The world is in a state of panic. The Corona Virus threatens the health and well-being, even the lives of the most vulnerable amongst us – those with less than optimal immunity (chronically sick and cancer patients, pregnant women, the elderly). While we should not be panicking, we cannot dismiss the new virus as a “hoax”. It is posing a real danger, it is still largely an unknown, and we need to take steps as individuals and as societies to protect ourselves and our loved ones from the results of potential infection.
Aside from taking common-sense preventative measures such as handwashing, avoiding mass events, not touching our face, nose, and mouth; we can attempt to strengthen our immunity by consuming immunity-boosting foods, herbs and minerals, and adding some other modalities to protect ourselves.
First of all, lets establish what is the immune system and how does it work. The immune system is the first line of defense that the body has against a microorganism that might enter it. Our immune cells are designed in such a way that they, if functioning properly, can easily discern what is “self” and what is “other,” and then act accordingly, neutralizing the stranger and hence protecting us from a full-blown illness.
The human immune system is made up of organs, the lymphatic system, and individual cells and proteins. The surface on the outside of our body (skin, hair) are there to offer the first barrier to alien microorganisms, while on the inside, we have a very smart mucous membranes which act as protection against the germs that enter the body. The stronger your immune system, the lesser chance of you falling ill.
The human immune system is highly complex. There are varied immunity cells that either circulate throughout the body or reside in a particular spot. Each type of immunity cells plays a role against a specific type of pathogens.
For example, as this NIH study explains, basophils and eosinophils are important for host defense against parasites, and are also involved in allergic reactions.
Neutrophils, on the other hand, patrol for problems by circulating in the bloodstream and can literally ingest bacteria when they detect them.
Natural killer (NK) cells are important for recognizing and killing virus-infected cells or tumor cells.
There are also B cells and T cells which can adapt to the specific danger and neutralize the antibodies that the pathogen creates to avoid detection. Read more in-depth analysis of the different kinds of immune cells here.
Can We Boost Our Immunity Naturally?
A healthy immune system reduces the chances of viral and bacterial infections and flu and possibly the new corona virus. Adopting some natural ways to boost this system of protection you can increase your immunity and prompt a better response of your immune system to possible infections.
From better sleep to eating a balanced diet and increasing physical activity, there are simple yet proven ways to increase the body’s strength and responsiveness against the encroaching microorganisms.
Foods that can boost immune system
There are many foods and herbs that can bolster your immune system. Here are just a few:
1. Elderberry: The Old School Protection
Elderberry or Sambucus nigra is a bush or shrub whose fruit is used to make tinctures, syrups and lozenges. The humble elderberry has antiviral, anticancer, and anti-inflammatory properties and it is also very high in flavonoids and vitamins. Elderberry syrup or tincture has been known for centuries as a remedy for colds, the flu, and other viral and bacterial infections. Basically, the compounds present in the fruit can reduce the swelling in mucus membranes and can thus help the mucous layers act as a protective barrier against the germs.
Elderberry Syrup Recipe
Here is a simple recipe for an elderbery syrup froma trusted source, Mountain Rose Herbs:
Even though the elderberry has so many benefits, it is important to remember that there are some interactions with other remedies and medicines (such as diuretics, laxatives, steroids, and chemotherapy amongst others.) Always check with your medical team before adding any new remedy to your regimen.
2. Small but Mighty: Mushrooms for Immunity and Health
Mushrooms of all kinds (button mushrooms, portobella, shitake, chaga, reishi, etc.) are high in all kinds of B vitamins (most importantly riboflavin and niacin), polysaccharides, and selenium, all of which are crucial for the immune system to remain in optimal form. You can add mushrooms, or fungi, to your diet in so many forms:
Add them to omelets and scrambled eggs.
Use them as pizza toping.
Make a mushroom soup or just add them to other soups, stews or salads.
Make a mushroom burger in place of a meat burger.
Stuff them to make an interesting and healthy snack or finger food for your next party.
3. Enjoy watermelon not only in the heat of the summer
Watermelon is one of the tastiest immune-boosting foods. It is a great source of vitamin A, Vitamin C, vitamin B6, glutathione, and potassium. It’s also not very high in calories, although most of its calories are from sugar, so it must be consumed with caution if you’re a diabetic or watching the GI-index of your food.
4. Make Plain Yogurt Your Friend
Around two-thirds of your body’s entire immune cells are found in the gut walls. To keep your gut in top form, so that it can also metabolize and remove bodily toxins, try adding plain yogurt on a daily basis to your diet.
Aside from being an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, and vitamin B2, plain yogurt is crucial for providing the body with vitamin D and other nutrients that are necessary for strong immune function.
Most importantly though, plain yogurt can provide you with probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus, Lactobacillus casei, and Bifidus, all of which will bolster the immune function of your gut. Beneficial gut flora is crucial for proper digestion and detoxification, in addition to helping establish a robust immune function.
5. The Green Monster: the Mighty Spinach
Spinach is a veggie that has one of the highest contents of fiber, folate, vitamins A and C, iron and magnesium. The nutrients in spinach not only boost immune function but may also improve cell division and DNA repair. In order to get the most out of spinach, it is best consumed raw (in salads) or just lightly sautéed to keep the nutrients intact.
6. Drink Your Tea (Especially Green Tea)
I wrote elsewhere about the benefits of tea, especially the delicious superfood, matcha green tea. (link to matcha) Not only is tea (white, green, black, oolong) delicious and a great way to help you hydrate your body, but it is also high in polyphenols, most important of which are ECGC - the powerful antioxidant - and the amino acid L-theanine. These compounds have the ability to naturally boost T cell activity and therefore prime your immune system to respond robustly to any incoming challenge.
Some other immune boosting foods:
7. Ginger - Antioxidant compounds in ginger root have potent anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties
8. Pomegranate juice – able to inhibit the growth of harmful types of bacteria.
9. Garlic – The bioactive compound in garlic – Allicin – has anti-bacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties which can potentially prevent illnesses, and there is some evidence it promotes cell death in some cancers.
10. Sweet potatoes – one sweet potato serving can provide over 100% of the daily value of vitamin A and 30% of the daily value of vitamin C.
11. Broccoli – very high in beta-carotene, potassium, magnesium, zinc, iron, and the whole bunch of B vitamins
Other Strategies to Boost your Immunity
There are also other tweaks and changes which we can implement to help our immune system operate at its best.
Reduce Your Stress Levels
I wrote in this post more at length about the harm caused by chronic stress and some of the proven ways to deal with stress in your life. Most importantly, chronic releases the hormone cortisol which in turn can drastically suppress our immune system. Cortisol interferes with the T-cells and makes them less capable to ward off the dangers from outside. To lessen the impact of stress on your health and immune response, practice mindfulness, gratitude, journaling, yoga, or deep breathing.
If You Drink Alcohol Do So in Moderation
You are surely aware that excessive drinking can damage your liver and cardiovascular system, it can disrupt proper digestion and even lead to the cancers of the digestive tract. But many people are less aware that alcohol also damages our immune system, increasing thus the risk of falling seriously ill, even with potentially fatal consequences. Since excess intake of alcohol can tamper with the immune system, drink in moderation. According to scientists, moderate consumption of alcohol can actually aid the overall health of the body.
Load Your Plate with Fruits and Veggies
Vitamin A, B6 and B12, C, D and E can bolster the immune system. Especially Vitamin C is the most effective booster. Try to get it from food rather than from a pill (where it is actually not very easy to absorb). You can get Vitamin C from citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, grapefruits, the aforementioned spinach but also kale and other cruciferous veggies, and apples and strawberries.
Colostrum to the Rescue
For some it might seem weird or yucky, but really, there is nothing to fear from the first milk from nursing mammals, called colostrum. We all know that human babies that were nursed by their mothers tend to have stronger immunity because the breast milk transfers crucial antibodies from the mother to the baby. These antibodies help the baby fight through his or her early years, before their own immune system is fully developed.
No one would advocate drinking human breast milk past the age of babyhood, but we can supplement with the colostrum from other mammals, usually cows, but also goats or sheep. The powdered colostrum from these animals can easily be mixed into yogurt or smoothies or taken in pill form.
Herbs & Supplements
The already mentioned elderberry, echinacea, eleuthero root, astragalus, ashwagandha, rhodiola, and others can help strengthen the immune system and hence reduce the length and severity of illness.
Be Physically Active
Working out on a regular basis has been proven to boost the immune system. How so?
Physical activity may help flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways which may reduce your chance of getting a cold, flu, or other illness. Exercise can also facilitate change in antibodies and immune cells. Regular exercise mobilizes especially the T cells, a type of white blood cell which guards the body against infection. Here again, do it in moderation. Too much and too strenuous exercise may actually weaken the immune system, leaving you prone to bacterial and viral infections.
Get Sufficient Sleep
Sleep is so important for overall health! Lack of sleep will weaken your immune response by reducing the activity of T cells in the body. Aim for at least seven hours of good, uninterrupted sleep. If you trouble sleeping, try melatonin or magnesium supplements before reaching for prescription sleeping pills.
Step Out in The Sun
The first thing after a good-night-sleep should be a few moments (up to 15 minutes) in the sun. Not only will it help you reset your circadian rhythms by exposing you to natural light, but also it will make your body produce vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential for healthy functioning of the immune system as it helps the body to produce antibodies. Low levels of this vitamin (which we cannot produce in any other way but sun exposure). Even better, combine two good things: walk briskly for 10-15 minutes in the sun, without sunblock on, and your immune system will be doubly happy.
Of course, dietary and lifestyle tweaks such as the ones mentioned above are not going to make you not get the virus if you are exposed to it. However, even if you get it, if your immune system is in top shape, the duration and severity of the illness could be much shorter and lesser. Following the steps above will help your body reduce and eliminate the harmful toxins from your body, and provide essential nutrients, vitamins and minerals to boost your body’s natural defense mechanisms.
Importantly, making your immune system as strong as it can be is not only important for this year’s flue or corona virus outbreaks. Improving your immunity can ward off horrific diseases later on, such as cancer, and to remain youthful I your energy levels and appearance for years to come.