Stay Healthy Now: 11 Tips to Boost Your Immune System During COVID-19
COVID-19 might be raging right now, but even once this passes and a vaccine is developed, experts warn that there will be more viral outbreaks in the future. That’s why keeping that immune system as strong as possible is so important.
If you’re following a plant-based diet, that’s a start, and the good news is that you can push your diet and lifestyle habits even further to get that immune system in better shape. Yet can you really strengthen your immune system? “That’s somewhat of a misleading term, as people with autoimmune disease are struggling with an immune system that’s attacking their body, and they don’t want to make it stronger,” says Brooke Goldner, M.D., plant-based autoimmune disease specialist and telemedicine doctor. “Yet you can optimize your immune system to stimulate cellular repair, eliminate inflammatory processes and attack viruses.” By giving your immune system the right tools, it can help keep you healthy and make you more resistant to illness.
Now is a great time to start to optimize your immune system
And it’s never too late to start. “You might be blaming COVID-19 as a reason not to change your diet, but before that, it was work or family stress or a holiday,” Goldner says. “In other words, it’s never a convenient time to get healthier, but it’s always the right moment right now.”
So instead of lapsing into Netflix binges or indulging in too many "quarantinis," both of which will send your health spiraling downward, commit to that immune system by following these 11 strategies from leading plant-based physicians and experts:
Immune Building Tip 1. Make fiber king
Fiber, found only in plants, is the foundation of a 100 percent whole-food, plant-only diet, but if you’re not there yet, getting your fill of fiber is especially crucial now. “Although there aren’t studies yet regarding fiber and COVID-19, a high-fiber diet has been shown in several studies to protect against respiratory viruses,” says Will Bulsiewicz, M.D., board-certified gastroenterologist in Charleston, S.C., gut health expert and author of the upcoming Fiber Fueled. Prebiotic fiber feeds the gut microbes, which get stronger and multiply, turning that fiber into short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). As studies have shown, those SCFAs activate the immune system to fight infection. Just increase your fiber intake slowly so that your gut microbiome can adapt to it.
Immune Building Tip 2. Increase your water intake
You've heard that you should drink 64 ounces (or eight eight-ounce glasses) of water a day? Now add 32 ounces to that. No joke – you really should be drinking 96 ounces a day. “Your cells and immune system will work better as a result,” Goldner says. And remember that anything with caffeine will count against your water intake.
Immune Building Tip 3. Add vitamin C-rich foods to your daily menu
Vitamin C helps improve the function of infection-fighting cells and may improve inflammation, says Arti Thangudu, M.D., physician and founder of Complete Medicine in San Antonio, Texas. Yet skip the supplements, especially high doses which can put you at risk of vitamin C toxicity and side effects like abdominal pain and kidney stones. Instead, get vitamin C from whole fruits and vegetables like citrus, strawberries, bell peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes and tomatoes.
Immune Building Tip 4. Sip a daily smoothie
Drinking 96 ounces of water will seem like an overwhelming task, which is where smoothies come into play. The bonus? “You’ll be loading your body with anti-inflammatory foods at the same time you’re getting your water content up,” Goldner says. Her basic recipe? 75 percent greens and 25 percent fruit (to make it taste better). Then add a handful of flax or chia and water to the same level of the greens (about 30 to 40 ounces) and sip on it all morning. (Sign up for TheBeet’s Daily Smoothie of the Day recipe here: https://thebeet.com/sign-up-for-your-smoothie-of-the-day-each-has-immune-boosting-properties/)
Immune Building Tip 5. Get your share of vitamin D
Vitamin D has been shown to optimize the immune system functioning. What’s more, “deficiency of this vitamin may impact your ability to recover from this virus,” says Gemma Newman, M.D., plant-powered family medicine physician in the United Kingdom. You can get some vitamin D from foods like sun-soaked mushrooms and fortified plant milks and cereals, but sunshine is the best source, which is why Newman recommends getting 15 minutes of exposure daily. You might even need to supplement during winter if you live in a northern climate, popping about 2000 IU per day (unless otherwise directed by your physician).
Immune Building Tip 6. Focus on omega 3 fatty acids
Flax and chia are fantastic plant-based sources, even more so than walnuts and hemp, which also contain omega 6. That’s problematic only because most people eat too many omega 6s and not enough omega 3s. “When people come to me with compromised immune systems, I shut off the valve for omega 6s,” Goldner says. She kicks meat, dairy, oils, hemp and nuts out of the diet and asks them to eat half cup of flax and/or chia and gradually increase. “The immune system kicks in hard core and eliminates inflammation.” Her patients also report that they don’t get colds or flu as the result, but if they do, they recover quickly.
Immune Building Tip 7. Keep alcohol in check
Contrary to popular belief, alcohol has no health benefits, Goldner says. Worse? “Alcohol is inflammatory and suppresses immunity,” she adds. While you need to weigh the decision to drink carefully, if you’re an otherwise healthy individual, a few alcoholic beverages a week probably won’t hurt you – as long as you don’t let that drinking get out of control. If you’re sick, though, abstain completely.
Immune Building Tip 8. Eat your ‘shrooms
Mushrooms are a good source of vitamin D, which is important for supporting immune function, says William W. Li, M.D., an internationally renowned physician, scientist and author of the New York Times bestseller Eat to Beat Disease. They also contain a dietary fiber called beta-glucan, which boosts immunity, in part, by feeding healthy gut bacteria that influence immune response. A study in Australia gave healthy people white button mushrooms to eat for a week, about one and one-third cups a day, and compared to people who ate a regular diet, those who ate the mushrooms had a 55 percent increase in protective antibodies in their saliva, which lasted two weeks after they stopped eating mushrooms. An insider tip? “Beta-glucan is found at higher levels in mushrooms stems than caps so eat both caps and stems,” he says.
Immune Building Tip 9. Load up on zinc-rich foods
Zinc has been shown to reduce viral replication within cells, and although this isn’t specific to COVID-19, it makes sense to ensure that your zinc levels are optimized. Newman says. Zinc-rich foods include chickpeas, lentils, sesame seeds, tahini, pumpkin and squash seeds, pine nuts, cashews, and almonds. Also, to help zinc get to the cells that need it, add onions, berries, green tea, and matcha to your diet.
Immune Building Tip 10. Cut the crap
Exclude all processed, sugary and high-sodium foods from your diet. “They not only increase inflammation but also contribute to mood swings and weaker mental health,” says Lamiaa Bounahmidi, founder of WeTheTrillions, a company changing how women approach chronic diseases by offering plant-based foods as medicine and leveraging technology to do so.
Immune Building Tip 11. Log your Z’s
When you’re sleep deprived – or stressed, for that matter – you’re more susceptible to getting infections, Goldner says. While concerns about the virus are affecting Americans’ sleep habits – 50 to 70 million Americans are chronically sleep-deprived, according to a National Health Institutes Study – there’s never been a more critical time to get the slumber you need. Shoot for at least seven hours a night and then work on doing stress-relieving activities, whether that’s meditating, taking a bath or coloring.