As we approach flu season and see Covid-19 cases continue to rise, immune health is on everyone’s minds. According to Functional Medicine Registered Dietitian, Brigid Titgemeier supporting optimal immune health and lowering inflammation are key for improving outcomes of any virus. But knowing the best ways to do that can be confusing.
As we continue to navigate a global pandemic, flu season and colder weather, it is in the best interest of everyone to focus on creating a healthy foundation to support the immune system and lower inflammation. Optimal immune support involves two primary steps:
+ Decrease Exposure. Follow standard public health practices such as hand washing and mask wearing to limit the spread of Covid-19. This does not help improve your immune system but it does help decrease exposure to infection, which is still very much important.
+ Support your Immune System. Fuel your body to create the highest level of personal immunological resiliency and decrease inflammation. Your immune system is dependent on key ingredients — optimal nutrition, movement, sleep and stress reduction — in order for it to function at its best. Let’s not lose sight of the power of your kitchen!
An Immune System Refresher…
The immune system is a complex and dynamic system. You have three primary lines of defense against foreign invaders, including your physical barrier (skin and mucus membranes); your innate immune system and your adaptive immune system. Nutrition and lifestyle changes can help to support all three layers of your immune health. The physical barrier includes your body’s production of chemicals that help fight off bacteria, viruses, fungi, parasites and toxins through saliva, mucus, sweat and gastric acids. Your innate immunity is the first line of defense that is non-specific, meaning it does not differentiate between pathogens. This includes your white blood cells (leukocytes), neutrophils, and macrophages. Your second branch is the adaptive immune system. This part of your immune system is antigen-specific, meaning it can differentiate between various types of pathogens, it includes your T lymphocytes and B lymphocytes.
Most people assume that the more active your immune system is, the better. But that is not necessarily the truth. It’s true that an underactive immune system can decrease your body’s ability to fight off pathogens and increase your susceptibility to getting sick. But on the other end, an overactive immune system increases levels of inflammation and can promote autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases happen when the immune system begins to attack the body itself.
9 Common Drivers of Chronic Inflammation
Most people think inflammation is always negative. And while chronic, low grade inflammation is harmful, acute and short lived inflammation is a critical immune response to pathogens or other injuries.
Acute inflammation is essential for healing and it provides an immediate defense mechanism to protect you from an infection or other insults like trauma, toxins, and more. In order for inflammation to be protective, it needs to have a termination phase, meaning it turns on when it’s needed and turns off when it is not. In the case of chronic inflammation, there is no termination phase and it can lead to tissue destruction, fibrosis and necrosis, which is why chronic inflammation can increase risk of autoimmune and chronic disease.
The most common drivers of chronic inflammation include poor diet, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, lack of movement, imbalances in the gut microbiome, excess weight, food allergies and sensitivities, sleep deprivation, stress, and smoking.
In the case of Covid-19, scientists have demonstrated that severe COVID-19 outcomes are seen in people who experience immune system overdrive, which has been classified as the “cytokine storm”. In these cases, the immune system overproduces cytokines that are and can create tissue damage in the lining of the lungs and the blood vessels. Chronic underlying states such as obesity and diabetes are closely associated with chronic inflammation. And it appears that higher levels of chronic inflammation at baseline are closely associated with poor health outcomes from Covid-19. This is why decreasing low grade chronic inflammation through diet and lifestyle is absolutely critical for supporting the intricate balance of the immune system.
Research clearly shows that nutrition can help to upregulate your innate and adaptive immune function, supporting your body’s ability to fight off pathogens while also decreasing low grade, chronic inflammation. There is no mask, soap or vaccine that is able to work on both of these areas of the immune system like nutrition and self-care can. And while it’s tempting to run out and buy every immune-supporting supplement known to man, it’s very important to not overlook the basics. There are several places you can start when it comes to promoting immune health this winter:
6 Keys to Support your Immune System Now
Eat the Rainbow Every nature-derived color of the rainbow has different immune-modulating properties. This is why it’s immensely beneficial to get small amounts of a variety of colors versus a large amount of just green vegetables and fruits. Load up on a lot of different colors in your produce and aim for eating at least three colors with every meal. Examples: purple cauliflower, yellow carrots, white asparagus, orange bell peppers, and more!
Eat Quality Whole Foods Eating a diet that is high in processed foods and refined carbohydrates is associated with an altered immune response that likely occurs from an excessive production of pro-inflammatory cytokines. Eating a diet rich in whole, nutrient-dense foods is a key way to lower inflammatory processes and support immune, mental, and metabolic health. Skip the processed foods and load up on foods that come from the earth and do not contain questionable ingredients.
Limit Added Sugar to 1 Tbsp Per Day High levels of added sugar in your blood may lower white blood cells function and weaken your immune system. A diet high in added sugar can also deplete antioxidant levels and increase your production of reactive oxygen species, producing an inflammatory milieu and an imbalance between anti-inflammatory and inflammatory cytokines.
Add 2 Brazil Nuts to Your Diet Daily Brazil nuts contain a high dose of selenium, which is a critical antioxidant that decreases inflammation and promotes the production of glutathione, your body’s master antioxidant. Just two brazil nuts contain more than 100% of the daily selenium recommendation.
Prioritize Quality Vitamin D Supplementation Vitamin D has antiviral, antimicrobial and pro-hormone properties that are critical for an optimal immune system. There is strong research to show adequate levels of vitamin D are important for immune function and the body’s ability to fight off infections such as acute respiratory infections and COVID-19. That’s probably why Dr. Fauci has been taking vitamin D and why Trump was given vitamin D when he got COVID-19. You can get some vitamin D from egg yolks, wild sockeye salmon, canned sardines, oysters, herring and ultraviolet mushrooms. But it is difficult to meet your daily vitamin D needs through food alone during winter months with little to no sunshine.
Sleep & Stress Reduction Getting 7-9 hours of sleep and incorporating stress reduction techniques such as breathing, meditating, or participating in activities that bring you joy are critical for supporting your immune, metabolic and mental health. I recommend unplugging and relaxing at night to try to improve the quality of your sleep and melatonin production, including disconnecting from blue light at least one hour before bed, taking an epsom salt bath, reading a book, practicing an evening meditation, foam rolling or stretching.
These ingredients help arm your body with immunological resilience. The more that you participate in these actions, the stronger and more balanced the armor becomes.
Interested in learning more about how you can take action to improve your immune health? Brigid has outlined all of her top recommendations in my new guide, Cultivating a Healthy Immune System & Lowering Inflammation.