• Jennifer McCrackin

How to Optimize Your Family's Immune System with Nutrition During COVID-19

As COVID-19 continues to spread at an exponential rate in the United States and all over the world, it is a natural instinct to do anything and everything to protect ourselves and our families.

Unfortunately, some companies are capitalizing on this and making claims that specific dietary supplements can help protect against or even kill this virus. Paying attention to diet and lifestyle choices is certainly important in optimizing the immune system. But there are no known supplements that can protect the body against COVID-19.

Furthermore, dietary supplements and health claims are not regulated by the FDA, so there is no way of knowing what they actually contain or trusting what they claim to do for the body.1

Still, there are many things you can do to support a properly functioning immune system: Eat a balanced diet, get enough sleep, stay physically active and manage stress as best as you can.

Understanding the Immune System

In addition to dietary supplement claims, there are numerous recent articles describing how to boost your immune system with specific foods.

While this sounds like it could only be positive, it is far more important that you prevent nutrient deficiencies to keep your immune system functioning normally. Taking excessive amounts of nutrients in the form of supplements will likely only result in excretion of said nutrients or toxic build-up in your body.

The immune system is a web of interconnected cells, antibodies and organs that all work together to protect the body. Rather than trying to identify single foods or supplements to (theoretically) put your immune system in overdrive for short periods of time, the more appropriate goal is to focus on interconnected lifestyle choices that give your body a good baseline of what it needs to best fight disease.

Eat Well

The first step in fortifying your immune system is maintaining a healthy, balanced diet rich in whole grains, fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, pre- and probiotics, and high-quality protein.

While specific foods will not prevent you from getting sick if you are exposed to the virus, ensuring you are getting a variety of vitamins and minerals from your daily diet is a key factor in maintaining a strong immune system. Then your system can properly fight illness, potentially reduce its severity, and speed up recovery.

Consume Colorful Fruits and Vegetables

Each color group has different types of antioxidant-acting polyphenols which are important for the immune system. And that means the more the better in terms of fruits and vegetables consumed, both raw and cooked.

To preserve the maximum vitamin C content in produce such as bell peppers, citrus fruits, kiwi, strawberries, and broccoli, consume foods raw or gently cooked. For other fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A and vitamin E, consuming the produce cooked with some fat such as olive oil or butter is optimal for absorption. You should be eating two to three cups of fruits and veggies per day. Get vitamin A from sweet potatoes, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe, and mango; good sources of vitamin E are wheat germ, sunflower seeds, almonds, and peanut butter.2

Consume More Zinc

Increase food sources of zinc to prevent deficiency; zinc is responsible for activating white blood cells that are essential for our immune system. We don’t store zinc in our bodies, so it needs to be consumed daily. Food sources rich in zinc include oysters, crab, lobster, pork, pumpkin, yogurt, cashews, chickpeas, and fortified cereals.3

Get More Vitamin D

Consume adequate vitamin D from a combination of sun exposure (limited to about 15 minutes/day without sunscreen), food, and supplements; while dietary supplements are typically not necessary if you eat a balanced diet, vitamin D is the one exception because food sources are limited.

In the winter months and in early spring when there are a lot of cloudy, rainy days, our Vitamin D levels may be low and a dietary supplement can help keep levels up. The recommended dietary allowance is 400 IU for babies 12 months and younger, 600 IU for children and adults up to 70 years old, and 800 IU for people over 70.4 Talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian if you are considering supplements.

While Vitamin D won’t prevent you from contracting a virus if you are exposed to one, it is essential for the body to maintain a properly functioning immune system and can better equip you to fight the coronavirus (or other illnesses) if you get sick.

Consume Pre- and Probiotics

Get your daily dose of pre- and probiotics (found in foods such as yogurt, kefir, artichokes, mushrooms, asparagus, and kombucha) to maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Research shows that probiotics can help promote the production of natural antibodies and can optimize the body’s immune response to viral infection.5

If you feel you are falling short in meeting your daily needs through food, taking an over-the-counter basic multivitamin is perfectly fine. But you will be missing out on the fiber and variety of naturally existing antioxidants found in fruits and vegetables. So always go for the food first!

Eat These 10 Foods for a Healthy Immune System

Sleep Well

Sleep is crucial for maintaining a healthy immune system in order to prevent susceptibility to illness and recover quickly. To achieve quality sleep:

  • Most adults should get 7 to 9 hours per night. Even one night of insufficient sleep can negatively impact the body’s production of immune cells and infection-fighting antibodies.6

  • To optimize sleep, avoid caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine, particularly in the hours close to bedtime.

  • Get regular exercise, but avoid vigorous exercise close to bedtime.

  • Maintain a regular sleep schedule as much as possible (go to bed and get up at the same time every day).

  • Spend time outdoors for fresh air whenever you can.

  • The ability to work remotely is convenient for many but also challenging to set boundaries around your workday. It may be tempting to stay up late responding to emails or working on a project. Decide on a time you will end your working day and stick to it. At this time, turn off your phone or stop checking emails, and enjoy some mindless time to relax before bed.

  • Take a relaxing hot bath before bedtime.

Don't underestimate the value and importance of sufficient, good-quality sleep for your health.

Stay Active

Since your gym or favorite workout class is likely unavailable, take advantage of the spring weather and get outdoors for some physical activity. If it is a rainy day, do some strength training or meditative yoga inside. There is a lot that can be done using your own body as resistance.

  • The ideal goal for physical activity is about 150 minutes per week.7

  • Walking counts! Whether you are working from home or still at an office, take a brisk walk as a break from work to keep yourself moving.

  • Home with your family? Get everyone involved. More family time means more opportunities for family fitness.

Staying active is important for the health of your body and mind. Whether it is 10 minutes or 60 minutes, every bit counts.

Manage Stress

There is no denying that this is an incredibly stressful time for everyone. Finding peaceful moments in your day can help minimize the symptoms of stress and make a big impact on your overall wellness and immunity. There are several coping strategies to reduce stress; choose which are the right fit for you.

  • Meditation is one of the most effective ways to reduce feelings of stress. Even starting with mindful breathing for 2 to 5 minutes in the morning and evening will make a difference and help you feel centered to start your day and relaxed to fall asleep at night.8

  • Staying active is an effective stress reliever to clear your mind and exert any physical nervousness and anxiety you may have.

  • Make a schedule for yourself to maintain structure and organization around your day so that you can still feel in control and on top of your work.

  • Social distancing may leave you missing some interpersonal relationships which are typically helpful to reduce stress. Use technology to your advantage and pick up the phone for a call or video chat with a friend or relative to stay connected.

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