Nutrition and Your Immune System

Winter is typically thought of as cold and flu season, but a virus can strike at any time.  Modern medicine has a good handle on bacterial infections using antibiotics, but viruses aren’t so easy to beat as there are few drugs readily available to help us fight off a virus.

Strengthening your immune system is the best way to fight off viral infections so that you can both lower your chances of getting it and can fight it off quickly.

Most people are familiar with echinacea, vitamin C, or zinc but there are a lot of other important lifestyle factors and nutrients you need to keep you healthy and boost your immune system.

person in bed taking temperature

The immune system uses a variety of cells and mechanisms to fight a virus and keep you healthy.  The tonsils, thymus, lymphatic system, bone marrow, spleen, white blood cells and your digestive system are among the organs and tissues in this system. They protect the body through a series of chemical reactions which require nutrients to be present. When the immune system can work at its best, you are protected against bacteria, viruses, dust, pollution and a host of other invaders. When weakened you’re more likely to get sick and take longer to heal.

These systems require all of the essential dietary macronutrients like carbohydrates, protein, fat and water as well as a host of micronutrients. Micronutrients are nutrients needed in very small but critical amounts for health. They include vitamins, minerals, and essential (omega-3 and omega-6) fatty acids.

Antioxidants like Vitamin A and Beta Carotene, Vitamin E, and Vitamin C as well as minerals like Selenium and Zinc are essential for your immune system. Antioxidants protect our body from cellular damage that allows disease and aging to occur. Vitamin A helps the absorption of Vitamin C, D, E, Zinc and some B-vitamins. Vitamin E protects other fat soluble vitamins and the cell membrane. It enhances the absorption of Vitamin A and regenerates Vitamin C. Vitamin C is essential for resistance to infections and it also enhances the absorption of calcium, magnesium and Iron. Selenium and Zinc are both needed to repair other antioxidants and when deficient, increase the duration and strength of a viral attack. It’s impossible to ignore how intertwined these nutrients are and how necessary a well balanced diet is.

variety of vegetables

Eating a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables is essential for your antioxidant intake. Variety helps to ensure you are getting these all of these nutrients, as different fruits and vegetables have varying amounts. All fruits and vegetables contain Vitamin C, but for Vitamin A seek out those that are yellow and orange like squashes. Vitamin E is found in wheat germ and in dark leafy greens and selenium and zinc are found in meats, seafood, legumes and nuts.

In addition to antioxidants, many other micronutrients modulate immune function including vitamin D, the B-vitamins including folate, B12, B2, and B6, minerals including iron, copper and magnesium, and essential fatty acids. Vitamin D is very hard to get in a standard diet. Eating vitamin D fortified foods or supplementing with Cod Liver oil are your best sources in addition to getting some sunlight daily. B Vitamins are in greatest concentrations in whole grains and legumes. Folate is found in legumes and dark leafy green vegetables. Magnesium is found in grains and dark leafy greens and copper is found in nuts, beans, potatoes and meat. Animal meats are the best sources of iron and B12. For vegetarians, and especially vegans, getting supplemental iron and B12 should be discussed with your doctor.

Some people react with hesitation when told to eat more fat, but it’s important to remember that some fats are good for you and even essential to get in your diet for your cellular and immune system integrity. Most Americans get enough omega-6 fatty acids so recommendations generally focus on increasing our omega-3 fatty acid intake. Flax seeds, walnuts, cold water fish and fish oils are excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

Other lifestyle factors include those that influence inflammation, your stress level, intake of inflammatory processed foods and sugar,  toxic exposure, sleep, and movement patterns all influence your health.

Basic Tips:

  • Stay well rested
    • Aim for seven or more hours of rest a day, when you are sick you will need a a lot more.  Sleep does not need to be continuous to be beneficial, nap if needed.  A lack of sleep can weaken your immune system and make you more susceptible to infections.
  • Drink water
    • Water is one of the best ways to support your immune system. Water helps your lymphatic system get rid of toxins and waste and decreases overall inflammation.
    • Hydrate with ½ your body weight in ounces of water daily.
  • Avoid simple sugar
    • Sugar decreases your immune system and increases inflammation.  It disrupts your microbiome. Your gut bacteria play a big role in your immune system by helping defend your body from infections.
    • Optimal intake of starches is about 25% of your overall diet.
  • Decrease stress
    • Every thought you have either, consciously or subconsciously, releases neurotransmitters that effect your mood and solidifies patterns of thinking. Basically, every thought is either helping you create wellness or diminishing it.
    • Think about your physical stressors (pesticides, air pollution?), mental stressors (working from home?), and emotional stress (COVID19 anxiety, lost job?).  Each one of these is effecting your body the same as if running from a predator.  Take a deep breath, focus on what you can control, and offset your stress with whatever helps; breath work, mediating, exercise, or talking with a friend for example

To reduce the spread of infections, remember to wash your hands often and stay home. If sick, you can support your immune system by resting and eating eat easy to digest soups and well cooked vegetables. Soups help you stay hydrated.  As always a vegetable based whole, organic, unprocessed, diverse, nutrient-rich diet is the recommendation. A lot of people also find relief by decreasing their intake of mucous producing foods such as dairy, wheat, and eggs.