Finding ways to boost one's immune system has always been enticing, and now especially so, after years of pandemic measures, masking, distancing and being hyper aware of germs and how to avoid getting sick. Now, as we continue living in our communities, heading back into offices and unmasked classrooms, you might be searching for ways to give your immune system a little extra help. While a “boost” sounds exciting, it’s really balance that will give you the best defense.
Many patients want to know how they can protect themselves and their families from getting sick. The truth is everyone will get sick at some point. This is necessary for our bodies to build up their immune systems and frankly it’s just part of being a human living around other humans. But there are ways to reduce the number of times you get sick and give your body what it needs to fight the good fight when you catch a bug. Rather than trying to boost your immune system, we recommend aiming for a balanced immune system. It’s not an overactive immune system that we want – this is actually when the immune system begins to attack itself. Instead, we must aim for balance. So, without further ado, here are our top 4 ways to balance your immune system this year.
1. Eat a varied diet
Everyone wants an easy way to have more energy, feel good and avoid being sick. Eating a varied diet might just be the answer. Many people talk about superfoods, but don’t get too hung up on the name. Superfoods aren’t a nutritionally recognized category of foods, so there are no specific criteria a food must meet to be considered one. This is more of a “label” to help consumers recognize these fruits, vegetables, or proteins and promote integration into one’s dietary regimen. Really, superfoods are just another way of saying eat your fruits and vegetables. Here’s a few reasons why you want to make sure you’re incorporating these into your everyday eating habits:
Antioxidants: These natural compounds protect your cells from damage and may lower the risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases.
Minerals: These essential nutrients (think calcium, potassium, iron and the like) help your body perform at its highest level.
Vitamins: It’s better to get these organic compounds from natural foods than from supplements.
Fiber: Fiber helps decrease cholesterol, prevent heart disease, and control glucose in Type 2 diabetes.
Flavonoids: Found in plants, flavonoids (once called vitamin P) have anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogenic properties.
Healthy fats: Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, a.k.a. “good fats,” help lower your cholesterol and prevent heart disease and stroke.
Older adults, due to dietary changes, financial or lifestyle constraints, are more prone to what we call “micronutrient malnutrition.” This happens when deficiency in essential vitamins and minerals may compromise the health of an already vulnerable population. Nutrition experts often promote integrating 3-4 servings of brightly colored fruits and vegetables into your diet daily. The vibrant color isn’t just for aesthetics but also a product of phytochemicals, natural bioactive compounds that often serve as great sources of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
While often nutritious, it’s important to recognize that those who focus only few specific foods may be lessening the benefit of variety in consuming a wide array of essential vitamins and minerals, which may lead to “superfood burnout” not to mention a potentially more expensive grocery bill as many of these superfoods may also be marked up by grocers and restaurants. Maintaining a good balance and recognizing the value that fruit and vegetables rich in phytochemicals help promote a more sustainable healthy diet, keeping things interesting and flavorful.
2. Take (the right) vitamins
Often, we see people trying to supplement vitamins for what they should be getting from their diet. In most cases it’s not excess of vitamins that’s the issue, but more often the lack of adequate intake of these vitamins from our diet or natural process (sunlight exposure and vitamin D) which leads to “imbalance” of our immune system. Vitamin C is a well-known antioxidant that helps stimulate the body’s ability to attack foreign invaders, such as bacteria and viruses. It also helps maintain our defenses. Specialized cells in our body, such as lymphocytes and phagocytes, depend on this vitamin for proper development and maturation. Vitamins, especially Vitamin D3, can reduce cancer cell groups, support fighting infections, and reduce unnecessary inflammation that damages the host (our own) tissue and if unchecked can promote cell mutations and ultimately cancer.
3. Stay up to date on vaccinations
We are hearing news that COVID boosters will hopefully be recharged for this fall. Like influenza, which is reformulated each year for the appropriate strain, COVID vaccines are being manufactured to target the new variants which have been responsible for the havoc to our society, especially this year. I’d also recommend ensuring you are up to date for other important vaccines such as pneumonia vaccine (pneumovax), which protects against the bacteria most commonly responsible respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia, sinus infections, and even ear infections.
While influenza has not been as highly prevalent the past couple of years, we anticipate more getting infected as the strategies such as effective handwashing, use of masks, and social distancing are fading from memory fast as restrictions are loosening from COVID-19.
4. Aim for healthy lifestyle habits
Good lifestyle habits such as exercise, eating a healthy diet and getting enough sleep are considered vital for balanced immune response. The challenge is poor choices related to these habits can lead to conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity. Smoking also can negatively impact the immune system. In some situations, it can promote excess inflammation and in others it can increase vulnerability to infections, like pneumonia. By making even small choices like going on a daily walk, drinking enough water you can set yourself up for a better flu and sick season ahead.