Each day we encounter germs, viruses, and other disease-causing bacteria. Yet, we are not catching a new cold every week, or even every month. That is because our immune system is constantly patrolling our bodies, looking for foreign invaders and neutralizing them before they can make us ill.
But for your immune system to take care of you, you need to keep it primed and at the ready. Stress, worry, a lack of sleep, and not eating a healthy diet can all hinder your immune system. We are seeing that with our patients, and we are constantly coaching them on ways to improve immune system function. And that is key to staying healthy, avoiding illness is easier than reversing it.
First, How Does Your Immune System Work?
Your immune system is made up of two parts, your innate immune system (which you were born with) and your adaptive immune system (also called acquired immunity) that gets smarter with each new disease exposure. So how does this work?
Let’s say you just touched some germs on a counter in a public bathroom. Your hand is covered with skin, which is part of your innate immune system, so those germs never make their way inside your body. Now, let’s say someone sneezed on you and there were cold germs in that sneeze. The mucous membranes in your nose, also part of your innate immune system, keep some of those germs out.
But some germs will likely make their way into your body. That is where the rest of your innate immune system—which includes an army of “patrollers” that are constantly roaming your body looking for intruders—spots those cold germs. It cannot identify the specific pathogen, but it knows it should not be there and alerts your adaptive immune system to act.
At that point, your adaptive immune system identifies the intruder and releases specific cells, called antibodies, to destroy it. Your adaptive immune system also has a “memory.” If it has encountered that specific virus or flu strain before, it already knows how to make the antibodies to fight it and can do it quickly.
The secret to making all of this work is taking care of your immune system so it stays in tip-top shape. Here are some ways to make that happen:
- Make Sleep a Priority: Sleep is when your body does the important work of repairing the DNA damage that occurs throughout the day. Plus, while you sleep your body releases protective cytokines that help to fight infection and decrease inflammation. For overall health and a strong immune system, you want to aim for 7-9 hours of sleep each night.
- Get Plenty of Exercise: Whether it is doing a favorite sport, going to the gym, or taking a brisk walk, exercise helps to release stress—and stress can negatively impact your immune system. Plus, exercise increases the production of antioxidants that quench harmful free radicals, reducing any damage they can cause. During exercise, your body also releases specific white blood cells that circulate throughout your body, improving immune system function. Yet, there is one caveat here. Over exercising can dampen the immune system, so know your limits and be mindful of overtraining.
- Support Your Lymphatic System: Lymphatic circulation helps to remove harmful toxins, waste, and other unwanted materials from the body. Yet, it is often overlooked when it comes to immune system health. In addition to getting regular exercise, you can support lymphatic circulation with dry skin brushing, massage, and using a rebounder (mini trampoline). We also often recommend hydrotherapy techniques, such as ending your shower with cold water, to help support lymphatic circulation and healthy blood flow throughout your body.
- Get Plenty of Vitamin D: Optimal vitamin D levels are associated with a healthy immune system, yet nearly 42% of American adults are deficient! Vitamin D is called the “sunshine vitamin” for a reason—our bodies manufacture vitamin D through sun exposure. So, it is hard to get enough year-round, particularly for those living in higher latitudes. Plus, foods rich in vitamin D, such as mackerel and sardines, are not generally consumed by most. In fact, you would need to drink a quart of fortified milk every single day to get the minimum daily allowance of vitamin D (400-600 IUs)—and for a strong immune system that is not enough. For overall health and strong immunity system support, we recommend taking at least 1,000 IU of a highly absorbable vitamin D3 supplement daily. Even better, test your levels of 25-hydroxy vitamin D and supplement appropriately to get your value to around 50 ng/ml.
- Take Immune-Supporting Nutrients: Nutritional supplements are critical for a healthy immune system. In addition to a good multivitamin, we recommend taking beta-glucan which supports overall immune function and upper-respiratory function, as well as assisting with seasonal and environmental challenges (250 mg daily). Elderberry extract, which comes from elderberry flowers and berries, has been used for hundreds of years to support a healthy immune and respiratory system, especially during the winter months (50 mg daily). Plus, zinc plays an important role in your body’s immune response (10 mg daily).
- Reduce Sugars and Simple Carbs: Eating a low glycemic diet—minimizing sugar, alcohol, and refined carbohydrates—is important for your immune system. You also want to balance your carbohydrate intake with protein and healthy fats.
- Cook Up Some Chicken Soup: Your mom had it right! Chicken soup can help to boost your immune system and can help to fight colds if you do get sick. That is because chicken soup contains the amino acid cysteine, and a form of this amino acid called N-acetyl cysteine is a powerful antioxidant that strengthens the immune system. If you are already sick, spiking your soup with garlic, hot peppers, hot curry, and/or hot sauce can help to reduce the overproduction of mucous, allowing you to breathe easier and have less coughing. This is our favorite way to support the immune system since it feeds our family’s hungry tummies as well.
- Eat Organic Immune-Boosting Fruits & Vegetables:
- Pomegranates: This delicious fruit is filled with vitamin C, which helps to boost your immune system. Fall is the season for pomegranates. Our children absolutely love pomegranates, and we usually gather around the table as we eat and enjoy the tasty seeds.
- Spinach: This leafy green vegetable contains vitamins A and C, which both help to boost your immune system, along with vitamin E, which gives protection to your lungs and liver.
- Broccoli: Delicious hot or cold, broccoli is filled with immune-boosting vitamin C. Plus, it is a good source of quercetin, which is a potent antioxidant and flavonoid that has antiviral properties. Quercetin also has a histamine regulating effect; you can think of it as a “natural antihistamine.” It also contains sulforaphane, which helps your body to create antioxidants that help to fight harmful free radicals.
- Onions: This delicious vegetable is filled with immune-boosting nutrients, including zinc, vitamin C, sulfur compounds and selenium. We use onions as a foundation for most of our dinners, as it provides excellent flavor for sautés and soups.
- Garlic: A sulfur-containing food that supports the body’s production of glutathione, garlic is also anti-microbial, enhances immune system function, and modulates inflammation. It is great to use in cooking, particularly in the chicken soup.
- Ginger: This root helps to support the immune system. It can also help to prevent nausea and soothe an upset stomach. We like to make ginger tea and add lemon and some honey, especially on those cold evenings!
As you can see none of these foods are exotic and can be easily included in your dietary routine. A whole food diet like our grandparents consumed is a much healthier option than the diet many of us consume today.
Bottom line to immune health, no matter how turbulent times may seem be, maintaining a strong immune system will pay for itself when you need it the most. And it is easy to achieve by getting adequate sleep, doing regular exercise, eatinga healthy whole food diet and adding a few kep supplements to your routine.
Dr. Briana Sinatra is a board-certified and California-licensed practicing naturopathic doctor who holds a Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University. She focuses on women’s and family health, taking a holistic approach to healthcare. Dr. Drew Sinatra is a board-certified and California-licensed practicing naturopathic doctor who holds a Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University and a self-described “health detective.” He works with patients on “health care” rather than “disease care” at his practice in Northern California. The Sinatras are a husband and wife team and advisers for research and development of clean and plant-based nutritional supplements for Healthy Directions.
Connect with the Sinatras at: Twitter:@DrDrewSinatra https://twitter.com/DrDrewSinatra
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/DrsSinatraND; Website: www.drewandbriana.com