Afraid of the Coronavirus? How Supporting Your Immune System Can Help

Avatar photo Staff February 12, 2020
flu

Unless you’ve been living under a rock lately, you’ve probably heard the terrifying news: The new Coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China, on Dec. 31, 2019, has already infected more than 43,000 people in China and across the globe.

Despite the rapid expansion of the virus, your risk of getting the Coronavirus if you’re living in the Chicago area (and haven’t recently traveled to China), remains very low. However, your risk of getting the flu, is much higher. In fact, the 2020 flu season is on track to be one of the worst in decades. As of Feb. 1, a total of 193 people have been hospitalized with the flu in the city of Chicago since Sept. 29.

How to Prevent Getting a Virus
The Coronavirus, the flu, and even common colds are all different types of viruses – just with varying strengths and symptoms. For example, when you get a cold, you may get a runny nose, sore throat or stuffed up sinuses. When you get a flu, you may get the same symptoms, but they may also come with a fever and body aches, and you may be so overcome with fatigue that you have to go home from school or work immediately. And with the Coronavirus, which is even more severe, causes fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

And when your body encounters a virus, the best weapon it has to fight it off is through your immune system, and people with weaker immune systems are more likely to develop secondary infections, such as pneumonia, that may lead to hospitalizations or death.

“Viruses tend to be opportunistic infections,” says Tanya Tanzillo, a nurse practitioner and functional medicine practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine who has many years of clinical experience. “The older people and the younger people, who have weakened immune systems, are the people you need to be concerned about the most.”

Best Ways to Boost Your Immune System
Want to avoid getting a virus? The most basic thing you can do is avoid contact with other people who are sick, and make sure you practice good hand washing at all times to avoid picking up any germs floating around.

And the next best thing you can do is work to try to boost your immune system so your body is equipped to fight off any viruses it comes in contact with.

We asked Tanzillo and Dr. Frances Baxley, MD, who is a family medicine doctor and functional medicine practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine, to share their advice on what are the best foods and supplements you can take to boost your immune system to ward off viruses. (Read more about other lifestyle changes you can make that can improve your immune system, too).

  1. Get Lots of Vitamin C!
    Everyone and their mother has heard that you should load up on Vitamin C to prevent getting a cold — and for good reason. Vitamin C is an essential nutrient that aids many different functions of your immune system, including helping in the production and function of white blood cells, which fight off viruses. And studies have shown that taking Vitamin C can reduce the length and severity of colds. And you don’t have to just eat citrus to load up on Vitamin C. In fact, this nutrient is found in many types of fruits and vegetables including spinach, kale, broccoli, cantaloupe, kiwi fruit, strawberries, blueberries, guava, black currants, bell peppers and tomatoes.
  2. Boost Your Intake of Fiber
    You might not associate a high-fiber diet with a healthy immune system, but Dr. Baxley says, in fact, having a diet that’s high in fiber is one of the best things you can do to support your immune system. “Having adequate fiber in your diet and not having a lot of trans fats, processed foods and artificial sweeteners helps foster a healthy microbiome,” which is where your immune system is regulated, Dr. Baxley explains. And the best way to get more fiber in your diet? Eat more vegetables!

    Dr. Baxley says in an ideal world, you should aim to eat 10 to 12 servings of fruits and vegetables a day, but if you can at least get in four to five servings a day, you’ll be doing better. And no, mashed potatoes and French fries don’t count as vegetables. (One serving of vegetables is 1 cup raw or ½ cup cooked). She suggests starting your day with a green smoothie to pack in a couple of servings right off the bat.
  3. Eat a Diet Rich in Antioxidants
    Another benefit of eating more fruits and vegetables is you will increase your intake of antioxidants, which are another key component of having a healthy immune system. Antioxidants help prevent damage to the immune cells themselves, which help fight off viruses and infections. Dr. Baxley recommends “eating the rainbow,” meaning eating lots of different kinds of fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors. Some foods that are high in antioxidants include blueberries, strawberries, goji berries, artichokes, kale, red cabbage, spinach and beans.
  4. Take a Cod Liver Oil Supplement
    To avoid getting colds, flus and other types of viruses, Tanzillo recommends taking a cod liver oil supplement. “Cod liver oil is a good source of Vitamin A, and it strengthens your mucus membranes, which act as a barrier and trap viruses and don’t let them onto the other side,” Tanzillo says.
  5. Take a Vitamin D Supplement
    Vitamin D plays a hugely important role in our immune system, and if you live here in the Midwest and spend a lot of time indoors, it’s likely that you’re not getting as much Vitamin D as you need. That’s why Tanzillo usually recommends that most people take 2,000 to 5,000 mg of vitamin D a day, although it’s best to check with your doctor to find out the amount that’s right for you.

What to Do When You Start Getting Sick
Trying to keep your immune system healthy through a healthy diet is important to prevent getting sick, but what should you do once you’re already come down with a virus? Here are a few things to take to help you feel better right away.

  1. Get Lots of Rest
    If you’re starting to feel rundown, don’t try to push through it. Stop what you’re doing, listen to your body, and get as much rest as possible.
  2. Drink Lots of Fluids
    Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! “You really want to be drinking a lot of water so you get all of your good immune cells to where they need to go,” Dr. Baxley says. “Keep the river flowing.”
  3. Take Echinacea and Elderberry
    At the first sign of a cold, Dr. Baxley recommends taking some echinacea and elderberry, both of which can help fight off cold and flu symptoms.
  4. Take Vitamin C
    Although it’s good to eat Vitamin C on a regular basis, it’s especially important to load up on it when you feel yourself getting sick. However, make sure you don’t take any more than 2000 mg of Vitamin C a day, or you may end up with kidney stones or an upset stomach.