"It’s just another virus," they say. But we still don’t know much about COVID-19 and we don’t know how our immune system is going to react to it. But what we do know is that we can strengthen our immune system if anything decides to come our way. As I say, food is medicine!
We need immune boosters because they increase the number of white cells in the immune system’s army, because immune boosters help get rid of the substances that drag the body down.
Visualize this: In our body we have natural killer cells (NK cells). Imagine a Pac Man-looking cell with a helmet that says 'natural killer' on it. These trillions of killer cells are constantly on high alert and police your body with search-and-destroy missions for germs (and even cancer cells, by the way) that don’t belong in your body and may threaten its health.
Like magnets, they attach themselves to the foreign germs and literally shoot biochemical bullets into them and blow them up. If the general of your NK battalion could tell you four things to help your army to fight more effectively it would be:
1) Believe that we will fight for you;
2) Feed us healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, and seafood;
3) Avoid added sugar on food labels and curtail sweet treats - especially sugary beverages, which depress the immune system.
4) Move more, sit less.
What does the immune system need in order build up these natural killer cells?
There is no quick fix for the immune system, and it doesn’t build up in a matter of days, which is exactly why we need to establish a healthy lifestyle from the start. I like to call it a LEAN lifestyle and these are the key factors to consider:1) Lifestyle: How we live
2) Exercise: How we move
3) Attitude: How we think
4) Nutrition: How we eat
Which nutrients help to boost immunity?
- Vitamin C: It increases the amount of infection fighting white blood cells and antibodies. We need approximately 20mg per day which is equivalent to eating 6 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. The best fruits that are high in vitamin C are guava, papaya, strawberries, kiwi, oranges and grapefruit.
- Vitamin E: It stimulates the production of cells that destroy germ cells and enhances the immune cells that produce antibodies that destroy bacteria. A diet rich in seeds such as sunflower, pumpkin, flax seeds is very beneficial and two tablespoons a day is all you need.
- Zinc: This mineral increases the production of white blood cells that fight infection and helps them fight more aggressively. It’s safest to consume zinc from food such as oysters, crab, beef, turkey and beans.
- Garlic: Easy to incorporate into your stews, garlic stimulates the multiplication of infection fighting white cells.
- Omega 3 Fatty Acids: Found mostly in fatty fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel, it increases the activity of the cells that eat up bacteria. Essential fatty acids also protect the body against damage from over reaction to infection. One way to get omega 3 fatty acids into your diet is to add 1 to 3 teaspoons of flax oil or 1 to 2 teaspoons of ground flax seeds to a fruit/ yoghurt smoothie.
Those are the basic and most essential nutrients that your natural killer cells ask for in order to fight infection. Try and aim for a variety every day, in different presentations especially for the picky eaters.
Stress & the Immune System
It’s very well known that stress weakens your immune system; it often triggers infections and generally has ill effects on the immune system and general health. Stress has the ability to activate your immune system but also to suppress it! When you are stressed for a short period of time your body generally handles it, but chronic long-lasting stress suppresses the immune system between 40% to 70% below baseline, resulting in a body full of inflammation.
This brings us to exercise and movement. How is the immune system affected by it? Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to general good health and therefore to a healthy immune system. It may contribute even more directly by promoting good circulation, which allows the cells and substances of the immune system to move through the body freely and do their job efficiently. Less is more! You don’t need to exert yourself; sometimes just being active during the day is enough - a walk outdoors in nature, yoga, or any fitness workout or sport that you really enjoy doing is more than enough.
Lastly, how’s your sleep? Do you usually wake up refreshed? Tired? Is your sleep interrupted? Do you get at least 7 hours of sleep a night? Well, a lack of sleep can certainly affect your immune system. Studies show that people who don't get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus and it can also affect how fast you recover from it.
How and why? During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you're under stress. Sleep deprivation increases stress and may decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don't get enough sleep.
Of course, some days are better than others; some days are stressful while you haven’t slept or eaten well but finding balance in key; you need to make it up for your body. That’s why it’s a lifestyle. Eat, move, sleep, repeat!
Dina Assaad is a certified Functional Medicine Health Coach specializing in gut, thyroid, hormone and autoimmune health. @ lives_and_forks