We live in a society where we're always on the go. We live fast-paced, high-pressure lifestyles and often don’t take the time to prepare nutritious foods. Most of us find ourselves grabbing a protein bar at the store or microwaving a preprepared meal when we get home instead of preparing nutritious vegetables. As a result, our immunity is compromised.
We all know the consequences of getting sick, but you don’t have to leave it completely to chance or whether or not you remembered to avoid touching your face and using hand sanitizer. The truth is, we’re faced with hundreds of viruses and bacteria each day, our immune systems are simply strong enough to stop most of them in their tracks.
But what about those it can’t? Since we don’t have medications to help us fight viruses efficiently, we need to strengthen our immune systems. Read on to learn how to hack your immune system so it is fit and ready for the coming flu season.
Start with Your Gut Health
We now know that over 70% of our immune system health is linked to our gut health, and that means everything we eat adds to, or takes away from, the strength of our immune system. When our gut is healthy, it easily takes up the necessary nutrients in the food we eat so our body can use it for thousands of different processes that help us function and stay healthy.
The problem is, highly processed and sugary foods impact our gut permeability, which limits how many nutrients get into the blood stream. Processed food can cause oxidation and damage to our bodies, which increases our need for those vitamins. If you eat a whole-food, healthy diet, your gut will easily pick up these nutrients and pass them on to wherever they need to go.
Without necessary nutrients, our gut doesn’t work as efficiently, and we probably feel more tired and less able to make healthy decisions. So, when you get home from work, you heat a frozen burrito instead of chopping vegetables for a healthy stir fry. This continues to impact gut permeability, and thus, starts to make your body more susceptible to infection.
What can I do to strengthen my immune system this winter?
Do whatever you can to avoid viruses by washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, wearing the mask, and avoiding crowded scenarios, but that's only half the battle. You can't see viruses, so they’re virtually impossible to avoid entirely. The next best thing you can do is improve your body's defenses against a virus. That way, if you're exposed, your body will be more able to defend you from getting infected by the viruses that you're inevitably exposed to.
Eat Sufficient Protein
You also want to make sure that you're getting protein. I tell my patients to aim for a good amount of protein in at least two meals a day, but, of course, it depends on each individual. Generally, you want to aim for 0.7 times your total weight. If you're 130 pounds, you want about 100 grams of protein a day. If you're 170 pounds, you might want 120 to 140 grams of protein a day. Your immune system is composed of antibodies, and antibodies are proteins, so they're made from the protein sources that you eat. If you're not getting enough protein, you have a less robust antibody response, which is necessary for protecting you against viruses.
Care for Your Gut Health
As we learned at the beginning of this article, your gut health plays a huge part in your overall immune function. If your gut health is compromised, you're more susceptible to a virus. The best thing you can eat for your gut is fresh produce containing plenty of Vitamin C, zinc, selenium, vitamin D, and Quercetin. Most American adults don’t eat nearly as much fresh produce as they need. I recommend my patients eat at least two servings of fruits and vegetables a day to ensure natural absorption of the vitamins and minerals necessary to defend them against viruses.
It’s worth noting here that if your gut is compromised, you're not going to be absorbing most of the nutrients in the foods you eat anyway. In that case, you still want to increase your micronutrients through supplementing. On top of that, you want to make sure you're getting a supplement that has enough zinc, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin A, and other flavonoids that protect you from viral infection. Also consider taking probiotics to infuse your gut with new, healthy bacteria.
4. Stay Active
You may be surprised to hear that exercise plays a role in the strength of our immune systems, but it does. These days, many of us work from home, which means a lot of sitting around. We sit at our desks and on the couch. For some people, the walk to the car might be the only exercise they do, if they leave the house at all that day. This newly (even more) sedentary lifestyle compromises the circulation in our bodies. This circulation is essential for a healthy immune system, as it allows our lymphatic systems (the main part of our immune systems) to travel through our lymph nodes in the neck, underarms, and groin. The lymph nodes are the “filters” of our immune system.
Those of us who don’t move around enough are more likely to have compromised immunity, so we should all aim for at least 2,000 steps a day. (Though aiming for 6,000 – 10,000 is a much healthier goal.)
5. Drink Plenty of Water
Staying hydrated means our bodies can filter the lymphatic system that cleanses our systems from viruses. Six to eight glasses are what most people aim for in a day. Some of my patients find they aren't even drinking two glasses of water, or they're drinking caffeinated beverages that end up dehydrating them. If you don’t like plain water, infuse it with tea or fruit.
6. Get Adequate Sleep
Sleep deprivation is also common in our culture right now, but this also compromises your immunity. I recommend at least seven hours of sleep a day for my patients. Sadly, they often laugh when I recommend that, but if you don’t feel as though you have time for that much sleep, you probably need to reshuffle your priorities!
7. Limit Your Alcohol Intake
Another way to help your immune system is to limit your intake of alcohol, processed food, and high-sugar foods. All of these things lead to oxidation, which is what increases your susceptibility to a viral infection. And that's what most micronutrients are- they’re the antioxidants that protect you from all the damage that you've imposed upon yourself or your environmental stressors have caused.
All of these tips are simple and good advice for your health year-round, but you may be surprised to find you aren’t taking care of yourself the way you should when you take a realistic look at your lifestyle. Now is the time to assess where you’re dropping the ball and take action to improve your health so you don’t get sick this winter.
Dr. Nancy Rahnama, MD, ABOM, ABIM, is a medical doctor board certified by both the American Board of Obesity Medicine and the American Board of Internal Medicine. Her specialty is Clinical Nutrition, that is, the use of nutrition by a medical doctor to diagnose and treat disease. Dr. Rahnama has helped thousands of people achieve their goals of weight loss, gut health, improved mood and sleep, and managing chronic disease.