a night) is vital for the body to rebuild, restore, and keep the immune system healthy.
When we sleep at night, we are maintaining our brain health which in turn helps the rest of our bodily functions. The strength of the synapses in the brain is able to restore themselves each night when you sleep which helps them to deal with and process the following day’s activities.
If you’re struggling to get your eight hours in, take a look at this article where we break down tips and tricks to establishing an evening routine and improving sleep.
6. Focus on Stress Management
When we neglect our mental health, our immune systems can take a hit. This is because both our mental and emotional health play a key role in our physical health and immune systems.
What exactly is stress? Stress is our brain’s’ reaction to any changes in our lives that demand our physical, mental, or emotional energy.
When experiencing stress, our brains release stress hormones called cortisol that put us into fight or flight mode. When cortisol is released, our bodies essentially stop functioning normally and we go into survival mode.
The energy that our bodies would typically use to keep all of our bodily systems functioning properly is instead used to fight those stress hormones. The release of those stress hormones can be beneficial when we are actually in danger, but when we live in a constant state of stress, our bodies produce far more cortisol than they actually need.
So how do we manage stress? Stress is unavoidable. It affects us all and sometimes a small amount of stress can even be beneficial. The real problems associated with stress are often a result of how we deal with and manage stressors.
To make sure stress isn’t negatively impacting us, it’s important to have stress management techniques in place for when it inevitably pops up.
These techniques will look different for everyone but focus on taking time to yourself and implementing techniques that help proactively manage stress such as meditation, deep breathing, journaling, taking a bath, or cleaning.
7. Limit Alcohol and Caffeine
When we’re thinking about immune health, it’s not just how you nourish your body with food, it’s also about your lifestyle habits. Alcohol and caffeine, most popularly found in coffee, can have a place in your diet. It’s important to be knowledgeable and aware of how your unique body reacts to both of these substances.
Coffee for example, which contains caffeine, can increase stress, anxiety, and cortisol impacting your nervous system negatively if you’re already in a state of stress.
My general rule of thumb is if you’re in a state of heightened emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual stress it’s best to go back to basics and temporarily give your body and nervous system a break from the stimulants from coffee and the effects of alcohol.
The big takeaway here is to find whatever helps you to relax, recharge, and manage stress and implement that daily. A resource that I recommend to clients is an app called Headspace, a guided meditation for those of you new to meditation. I also recommend starting each morning with The Five Minute Journal, a handy journal created by the team at Intelligent Change that includes prompts to help you narrow in on what’s bringing you joy at the start of each morning, with goals for the day and affirmations.
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