As I mentioned in my last blog about how to maintain mental health during COVID-19, it can be empowering to remind ourselves of the things that we can control right now. In addition to engaging in optimal hand-washing practices and participating in social distancing, there are a number of ways we can naturally enhance our immune system and its ability to defend against viruses.
First Thing’s First: How does our immune system respond to viruses?
Here’s the Cole’s Notes answer based off an explanation from American immunologist Gene Olinger: When a virus enters the human body, its main goal is to hijack cells, reproduce, and spread. In the beginning, it will do whatever it can to suppress or circumvent the immune response, weakening our immune system—sometimes without us experiencing symptoms that would give us cause for concern.
After this “hide-and-seek” stage, the immune system is triggered and T-cells—a form of white blood cells—latch onto any virus-infected cells. These T-cells punch through the cell membrane and kill everything inside.
When faced with viruses that they’ve never seen before, we may start flooding our bodies with immune molecules to create an “antiviral state.” The problem, however, is that excessive numbers of immune cells, or the wrong combination of them, can cause excessive tissue damage. Meanwhile, antibodies (larger white blood cells) and other proteins swoop in to swallow up any dead virus particles, which can pile up in the lungs, clog airways and reduce oxygen flow. Some people recover at this stage, but individuals with pre-existing lung conditions—or who might not have the strength to handle such an immune response—may experience complications. This is why elderly populations are often affected, though a young person with a suppressed immune system from an eating disorder, for example, would also be less equipped to fight off a new virus.
What can we do to enhance our immune system naturally?
Firstly, we can eliminate any habits or substances that weaken our immune system:
Insufficient sleep is one of the most common factors of lowered immunity, so be sure to practice adequate sleep hygiene and follow a regular sleep schedule.
Viruses feed off of processed sugars, so significantly reducing or avoiding added sugars is a simple yet effective strategy to protect your immune system. The simplest thing to do here is stick to real, whole foods that have minimal ingredients and avoid consuming packaged goods, which are often high in added sugars.
Our lymphatic system is a network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of toxins, waste, and other unwanted substances. One of its main jobs is to transport lymph throughout the body, which is a fluid that contains immune-supporting white blood cells. Lymph moves towards the heart and gets filtered through lymph nodes throughout the body, which contain immune cells to filter the lymph before it returns to the blood. Congestion in the lymphatic system can weaken our immunity.
As protein is vital to building and preparing body tissues and fighting viral and bacterial infections, insufficient protein intake can contribute to poor immunity.
The liver is a key, frontline immune tissue that can detect, capture, and clear viruses and bacteria. If the liver is overburdened by sugar, cigarettes, high-fructose corn syrup, alcohol, pop, trans fats, excessive caffeine (more than 200mg per day), and other harmful substances, it won’t be able to do its job as effectively.
Unfortunately, stress can have a significant impact on our immune system.
After we’ve eliminated some of the habits and nutrients that harm our immune system, we can introduce some immune-boosting substances and practices:
Consume sufficient amounts of complete proteins. The general recommendation for healthy adults is to consume at least 0.36g of protein per pounds of body weight each day. So, if you are 140 lbs, you’d want to consume about 50g of protein each day. Complete proteins contain all nine essential amino acids that our body cannot produce on its own. (Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.) While all animal products are complete proteins, plant-based foods that are complete include quinoa, tofu, tempeh, edamame, amaranth, buckwheat, Ezekiel bread (found in the frozen food section), spirulina, hemp seeds, chia seeds, whey protein, and nutritional yeast. You can also engage in food pairing to ensure that the plant-based foods you are eating complement each other in such a way that you’re consuming all nine essential amino acids (i.e. pairing rice and beans).
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. This can help flush out toxins in the body.
Increate fibre intake. Water and fibre can encourage the frequent elimination of toxins and waste material. High-fibre foods include beans, vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and carrots, avocados, home-popped popcorn, fruits like apples, pears, and berries, 100% whole grains, and more.
Consume B vitamins. B vitamins are found in animal products and can also be taken in supplement form. These vitamins assist with the T-cell and antibody response.
Up your intake of essential fatty acids in the form of ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA can be found in flaxseed oil, while DHA and EPA are found in fish and other seafood. Supplementing with a comprehensive EFA liquid or capsule can be very helpful, especially for vegetarians and/or vegans.
Antioxidants: The most potent sources of antioxidants include artichokes, kale, Goji berries, red cabbage, beans, beets, spinach, dark chocolate, pecans, and berries. That said, simply upping your intake of fruits and vegetables, especially of the non-starchy variety, will provide you with a helpful hit of antioxidants.
Probiotic-rich foods: A big proportion of the immune system is actually in our gastrointestinal tract and there are even cells in the gut lining that are in charge of excreting large amounts of antibodies. Eliminating the foods and substances mentioned earlier (such as sugar, artificial sweeteners, and trans fats) is a good starting point for improving gut health. From there, adding probiotic-rich foods like kefir, plain yogurt, tempeh, and other fermented foods will all help.
Add garlic: Garlic is an amazing natural immune-supporting food. Take it as a supplement, eat it raw (if your stomach can bear it), or generously add it to your dishes.
Exercise has been proven to benefit our immune system, so go for walks/runs outside or consider doing an at-home body-weight circuit to get the blood pumping.
Create flow in your lymphatic system: Exercise is one of the main ways to cleanse a clogged lymphatic system. You may also incorporate hot/cold showers, dry brushing, massages, and/or acupuncture into your routine. Another tip is to put on cold, wet socks plus another pair of dry socks on top and leave overnight.
Reduce stress: this is best achieved by getting enough sleep, refraining from drinking excessive amounts of caffeine (200mg or less), and engaging in exercises that calm your body and nervous system, including: meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, stress-busting yoga poses, having a hot bath with Epsom salts, and more. I'm also taking on new patients at this time if you or anyone reading this could use some extra support.
The Bottom Line
There is a lot we can do to boost our immune system naturally. Cleaning up the diet and reducing our intake of caffeine and alcohol is the simplest way to start. From there, make sure that you’re practicing good sleep hygiene and try to add some form of movement into your day, whether it's through going for a walk outside or doing an at home, stress-busting yoga flow. Adding specific foods to your diet like antioxidants, EFAs, garlic, probiotics, and high-fibre foods will also help your immune system function optimally.