Nourish Connection, Inc.

BE Immune STRONG

There is no better time than right now to take steps to improve your immune system and your health. That is, assuming you don’t have a time machine at your disposal so you could start sooner.

The Standard American Diet (SAD) is making us sick. Full of ultra-processed flour, sugar, and seed oils (they call them vegetable oils because it sounds better) – all together increasing inflammation while being devoid of nutrients, including fiber to feed our beneficial gut bacteria. The following are a 12 components of an immune-boosting food and lifestyle plan. Long story short – eat real, whole food, get sleep and exercise, and go play outside.

Protein

A low protein intake is associated with increased risk of infection and increased inflammation. My experience working with clients is that older adults and middle-aged women are the most likely to fall short of their protein requirements. Unless you have chronic kidney disease or another health issue, the minimum you should consume is 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Sources: meat, poultry, fish and seafood, eggs, dairy, tofu, tempeh, beans, legumes

Omega-3s

Omega-3s, especially DHA and EPA from fish and seafood, are anti-inflammatory. If you are not a fish person there are algae-based supplements of DHA and EPA available. Most of us are not getting enough of this nutrient in our diet and supplementation with fish oil may be recommended. Like omega-3s, omega-6s are also essential fatty acid. Unlike omega-3s, however, omega-6 intake is too high in a Western/SAD eating pattern. Omega-6 increases pro-inflammatory responses, especially when the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is high. How do you improve this ratio? Avoid fried foods, proceeded foods, and limit cooking with seed oils like corn and soybean oils. Eat whole foods daily and cold-water, fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna) twice weekly. Or take a fish or algae oil supplement regularly.

Vitamin D

There is a strong correlation between vitamin D deficiency and increased death from COVID-19. Beyond bone health, vitamin D helps regulate T-cell function, an important component of our immune system. Daily doses of vitamin D helps protect against respiratory tract infections. Before you start taking large amounts, ask your medical provider for the standard 25(OH)D test to get your level checked. Here in Virginia we will not be making vitamin D again until springtime, typically from April to October we can make vitamin D in North America when the sun shines on our skin.

Sources: midday sun (without burning) in spring and summer, fatty fish, cod liver oil, some mushrooms, fortified foods, and supplements

Vitamin A

Vitamin A deficiency is a worldwide concern, especially in those with a low meat and protein intake. Vitamin A is involved with forming healthy mucus layers in the lungs and intestines, important for a functioning immune system. We can make vitamin A from a pro-vitamin, beta-carotene, which is found in orange and green vegetables, but the conversion varies greatly between different foods and in different people.

Sources of vitamin A: liver, seafood, eggs, butter, dairy

Sources of beta-carotene: carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, spinach, mango

Vitamin C

In multiple studies vitamin C shortens the duration of colds and relieves symptoms. It is a powerful antioxidant and lowers C-reactive protein (CRP), a measure of inflammation. Smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke are especially at risk for deficiency as they require more vitamin C because of the oxidative stress brought on by smoking. If you don’t eat fruits and vegetables daily, you’ll likely need a supplement.

Sources: citrus, sweet & hot peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, avocado, melons, dark leafy greens, squashes

Magnesium

Magnesium is an important cofactor in over 300 enzymatic reactions in the body. Low magnesium is associated with elevated concentrations of CRP and other inflammatory molecules. It is also crucial for good sleep, reducing headaches, depression, and anxiety, and relaxing muscles. We burn through it during times of stress. About 50% of Americans are not getting enough to meet the Estimated Average Requirement (EAR), and people in the ICU are even more likely to be deficient.

Sources: pumpkin seeds, almonds, peanut, cashews, avocado, spinach, Swiss chard, beans and lentils, dark chocolate (70% cacao or higher)

Zinc

Zinc deficiency is a common problem worldwide and in the United States, especially in the elderly. Zinc is a cofactor for more than 200 antioxidant enzymes. Low zinc is associated with increased risk of viral infections and increased risk of death from pneumonia. Studies show supplementation of zinc also significantly reduces the duration of the common cold.

Sources: oysters, beef, pork, chicken, beans, pumpkin seeds, cashews

Iron

Iron helps the body fight infection, in part, by enabling T-cells, a major component of the immune system. While the body tightly regulates iron absorption during infection to keep bacteria and viruses from using the iron for themselves, a study in hospitalized children receiving iron supplementation had fewer recurrences of acute respiratory tract infections, urinary tract infections, and GI inflammation. Iron deficiency anemia is a common problem, especially in menstruating women, pregnancy, and childhood. Signs are feeling cold, fatigued, recurrent headaches, and an irregular heartbeat.

Sources: oysters, red meat, liver, dark chocolate, beans and lentils, tofu, sardines, spinach

Sleep

Are you getting 7 – 9 hours of restful sleep per night? Both sleep and the circadian rhythm  – the 24-hour clock in our brains that follows the light/dark cycle – help regulate the immune system. A prolonged sleep deficit causes stress and chronic inflammation, making it harder for your body to fight infection. Good sleep hygiene, or a bedtime routine, include a darkened room, cooler temperature, and limiting exposure to electronic before bed. Food sensitivities and magnesium insufficiency are just two factors that can inhibit quality sleep.

Time in Nature

Walking in nature, even just 15 to 30 minutes a day, improves health including reducing risk of heart attack, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. It helps the lymphatic system, joints and improves mood. But even as little as 10 minutes of sitting in nature has been shown to improve mood, focus and blood pressure, heart rate and cortisol levels better than walking either indoors or in urban settings.

Exercise

Depression and anxiety are both stresses on the body that are improved with physical activity, including walking and gardening. Increased physical activity improves energy and decreases fatigue. Best of all, people feel better when they exercise. If it’s been awhile since you’ve exercised, start with walking. If you have concerns, talk to your doctor. As little as 60 minutes of moderate physical activity per week can have substantial benefit.

Stress Management

Throughout most of human history our stress was ‘do I run or do I fight.’ Our stressors these days are more about finances, relationships, fighting traffic, getting the report finished, etc., but the physiological response when we are under chronic stress can affect the immune system. It’s important to develop techniques for relieving and managing stress, such as meditation, deep breathing and yoga. Positive self-talk, reaching out to friends, and checking things off a to-do list are all tools to be used in a stress management plan. There are apps to help you meditate if it’s all new to you.

And Finally

Of course, there are more vitamins, minerals, and lifestyle changes that can make your immune system stronger and more resilient, but any one of these is a great place to start. If you need help getting started, or restarted, there is a great functional dietitian just a phone call away!

References

Iddir M, Brito A, Dingeo G, et al. Strengthening the Immune System and Reducing Inflammation and Oxidative Stress through Diet and Nutrition: Considerations during the COVID-19 Crisis. Nutrients. 2020;12(6):1562. Published 2020 May 27. doi:10.3390/nu12061562

DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH, Wilson W. Subclinical magnesium deficiency: a principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis. Open Heart. 2018 Jan 13;5(1):e000668. doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2017-000668. Erratum in: Open Heart. 2018 Apr 5;5(1):e000668corr1. PMID: 29387426; PMCID: PMC5786912.

Besedovsky L, Lange T, Born J. Sleep and immune function. Pflugers Arch. 2012;463(1):121-137. doi:10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0

Meredith GR, Rakow DA, Eldermire ERB, Madsen CG, Shelley SP, Sachs NA. Minimum Time Dose in Nature to Positively Impact the Mental Health of College-Aged Students, and How to Measure It: A Scoping Review. Front Psychol. 2020;10:2942. Published 2020 Jan 14. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02942

Greer TL, et al. Improvements in psychosocial functioning and health-related quality of life following exercise augmentation in patients with treatment response but nonremitted major depressive disorder: Results from the TREAD study. Depression and Anxiety. 2016 Sep;33(9):870-81. doi: 10.1002/da.22521. Epub 2016 May 10. PMID: 27164293; PMCID: PMC5662022.

Segerstrom SC, Miller GE. Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychol Bull. 2004 Jul;130(4):601-30. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601. PMID: 15250815; PMCID: PMC1361287.