It is helpful to think about the immune system, and most systems of the body, as something that we want to be balanced, rather than boosted. We can support a strong immune system with nutrition, herbs, lifestyle, and mindset. Now is a good reminder that it’s hard to “make up” for loss of health. Rather, we want to work towards a balanced regime that we can maintain all year round. My approach relies on a daily fortification of the immune system that begins from within.
How our immune defence works
The human body has a highly effective and intelligent defence system against viruses and invaders. Viruses are tackled by our humoral and cellular immune response and mucous membranes, which inhibit the penetration of viruses via an antibody-containing mucus layer. Since viruses can only multiply in a host cell, it is essential that the cell wall of mucous membranes is not destabilised by external and internal toxins and nutrient deficiencies, such as a lack of essential fatty acids (see below).
The majority of our immune cells are located in the lymph system, lymph nodes, and immune organs, which are primarily the spleen, thymus, intestine, and bone marrow. Additionally, since almost 80% percent of our lymph and immune cells are located in the gut, our digestive tract is very important in the defence against invaders. Therefore, the intestine is a key element of infection prevention.
The first place to start is the gut. This is because the gut is home to the trillions of bacteria that make up our microbiome and these bacteria play a critical role in maintaining a strong immune system. However, when the sensitive gut lining is damaged, known as leaky gut, the immune system is far less capable of protecting us from viruses and invaders.
Food is medicine
Our gut is the first line of defence between the outside world and our immune system; the barrier between the two being only one cell thick. To support immunity, we want to heal the gut and provide it with good nutrition. This means probiotic and prebiotic foods and a nutrient dense, low inflammatory, whole food diet. Hippocrates wrote, “Let thy food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food,” in 400 BC. Now more than ever our focus should look to the importance of nutrition and lifestyle medicine to prevent or heal illness.
How to support the immune system
The four pillars of immunity:
- Nutrient dense diet
- Stress management
- Quality and quantity of sleep
- Regular movement
Nutrient dense diet
The immune system relies on nutrient dense whole foods to function well. Since many people globally are deficient in one or more nutrients, we all need to focus on improving the quality of our diet. One of the easiest and best ways to take care of our immune system is by eating a healthy plant-based diet. For my favourite recipes, visit here. In the meantime, let’s break this down further:
Quit refined sugar
The worst thing we can feed our gut microbiome is sugar, which suppresses the immune system. Studies have shown that refined sugars can suppress the immune system for hours after ingesting. My advice is simple: the more we can stay away from refined sugar, the better off our immune system is going to be. Limiting sugar intake will help our immune system function more optimally.
Adequate protein intake
Protein is critical for immune function and protein malnutrition is something to be aware of if following a plant-based way of eating. Plant based proteins (pulses, nuts and seeds) are adequate if consumed in enough quantity. Tofu and tempeh, if tolerated, from non GMO soy and pea protein have the highest protein concentrations. For protein intake guidelines see here.
Greens, greens, greens
Eating multiple servings of greens and deeply coloured vegetables, which are packed with important and powerful nutrients, phytonutrients, and fibre, will support the immune system. Think leafy greens (kale, spinach, chard, beet greens, rocket, watercress) and cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage).
Omega-3 fatty acids are essential for optimal health, especially cellular function. Omega-3 fatty acids fall into two categories: alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and docosahexaenoic/eicosapentaenoic acid (DHA/EPA. The body cannot make ALA, so it’s important to get enough from the diet. ALA is found in a range of plant-based sources including: nuts and seeds (especially walnuts and pumpkin seeds) and cold pressed oils. Increasing healthy fats such as olive oil, coconut oil, flax seed oil, and other nut and seed oils are also very gut friendly.
Prebiotic and probiotic foods
As previously discussed, a healthy gut flora is critical to optimal immune health as 80% of our immune cells are in the gut and provide a major barrier against pathogens.
Prebiotic plant fibres contain compounds that ‘seed’ the gut and promote the growth of beneficial bacteria. We can be sure we’re keeping our microbiome happy by eating healthy sources of prebiotics such as chicory root, Jerusalem artichoke, dandelion greens, garlic, leeks, onions, and asparagus.
Probiotic foods ‘feed’ and promote the growth of beneficial microorganism communities. Good options to include are fermented foods such as kimchi, sauerkraut, coconut yoghurt, water or coconut kefir, kombucha, or raw unpasteurised sheep or goats milk cheeses.
Alkalise your body
Refined sugar and processed foods make the body more acidic and therefore more receptive to infections and disease. Eating whole plant foods and lots of them, is the best way to alkalise the body. Try making a big batch of plant-based broth, which will improve the pH of the body and is super-mineralising and anti-inflammatory.
Drink plenty of fluids
Drink plenty of warm fluids, preferably 2-3 litres a day. Taking in adequate fluids supports all the body’s functions including the immune system. Make fresh plant-based broths and have them throughout the week. Drink herbal teas like ginger and turmeric and sip filtered water throughout the day. Avoid concentrated fruit juices and sweetened drinks as the sugar will be harmful for the immune system.
Practice meditation and breath work
Increased levels of stress increase susceptibility to viral infections. In order to get ourselves from a place of stress activation to one of calm, the key is to work with the body from the outside in. There are many ways to bring our nervous system into a state of regulation in the moment as well as part of a practice. A regular, consistent meditation or breath work practice is one of the most effective (scientifically proven) ways to bring your system into regulation. When practiced over time some of the benefits are a toned, flexible nervous system, which enables us to have the capacity to move through our life with greater awareness, ease, and resilience.
Quality and quantity of sleep
We all know the restorative and healing power of sleep for the body. Without adequate sleep, optimal immune function is near to impossible. Try to get into a better rhythm and head to bed earlier and at the same time each night. Incorporating good sleep hygiene and relaxation practices to help manage stress so it doesn’t build up throughout the day is also very important.
Mild to moderate exercise (for approximately 30 minutes) helps boost the immune and lymphatic system. However, over-exerting ourselves if we are feeling run down will lower our immune defences. Any physical practice that helps move energy and rebalance the system is ideal. Think yoga, pilates, dancing, ballet barre, Qi Gong.
My favourite immune warriors:
- Fresh raw garlic – add to food
- Fresh ginger juiced or blended and strained. Take it as shots, add it to water or tea and lean in during a viral season
- Medicinal mushrooms are some of the best ways to help support your immune system. They are immune modulating, meaning they help our immune system work at an optimal level. In particular, reishi and chaga, which also improve your microbiome’s health. Even eating regular mushrooms will help, but shiitake mushrooms are a great source and easy to find in dried form
- All the spices – think turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne, chilli pepper – anything that makes you warm and sweaty, flushed and well circulated. Many of these spices increase T-cell function, which we can think of as our bodies fighter cells
- Fresh herbs: oregano, rosemary, parsley, thyme, coriander, mint etc – these are potent medicinal plants that provide immune supporting and antiviral properties
- This is the perfect vehicle for all the ingredients mentioned above
I generally prefer sourcing my nutrients from whole foods, but it may be beneficial to supplement these nutrients, particularly during a viral season:
The best way to get vitamin C is with a timed-release or liposomal based capsule. Vitamin C is actually water soluble, meaning we’re literally excreting the dose every 2-3 hours. Timed-released liposomal versions keep more vitamin C in the system for longer (usually 6-12 hrs). However, if these are not an option, buffered vitamin C is the next best thing. Adults can take 1,000mg a day.
My number one recommendation to help maintain a healthy immune system is to take vitamin D3. Vitamin D is difficult to source from food or sunlight in the darker winter months, or depending on where we live in the world. The body uses vitamin D to support the strength of our immune system. It’s best to get vitamin D levels checked for accurate dosage, which requires a quick and simple blood test. Blood levels should be above 30ng/dl, however, optimal levels are probably closer to 50ng/dl for most people. Adults can take 10,000 international units (IU), preferably in a liposomal form for optimal assimilation.
How are you regulating your immune system these days? What is supporting you? I’d love to know. Please feel free to comment below. Wishing you ease, flow, and good health as we move through this uncertain time towards Spring.