Don’t look now, folks, but cold and flu season is right around the corner. As the weather gets colder and more people start spending time indoors, our chances of getting sick increase. Plus, with the ongoing risk of Covid, now is the perfect time to review the best ways for keeping your immune system in top shape.
Although our immune system is complex and there is no silver bullet that can prevent you from getting sick, Jennifer Eisenstein, a family nurse practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says there adopting good lifestyle habits can make a big difference in helping you to ward off viruses.
“It is very possible to build your immune system and keep yourself healthy during these pandemic times,” she says.
Here are six key things that can help support your immune system, and help you stay healthy all year long:
- Take Care of Your Gut
Dr. Kelsie Lazzell, a functional medicine doctor of chiropractic and naturopathy at the Center for Holistic Medicine, says immune system health starts in the gut. “Eighty percent of your immune system lives there,” Lazzell says. “If you’re dealing with constipation, diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain or poor food breakdown/absorption, then your immune system is suffering.”
You can also restore your gut health by eating foods that add more fiber and water. Eating foods that contain natural probiotics, like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, miso and kombucha, can also help support the good bacteria that live in your gut, which you need for good digestion as well as overall health. Or Eisenstein says you can take a daily probiotic to keep the bacteria in your gut in balance.
- Drain Your Lymph Nodes
Your lymph nodes are part of your body’s built-in waste system — they filter lymph fluid, which contains liquid and waste from the body. And Lazzell says continually finding ways to drain your lymph nodes is an important part of supporting immune health.
One way to do that is by doing contrast hydrotherapy, which is exposing yourself to hot and cold water. She recommends taking a shower and standing in the hot water for one minute and then switching back to cold water for 30 seconds, using as hot and cold of water as you can tolerate.
“This is great to do on a regular basis in the shower and can be very beneficial during times of sickness or feeling under the weather,” Lazzell says. She says that switching back and forth three times can ramp up your lymphatic drainage thus promoting elimination of any bugs/infection that your immune system is trying to clear.
- Get Enough Vitamin D
“Vitamin D is key for countless processes in the body, including gut healing, thyroid function, and immune support,” Lazzell says. We typically get our vitamin D from the sun, so it’s not surprising that when the days get shorter and we don’t get as much exposure to sunlight, our vitamin D levels drop and we’re more likely to get sick.
To increase your vitamin D levels, you can either take a vitamin D supplement, or Lazzell recommends taking a cod liver oil supplement, which is high in vitamin D as well as vitamins A, E and K and also has anti-inflammatory effects from the omega fatty acids.
However, before you start taking any vitamin D supplements, it’s a good idea to get your vitamin D levels checked to determine your necessary dose.
- Get Plenty of Sleep
Getting lots of rest is one of the best ways to keep your immune system strong and stay healthy. According to the Mayo Clinic, when you don’t get enough sleep, your body produces less infection-fighting antibodies and cells as well as fewer cytokines, a type of protein that helps fight off infections and reduce inflammation.
“Sleep is essential for repairing and restoring. While we sleep, we repair tissue damage, rebuild bones, and synthesize proteins — all of which are essential for proper immune function. If you’re not getting seven to nine hours of restful sleep nightly, your immune system is suffering as the result,” Lazzell says.
- Eat the Rainbow
There’s a reason that your mom always told you to eat your vegetables. It’s because a high intake of fruits and vegetables not only provides you with the vitamins and minerals you need (including the all-important vitamin C), but it also increases 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. Lazzell recommends “eating the rainbow,” meaning eating lots of fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors.
“We hear this all the time because it’s true: Food should be our first line of defense, with supplements being secondary when our diet fails to meet all the nutritional demands our body requires. Short term immune support when exposed to something is warranted, but the best way to prevent infection is a healthy foundation,” Lazzell says.
Patricia DeAngelis, a functional medicine nurse practitioner at the Center for Holistic Medicine says you should try to eat five servings of vegetables and two servings of fruit per day to give your body the nutrients it needs to suport your imune system. “A robust salad or vegetable dish can satisfy several servings for the day,” she says.
However, if you find that you’re not eating the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables a day, Eisenstein says you should take a daily multivitamin. “Multivitamins give you the daily supplemented needs that can’t be attained through fruits and vegetables, because people usually do not eat enough of them to get the nutrients they need,” she says.
Did you know that exercising not only helps burn calories but it can also keep you healthy? Physical activity helps flush bacteria out of your lungs and airways and also boosts your white blood cell count, which helps fight off infections. Plus, exercise helps reduce your stress hormones, which can also boost your immune system. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends you do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week.
“Even light perspiration for 20 minutes a day is a benefit to support your immune system,” DeAngelis says. “A light sweat can be achieved in different ways such as marching in place or going for a brisk walk outdoors.”
However, if you actually feel a cold coming on, you might want to reduce the intensity of your workout. According to the Mayo Clinic, it’s fine to exercise when you have a cold as long as your symptoms are all “above the neck” (i.e. runny nose, nasal congestion, minor sore throat). However, if your symptoms are “below the neck” (i.e. chest congestion, cough, upset stomach) or if you have a fever, you should rest until you feel better.
If you fret about the ability of your immune system to fight off all the nasty bugs out there, don’t worry! As you can see, there are lots of actions you can take to feel better.
- Jennifer Eisenstein, Family Nurse Practitioner
Treats sick children and adults
- Dr. Kelsie Lazzell, Doctor of Chiropractic & Naturopathic Practitioner
Functional medicine for children and adults
- Patricia DeAngelis, Family Nurse Practitioner
Functional medicine for children and adults