What to Do (and What to Eat) to Boost Immune Health
20 second summary
- “Pesky” symptoms are simply your body’s defence mechanism against pathogens
- Never getting sick or getting sick all the time can both indicate faulty immune function
- Hand-washing is one of the best ways to limit the spread of contagious illnesses
- To help prevent colds + flus and speed recovery, stay at home, rest, maintain mindful movement practices, reduce stress, keep up with hydration, prioritize a nutrient dense whole foods diet
- Certain foods, herbs, vitamins, and minerals, can help enhance immune function
Colds suck. Flus suck even more. Viral warzones, bad bacterial attacks, fungal assaults…it’s all bad. Not only do the many branches of pathogens and illness cause frustrating symptoms, but there is that horrible reality for those at-risk populations (pregnant women, newborn, elderly, people with chronic immune dysfunction, etc.) whereby even a seasonal flu can turn into something enduring, debilitating, and potentially fatal. The thing is, for most people it’s normal, healthy, and natural to get sick every so often. This is in fact a sign your immune system is functioning as it should, culling pathogens that inevitably sneak in. People often get frustrated with the symptoms they’re experiencing, but those outward indications are simply your body’s attack on pathogens as an attempt to push out the invaders. Yep, mucus, coughing, sneezing, fevers, inflammation…that’s your immune system hard at work! That doesn’t mean you should force yourself into some twisted enjoyment of feeling like garbage, but it’s an opportunity to recognize “hey, my body is fighting something. That’s awesome. Let’s support it so that it can do what it needs to do!”
If you never get sick, it could mean that your first lines of defences are awesome and your body just does a rad job keeping out the crap. But it could also mean your body is actually too stressed, too worn-down, perhaps even prioritizing other important survival measures to wage war over a cold bug or flu virus. This is common for people with seriously ramped-up high stress lives, as a fight-or-flight state (aka. sympathetic mode) dials down immune response, prioritizing other internal survival functions it deems more pressing. This is not good. This often signifies that those pathogens are finding their way in and potentially manifesting into something more severe.
On the other hand, if you’re constantly sick, always getting over some cough, sniffle, or other malaise, it could mean your body has somedefences, but your immune response isn’t quite strong enough to fully push out, and then ward off, future attacks. Often with these cases, it’s really important to dig a bit deeper and look at diet and lifestyle…
- Are you constantly consuming foods and beverages that impair immune function (sugar, alcohol, processed foods)?
- Are you consuming foods or beverages that you are individually reactive to (common offenders would be dairy and gluten, and for some, all grains)
- Are you not getting enough quality sleep?
- Are you exposed to environmental pathogens such as mould or toxins?
- Do you have a job or lifestyle that is constantly exposing you to high traffic areas with lots of human contact and you’re not taking the necessary precautions to protect yourself?
Speaking of that last question…WASH YOUR HANDS.
Here are a few tips for ensuring good hand hygiene:
- Wash your hands with both soap and water for at least 15 seconds.
- If you’ve been out and about, get in the habit of washing your hands when you arrive at your destination. If you’re traveling by air, wash your hands after you get through security.
- Antibacterial hand sanitizer is not only unnecessary, it’s not recommended because it can disrupt the skin microbiome and, theoretically, contribute to antibiotic resistance. That said, if you don’t have access to soap and water, it’s better to use hand sanitizer than not do anything at all.
Some other things you can do to boost your immune function and prevent the spread of communicable illness…
Stay Home + REST
Sleep, nap, sit, chill, lie down…rest in any form is truly one of the most important things you can do to boost immune function, preventing you from contracting a contagious illness, but also helping you get over the cold or flu faster. As soon as you feel the onset of symptoms, slow things down, take some time off, head to bed or your couch, and let your body do its thing. Fighting pathogens is exhausting work, and you really need to set your body up for success by giving it all the energy it requires to get you back to your healthy, happy, vital self again. It’s also kind and courteous. For too often people push themselves, saying “oh it’s just a little cold” and keep going to work, going to gyms, going out and about in all forms, far too often not being mindful of what they’re touching, who they’re hugging, and what they’re spreading. Once again a reminder that it may be a “small cold” for you, but for at-risk populations it could manifest into something much more serious.
OK, so when recovering from a cold or flu, you definitely don’t want to overdue the movement thing so as to allow your body the rest and recovery it needs as explored above. It is important though, to move gently, every so often, to maintain blood flow and circulation even when you’re not at your best. You can do this in bed, on the couch, or of course stand up and slowly walk around your home, holding onto something if you’re feeling particularly dizzy or off-balance. However, when you’re not ill, it’s crucial to maintain and exercise routine which can deeply benefit immune function (study here). Whether that’s simply walks in your neighbourhood, jogs in the woods, yoga classes, strength training, or you’re part of a recreational sports team – physical activity is key to boosting your overall immune function and creating space for more vitality in your life!
Speaking of creating space for more vitality in your life, it’s important to find ways to have fun, unwind, and unload. It could be any of the above-mentioned movement suggestions, as well as positive social interactions with friends, family, or community members, joyful hobbies and activities, or general mindfulness practices. Not only does this benefit your day-to-day lives, but mental and emotional stress depresses the immune system, making it harder to fight off colds and flu. Stress reduction practices should be a crucial part of your prevention and recovery process; in fact, meditation has been found to reduce the severity of cold and flu illness (study here). If you want to reduce your stress but don’t know where to begin, try a meditation app such as Headspace, Calm, or Waking Up, or practice some easy breathing exercises. Whatever stress reduction measures speak to you, integrate them into your daily rituals and routines, and think of ways to maintain them (even on a more low-key level), when you’re fighting a cold or flu.
When you’re sick, your body needs to flush out those toxins and flood out the pathogens. Drink lots and lots and LOTS of water. In general we should be drinking half our body weight in ounces of water per day (read more here), but when fighting a bug, you’re going to want to up that number. Tea is great, as long as it’s not caffeinated or full of sugar. Also keep in mind that even some medicinal herbal teas like liquorice root and mint, can actually pose as a diuretic, further dehydrating the body if not properly balanced with plain old H20. While water is key, soups, broths, and immune-boosting elixirs (such as the one below) are also great! Just keep sipping, and remember that if you think you’re drinking too much water, you’re likely not.
Immune Boosting Tonic
- Add about ½ cup of peeled and chopped ginger, the juice of 3 full lemons + the rind of half of one of the lemons, 3 cloves, and a cinnamon stick to boiling water.
- Let boil for about 5 minutes, then cover and reduce heat to simmer for about 20 minutes.
- Ladle some of the hot ginger lemon water into a mug, and add a tsp of Manuka honey, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a sprinkling of turmeric, and a splash of apple cider vinegar.
- Drink at least 3 cups/day until cold or flu symptoms subside.
Proper nourishment is essential all the time, not just when you get hit with a cold. If you maintain a nutrient-dense whole foods diet all year round, avoiding foods you’re personally reactive to, it’s likely you’ll get sick less often, and get over your occasional cold or flu faster.
- Consume a wide variety of colourful vegetables and fruit, as in-season and local as possible (this helps increase nutrient density).
- Get adequate protein in the form of pasture-raised or wild meats, free-range poultry and eggs, wild seafood, and properly prepared legumes. Protein breaks down into the building blocks your body needs to develop strong resilient tissue.
- Eat healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, avocados, nuts and seeds, the skin on your fish and poultry, and naturally sourced meat. Many essential nutrients for immune health are “fat soluble” meaning they require the presence of fat to be absorbed and utilized in the body. Fat is also integral to create strong and healthy cells, and helps maintain skin structure and resilience (a lot of people forget that skin is one of our first lines of defence against pathogens).
- Avoid refined sugar and excessive carbohydrate consumption, which puts a strain on our adrenal function and immune strength.
- Avoid excessive consumption of caffeine and alcohol, which can also put a massive burden on stress and immune management.
- Avoid processed foods which are often full of additives, chemicals, preservatives, and hydrogenated oils foreign to our bodies and toxic to our systems. When our bodies are constantly fighting toxic foods they have a lot less strength to fight viruses and bad bacteria trying to sneak into our systems.
I could go on and on, and truly to find the most immune boosting diet for you would require some one-on-one exploration through my nutritional consulting services, but in the meantime, here is a small sampling of foods that are particularly immune beneficial…
Roots and Tubers
- Yams: contain vitamin A
- Turnips:high levels of vitamin C
- Parsnips:high in vitamin C and vitamin E, and antioxidants
- Carrots: high doses vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin B8, pantothenic acid, folate, potassium, iron, copper, and manganese
- Beets (and tops): contain vitamin C, folate, and essential minerals like potassium and manganese
- Fantastic immune boosting properties
- Also beneficial for adrenal health and stress management (inextricably linked to immune function)
- Particularly, shiitake, reishi, cordyceps, and turkey tail.
- For a more concentrated version, purchase a medicinal mushroom tincture and put it in water or tea.
- Study here
Herbs + Spices
- Turmeric: anti-inflammatory, immune boosting, antioxidant
- Cayenne Pepper: anti-irritant properties, anti-cold and flu agent, anti-fungal properties
- Ceylon cinnamon: high levels antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial/antifungal
- Clove: contains antimicrobial and immune boosting properties
Apple Cider Vinegar
- Eases digestion, prevents flu, reduces inflammation, kills fungus, regulate pH balance, and washes toxins from the body.
*Add it to your hot beverage or put a cup of it in your bath to soak in. Even just soaking the feet in warm apple cider vinegar water can be extremely beneficial as feet are highly porous!
- Lemon juice decreases the strength of the cold and flu virus in the body and reduces phlegm.
- Both antibacterial and antiviral
- Loaded with vitamin C
- In many parts of the word ginger has long been a key supportive ingredient in traditional herbal formulas for treating the common cold.
- Scientific research now indicates that fresh ginger may have antiviral activity against certain viruses that infect the respiratory system.
- Studies here
- Anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral properties
- Countless studies show the effectiveness of garlic as a powerful tool in immune health, and a significant study Washington State University even showed that garlic is 100 times more effective than two popular antibiotics
- Studies here, here, and here
- Compounds in elderberry bind viruses before they can penetrate the walls of cells, thereby inhibiting their ability to spread.
- The hot tea from the flowers and juice from the berries promote sweating, which can flush out toxins and bugs
- A liquid extract from black elderberry may inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria by 99 percent at highest concentrations, a feat no anti-bacterial drugs can match
- Studies hereand here
- Regular raw honey is also great, but Manuka honey has 4 times the amount of nutrients
- It is high in amino acids, B vitamins (B6, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid), calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium, sodium and zinc – all needed for proper immune function
- It is also a strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal and can fight a number of infections
- Most importantly, quality versions contain the UMF, or Unique Manuka Factor, in addition to the natural hydrogen peroxide found in honey. The UMF properties of Manuka are extremely stable and, unlike the hydrogen peroxide common in most honey, is not easily destroyed by heat, light and enzymes in the body.
- Studies here, here, and here
Additional herbs, vitamins, minerals and supplements…
- Andrographis (to reduce duration)
- Echinacea (for prevention and treatment)
- Zinc (to reduce duration)
- Propolis (to speed recovery)
- Chinese skullcap (for prevent and treatment)
- Liquorice root (for prevention and treatment)
- Studies here
- Vitamin C (to reduce duration)
- Studies here
- Vitamins A and Vitamin D (for prevention)
- Studies here