A strong immune system is a key to health and wellness. It is our defense against bacterial, viral and fungal infections and all kinds of other diseases. Besides frequent hand hygiene, there are lots of other important things we can do to support our bodies and improve our immune system during times like the current coronavirus pandemic and beyond.
To make a positive and lasting change in your body it is recommended to make a healthy lifestyle a new routine. Incorporating the following tips on a daily basis helps not only to boost the immune system but at the same time will help to build healthy habits.
Eating plant-based with lots of fresh produce while limiting animal products, processed foods and sugar has been shown to be most beneficial for our bodies. This is the way humans have been eating for thousands of years before the food industry was born.
The whole-food plant-based diet consists mainly of vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, nuts and seeds and excludes processed foods such as oils, white flour, refined foods, added sugar, and limits meat and dairy products. While the vegetarian diet excludes meat and seafood and the vegan diet excludes all animal products including eggs, dairy, honey, meat and seafood, they both do not exclude processed foods and sugars which are known to be unhealthy.
The whole-food plant-based diet by definition consists of mainly whole plants and foods from plants, but it does not entirely exclude animal products.
However, studies have shown that people who eat plant-based and exclude animal products have a significantly lower risk of developing lifestyle-related diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain cancers, and autoimmune disorders.
Eating a whole-food plant-based diet increases our intake of vitamins, antioxidants, minerals, and phytonutrients which are all needed to build up a healthy immune system and to reproduce healthy cells in the body. Animal products contain cholesterol, saturated fats and trans fats that contribute to inflammation, high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke.
Drinking at least 15 cups (men) or 11 cups (women) per day is recommended. More is suggested for people who have an infection or diarrhea, during pregnancy and while breastfeeding, as well as people who exercise and are exposed to hot weather etc.
Less water intake is recommended for people with certain health conditions such as kidney disease and congestive heart failure. An easy way to check if you are getting enough water is to look at the color of your urine. Clear, pale yellow urine indicates adequate amount of hydration while dark yellow or amber color may indicate the need to increase the amount of water you consume.
We all know that a good night’s sleep is important, yet studies have shown that more than one-third of Americans don’t get the recommended 7-9h per night. Often, our lack of sleep is related to our busy schedules, TV, computer use, and things like coffee, black tea, energy drinks, alcohol, nicotine, alarm clocks and artificial lights which all interfere with our circadian rhythm, our natural sleep/wake cycle. Conditions like obesity, sleep apnea, chronic pain, etc and the use of certain medications also contribute to poor sleep quality and a lack of sleep.
Expert advice includes improving sleep quality with habits like keeping to a sleep schedule even on days off, exercising daily, practicing mindfulness, yoga and stretching or other relaxing bedtime rituals, turning off electronics an hour before going to bed, and adjusting room temperature as well as minimizing sounds and light.
Sleep is an important key to a healthy immune system. During sleep, our immune system generates and releases proteins called cytokines that help with cell signaling. Sleep also improves our T-Cells who are responsible to fight pathogens like viruses and cancer cells.
Studies have shown that people who don’t get quality sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus or bacteria and recover slower when they get sick.
Vitamin D is an essential Vitamin that’s needed for a healthy immune system. Unlike other Vitamins, the D Vitamin is made by our body when our skin is being exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet B rays (UVB). Although there are a handful of foods that contain Vitamin D, studies have shown that when Vitamin D is ingested through foods it is poorly absorbed by the body.
About 40% of Americans are estimated to be deficient in Vitamin D and it is recommended to take a supplement for people who do not get enough UVB sunlight on a regular basis. As per experts, 15-30 min of sunlight exposure around noon (without the use of sunscreen) for people with light-toned skin is most effective as the sun is at its highest. The darker the skin, the longer the recommended exposure due to increased Melanin content in darker skin which protects the skin from sun exposure.
Science suggests that exercise and fitness boosts our immune system and amplifies our ability to fight off germs. Multiple studies have indicated that regular physical activity and frequent exercise reduces viral and bacterial infections as well as chronic diseases, cancer, heart disease, and other lifestyle-related diseases.
Moderate exercise up to 60 minutes per day has been shown to increase the immune system response as it improves anti-pathogen activity of cells in the immune system including Macrophages, Neutrophils, T-Cells, and B-Cells. and enhanced activity of immunoglobulins and anti-inflammatory cytokines.
Besides a direct link to cells in the immune system, exercise increases Serotonin levels which improves our mood and makes us feel relaxed and lowers cortisol levels. Both have a beneficial effect on our immune health.
Regular moderate exercise has also shown to improve circulation, sleep and sexual health, bone density and muscle strength, and reduces the risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, blood sugar levels in diabetes, some types of cancer, symptoms of many musculoskeletal diseases as well as depression.
There are so many ways to exercise and move your body. It is recommended to pick an activity that is joyful instead of making it just another task on our to-do list. Having fun during workouts helps to stay motivated, keeps the body going and brings positive energy to the mind as well. There are so many resources available online and in the community to partake in. Working out does not have to be costly. From body-weight exercises that you can do right in your living room or backyard to going for a run through the neighborhood, doing yoga or pilates at home with a youtube video or going for a hike on a nearby trail, these are all free resources just waiting to be explored.
If you are not already exercising on a regular basis it is advised to start with low-impact exercises and consult with your physician first.
The connection between the mind and the body has been studied for many years. Studies have shown that acute stressors enhance immune response, while chronic stressors suppress immune function. People who meditate regularly have reduced chronic-stress levels which has a profound effect on immune function and overall health.
Several studies have shown that regular meditation increases natural killer cells which are specific types of White Blood Cells that are responsible to target and kill abnormal cells. Meditation has shown to increase B-Lymphocytes which are responsible for antibody production for the attack of viruses, bacterias and toxins, and they also activate T-Cells.
Mindfulness Meditation, Transcendental Meditation, and Qigong have been shown to enhance immune function, and to delay disease progression in patients diagnosed with HIV, varicella-zoster virus, and dermatomyositis. In addition, meditation has been shown to be beneficial for people with psychological disorders.
Getting a hug is a natural desire of human beings as hugging brings an immediate feeling of comfort and relaxation. Touching one another, holding hands, hugging, cuddling, being stroked as well as receiving a massage provokes a biochemical response in our body that leads to the release of the ‘feel good hormones’ oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine.
The increase of oxytocin boosts T-Cells, and studies have shown that people who hug and cuddle more often are less likely to get sick and have milder symptoms than people who don’t hug frequently.
Besides a direct impact on the immune system response, there is also an indirect link as hugging and cuddling also has shown to improve sleep, decrease chronic pain, lowers inflammation, reduces heart disease and anxiety – all of those are linked to the immune system as well.
Being sexually active once or twice per week is another way to boost oxytocin levels and increase levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA), an immune molecule that helps protect us against illnesses like the common cold.
During the times of social distancing, of course, it is advised to only hug people we isolate with.
It is well known that laughing and keeping a positive outlook has shown to have a beneficial impact on our immune system. Processing negative information evokes negative emotions which lead to stress. When we experience stress, we release the hormone cortisol which has a negative effect on the balance of our immune system and our overall health.
Studies have shown that individuals who experienced negative emotions several times per day for extended periods of time had higher levels of inflammation biomarkers in their blood when tested.
Laughing on the other side has been shown to decrease stress hormones and increase immune response and infection-fighting antibodies in the body. Laughter relaxes the whole body and triggers the release of endorphins which are feel-good hormones that can relieve pain as well.
As humans we can not eliminate stressful events and difficult times including feelings of anxiety and sadness, it is all a part of being alive. Although we often can not influence a certain situation, we most definitely can influence the way we react to it.
There are a variety of tools that promote positive thinking from limiting bad news intake, starting a regular meditation practice, focusing on the positive side of things, being thankful for what we have, reaching out to others and communicate our feelings, spending time out in nature and giving back to the society have all shown to decrease negative thinking and improve mental and physical wellbeing.
High levels of cortisol and other stress-related substances in the body might decrease the effectiveness of the T-cell function. T-Cells are a part of our immune system and they are needed to kill pathogens.
There are many ways to reduce stress and the body’s response to stress. Sleep is one of them. While the body is asleep, the levels of stress hormones decrease and the immune system is being activated. Cytokines and T-Cells are being released for immune response and to fight pathogens.
Breathing exercises, meditation, yoga, Qi-Gong, Tai-Chi, praying, body scanning, guided imagery are all great practices to ease off stress. Physical exercise reduces cortisol and increases endorphins which also lower stress levels, while hugging and sexual activity is another way to achieve similar hormonal results.
Using aromatherapy to treat stress has proven to be beneficial with the following essential oils: Lavender, Rose, Bergamot, Valerian, Orange, Jasmine, Basil, Chamomile, Geranium, Frankincense, Sandalwood, Clary Sage, Lemon Balm, Marjoram.
Spending time with family, pets, friends and like minded people and having a sense of belonging have also shown to help reduce stress and anxiety.
Listening to soothing music can be very calming, while eliminating stimulants like caffeine, nicotine, alcohol and eliminating external stressors like watching the news channel, interacting with negative messages on social media is also recommended. Other stressors can be environmental like noise, extreme weather etc.
Vitamins, Minerals, and Antioxidants are essential organic compounds and micronutrients our body needs to sustain life.
For a healthy immune system, Vitamins A, B, C, D and E are most important as they are directly linked to boost immune health and help fight off infections and disease. Antioxidants are types of vitamins and minerals that prevent damage caused by free radicals, namely Vitamin A, C, E and the minerals Copper, Zinc and Selenium.
Vitamins A, C and E are found in colorful fruits and vegetables, especially those with purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow hues. Copper is found in dark chocolate, leafy greens, nuts, seaweed and Shiitake mushrooms. Zinc is found in legumes like lentils, beans and chickpeas as well as whole grains, nuts and seeds. Brazil nuts are a great source of selenium as well as sunflower seeds, mushrooms, oatmeal, spinach, lentils and cashews. More on foods that boost the immune system in our upcoming articles.
Superfoods are foods that contain maximal nutritional density and are exceptionally beneficial and healthy. Stay tuned for our in-depth article on superfoods for immune health.
The following is a list of superfoods, herbs and spices that as per experts help to boost the immune system: Camu Camu, Elderberry, Echinacea, Goji Berries, Turmeric, Cinnamon, Garlic, Ginger, Oregano, Seaweed, Acai, Flax seeds, Chia seeds, Andrographis, Astragalus, Mushrooms (Reishi, Turkey TailMaitake, Shiitake, Tremella.
Science shows that the body itself has multiple mechanisms using body temperature to control and fight germs and diseases. As an example, fever is not only a response from the body to an infection, but it also triggers a series of cellular mechanisms to ensure the immune system takes appropriate action and regulates immune system response to help fight viruses, bacterias and other pathogens and infections. Taking antipyretics like Tylenol, Advil, Ibuprofen, Aspirin or Paracetamol may be indicated with high fever, but also suppresses the body’s natural immune system response to fever.
Thermal treatments have been used for centuries by humans to improve wellness and health, to boost the immune system and treat diseases.
Different types of hot-cold treatments include: Turkish Baths, Russian Baths, Greek and Roman Baths, Finnish Sauna, Russian Sauna, Steamrooms and German Kneipp Baths, Ice-Baths, Infrared Sauna etc.
Thermal treatments are safe for healthy individuals even when used daily. For sauna treatments, it is recommended to keep each session to a total of 30-45min while alternating time in the hot sauna and cooling off with a cold bath or shower. Sauna has shown to improve immune health and white blood cell production, cardiovascular health, muscle and joint pain, and it aids in stress relief, relaxation and sleep.
Getting your daily dose of fresh air and sunshine is important for general health. Breathing in fresh air gives your body a boost of Oxygen which is needed in every cell of your body to live and regenerate. Air pollution is a problem especially in many bigger cities. Nevertheless, trees and plants that are growing in cities and out in nature provide us with Oxygen and studies have shown that spending time outdoors is beneficial in many ways. Being in nature has a calming and relaxing, energizing and grounding effect which is beneficial for our nervous system and our immune system. The feeling of gentle air flow on your skin, smelling the scents of flowers and trees, taking in more Oxygen and hearing the sounds of nature have all been shown to have a relaxing effect and aides in stress relief.
Sunshine is another important immune boosting element that we get when spending time outdoors. Sunshine is not only providing us with positive vibes, but it is needed for the body to make Vitamin D3 which is an important antioxidant that is needed for a healthy immune system.
Probiotics are beneficial bacteria and yeasts that provide a healthy environment in our gut and promote overall health in the body, our digestive system and our brain.
Probiotics are found in fermented foods and can also be taken via supplements. The following are good sources to get your daily dose of probiotics: yogurt (vegan or dairy), kefir, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, miso, kombucha and pickles.
Scientific studies have shown that essential oils are beneficial for our health. When essential oils are being diffused they purify the air and when they are being inhaled, they provide their benefits through stimulation of the limbic system in the brain. The limbic system plays a role in our emotions, behaviors, long-term memory, smells and unconscious physiological functions, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure etc. The following list of essential oils are known to be beneficial for our immune system: Holy Basil, Lavender, Camomile, Mint, Orange, Clove, Cinnamon, Eucalyptus, and Rosemary.
There are many remedies and recipes that have been passed from generation to generation and later science found to be beneficial for our health and the immune system. This is a list of a few well-known remedies our Grandmothers have taught us about:
Written by Eliane Baggenstos, owner of bodono, Registered Nurse, and Certified Health Coach with certification in Plant-Based Nutrition by the Cornell University and Evidence-based Health Coaching for Healthcare Providers by the National Society of Health Coaches, Licensed Massage Therapist with certifications in Advanced Sports Massage and Medical Massage, and Personal Trainer NASM CPT.