How to Start Taking Better Care of Your Immune System
Protecting and strengthening our immune system has never been more important than during a pandemic. Although personal wellness doesn’t always come up in discussions about economic stability or environmental health, we’re beginning to see trends shifting towards consumers and investors alike demanding better-for-you products to boost mental and physical health, especially immune health.
What is interesting is that nutrition sciences has always been a difficult one to study. The public is often misled by outdated studies and marketing gimmicks in the food, beverage, supplement, and diet industries. Luckily, though we are learning more about wellness and how mental, emotional, and physical wellness is more intertwined than we are led to believe – nothing in human health happens in a vacuum. Based on what we know today about nutrition and wellness, here are my suggestions for how to protect and strengthen your immune system:
Take Care of Your Gut, Good Immunity will Follow
There’s been a surge of research around the importance of gut health in the last decade. It’s been called the “second brain” of the body and is way more important in immunity, hormone, and mental health than most think.
In fact, the majority of your immune system is in your gut microbiome. Dysbiosis, or an imbalance of good and bad gut flora, can decrease the strength and effectiveness of the immune system. With that said, to keep your immune system healthy means you need to keep your gut healthy. Here are a few ways to improve gut health:
- Eat a variety of whole foods especially prebiotic (food for probiotic) and probiotic foods (good bacteria containing foods). Good prebiotic foods include leek, garlic, onion, asparagus, banana, and more. Good probiotic foods include all things fermented – sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt, kefir, kombucha, miso, etc. Make sure to include at least one fermented food in your diet everyday.
- Avoid ongoing stress – take deep breaths more often. As your “second brain” the gut microbiome not only can induce more or less secretion of certain hormones, it reacts to hormones as well. Cortisol, the “stress hormone” is highly inflammatory and incites an immune response. Although this works well when you have, say, an open wound and your body needs to heal it. But when it’s chronic stress leading to chronic inflammation, this suppresses the immune system.
So, an important yet underrated way of strengthening your immune system is to get your stress under control. An easy way to practice daily a de-stress is to trick your brain into thinking you’re not in “fight or flight” as daily stress does. Just like we were told as kids, anytime you feel stressed or overwhelmed, take a big deep breath in for 5 seconds, hold for 5 seconds, and release for 5 seconds. Repeat until you feel calm. Our so-called lizard brain will then realize “I’m not being chased by a lion” and it will shut off the sympathetic nervous system response (i.e. fight or flight), and turn back on the parasympathetic system (i.e rest and digest).
- Chew your food well. Your gut is responsible for breaking down and absorbing ingredients. Help your system out by masticating (chewing) your food better. Paying attention to your food while eating it makes this easier, and will also help you feel more satiated after meals. So avoid screens when eating, and slow down and enjoy.
- Get enough quality sleep. Just like regulating stress, getting at least 8 hours of quality sleep is key to helping regulate hormones related to immune health. Not only are there studies showing that people with poor sleep get sick more often, getting good rest strengthens your natural immunity. You’ll sleep best when you’re eating whole, nutritious foods, getting regular exercise, avoiding screens before bed, and managing your stress.
As Always, Eat Well and Exercise
It goes without saying that exercising often and eating healthy, wholesome, nutritious food is important for overall health and a good immune system. However, I often say that good nutrition and exercise habits are simple, and that’s why most people don’t like them (it’s not new or exciting). In addition to caring for your gut, make sure you’re avoiding high sugar and processed foods, eating a colorful diet of whole foods, and breaking a good sweat on the daily to help boost your immune system.