The immune system is complex, and many aspects of health and self care have the potential to make or break your ability to resist infection and complications that can result from infections. Each of us start in a different place: genetics, exposures, and lifestyle choices all combine to make our immune system what it is. While nobody can live perfectly, everyone can invest a little energy into targeting a few specific areas for maximum impact. Here are some well-researched suggestions.
Vitamin C has many functions. It’s used to protect the body’s cells from damage, enhance immune function, and to help make collagen and neurotransmitters like serotonin. We know that immune cells accumulate and concentrate vitamin C and then quickly use it up during an active immune response. It may reduce the duration of a cold or flu, but it isn’t a cure all.
While the current recommended daily intake for Vitamin C for adults is about 90-110 mg, some professionals believe that our needs may be higher – more like 200-300 mg per day. Foods highest in vitamin C are strawberries, bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, tomatoes, broccoli, papaya, potatoes, melons, brussels sprouts, sweet potato, and mango.
Vitamin D is a steroid hormone that is made from cholesterol. It is created in the body in a shared process by the skin, liver, and kidneys. When strong rays of sunlight contact the skin (May-September in the north), the process is initiated. Things that may prevent the creation of vitamin D are avoidance of sun, sunscreen, fatty liver, or liver or kidney disease.
Functions of vitamin D are to regulate uptake of calcium and phosphorus for bone health, enhancing immune function, regulating blood pressure, helping with secretion of insulin, and influencing cell development.
While sunlight is a natural source of Vitamin D for fair-skinned people or those who are outside in direct sun more than 30 minutes a day, there can be risk of skin damage from too much sun. Foods that contain vitamin D are wild caught salmon or mackerel, canned sardines, dairy or non-dairy fortified milks, eggs (from hens that are fed Vitamin D supplements), fortified cereals, or cod liver oil. Many people use supplements that provide 400-2000 IU of Vitamin D per day. How much you need depends on your body’s ability to make vitamin D from sunlight and how well it is converted to the active hormone by the liver and kidneys. Ask your doctor about getting a Vitamin D test to see what your levels are and how much you might need to supplement.
Stress Management is a key tool to use to help boost immunity. The number one thing you can do whenever you are under stress is to prioritize sleep and self-care. If you had to create the ideal self-care plan, what would it look like? Write down 3 things you would like to prioritize and 3 things you would like to do less often. Create a little list like the example below. Consider which activities, events, people, or pets nourish you also which activities, events, or people drain you. How can you eliminate, set limits, or boundaries around negative influences? Put this list on your fridge or bathroom cabinet as a reminder.
More of this and how I will achieve it: (What nourishes me deeply?)
Less of this and how I will achieve it: (What drains me?)
Magnesium is a mineral that is used in over 300 different enzyme reactions in the body and is needed for energy production, bone development, DNA, protection of cells from damage, muscle contractions, heart rhythm, nerve conduction, and immune function.
It is found in a variety of foods like almonds, spinach, peanuts, black beans, soy beans, potatoes, and whole grains. How much is in the food varies with how much is present in the soils where the food is grown. Eating a variety of plant based foods usually ensures adequate intake, but many of the soils where our foods are grown are depleted of this mineral.
Supplemental magnesium can be helpful for sleep, muscle cramps, menstrual cramps, fatigue, and keeping your immune defenses up when the viruses are going around. Magnesium citrate is helpful for constipation as it can loosen stools. Magnesium glycinate does not have this effect, but both types are well absorbed. Other forms of oral magnesium are not recommended due to their inability to be absorbed well.
Zinc is a mineral that helps with growth and development of all cells, body muscle proteins, enzymes, making immune cells and antibodies, and it assists in oxygen transport and storage. One such zinc-containing antioxidant enzyme, superoxide dismutase, protects immune cells from reactive oxygen species that are generated to kill invading pathogens during an immune response. Chances are you have probably used a zinc lozenge during a cold to shorten the time you are sick.
Foods rich in zinc are animal proteins like oysters, lobster, crab, beef, chicken. These animal sources have a higher rate of absorption than plant proteins like beans, cashews, chickpeas, pumpkin seeds or almonds. One reason that oysters are associated with higher fertility is that they have the highest amount of zinc per serving than any other food. Zinc plays a role in semen and testosterone production in men, in ovulation in women, and it supports growth and development from conception and throughout life.
Sleep is one of the most important methods of boosting and maintaining your immune system. Have you ever noticed that you tend to get sick after a period of sleep deprivation or stress? Lack of sleep puts strain on the body as it interrupts the normal pattern and circadian rhythm that governs the production and maturation of immune cells.
What is the right amount of sleep that is restorative for you? What evening activities are the biggest time hogs that prevent you from getting to bed on time? What are you doing that might interrupt your sleep or contribute to disrupted sleep patterns? What must change in order for you to be able to stick to a consistent sleep schedule, where you fall asleep and wake up at roughly the same time each day?
Here are a few tried and true strategies for more shut eye:
- Give your dinner at least 3 hours to digest before going to bed. Eating dinner late at night will increase the likelihood of reflux, metabolic activity, and therefore less sound sleep.
- Avoid too much fat and sugar at your evening meal . Skip foods laden with cheese, butter, pork, oils, butter, sugar, or simple carbohydrates. These take much longer to digest or will contribute to erratic blood sugars. Eat some lean protein (beans, lean meats or fish), half a plate of vegetables, and a small amount of a whole grain or starchy vegetable.
- Avoid alcohol. Even though it’s central nervous system depressant and makes you feel sleepy at first, it contributes to disruption of your normal sleep cycle.
- After dinner, enjoy a cup of chamomile, lavender, rose, valerian, or lemon balm tea. These are all calming for the central nervous system.
- Shut off all electronic devices (computers, tv, phone, iPad) 2 hours before bed. Use this time for calming activities (reading, shower, stretching) or dull easy housework (like folding laundry or organizing your sock drawer). Turn off the dings and alerts of all your social media and emails.
- Meditate or spend quiet time with your pet or a loved one. Sit and breathe, look out the window, notice life around you. Learn how to stop unfocused thinking and ruminating if that is a problem for you. Take a hot bath, which also boosts your immune system. Do what works for you, repeatedly, to develop a bedtime routine that allows you to drift off quickly once your head hits the pillow.
- If you are a snorer, get that checked out. If you sleep with a snorer, consider sleeping in separate rooms. Many people don’t realize their snoring partner is interrupting their sleep because they may not always remember, but when the body is prevented from completing normal sleep cycles, the deep sleep required for the rebuilding of the immune system gets shortchanged.
The immune system is complex, and it may feel overwhelming to learn about the best ways for you to target specific problem areas for your individual health needs. If this is the case, and you need help figuring out where to start, contact a functional or lifestyle medicine professional who can help you get over the hump and where you want to be. The right person can help you make a few small changes that will make a big impact on your short and long term health.
Anitra C. Carr & Jens Lykkesfeldt (2020) Discrepancies in global vitamin C recommendations: a review of RDA criteria and underlying health perspectives, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, DOI: 10.1080/10408398.2020.1744513
Immunity in Brief, Oregon State University, Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center.
Fact Sheet for Health Professionals – Magnesium; National Institute for Health
Fact Sheet for Health Professionals – Zinc; National Institute for Health
Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012;463(1):121–137. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
Photo Credit: Quang Anh Ha Nguyen via Unsplash