It is safe to say that, in the age of Covid, most of us have never thought so much about our immune system. While the urgency around immunity has subsided, the need to focus on immune function is still more crucial than ever.
There are no proven therapies for Covid prevention, but there are researched ways to strengthen your immune system, and in the process, your overall health. Whether you have had Covid, are suffering from Long Covid, or are a Covid “virgin,” the following suggestions can help improve your immune function — and the benefits of doing this go far beyond Covid.
First Things First …
Stop looking for ways to “boost” your immune function. Here is why: the body’s immune system is extremely sophisticated and complex. Immune health is not a matter of simply amping up your defenses with a handful of elderberry gummies and vitamin C. The goal, when it comes to immune health, is to keep your immune system in a state of balance. When immune function is weak, the body may fail to recognize and remove invaders such as viruses and bacteria. When overactive, the immune system can mistake its own cells, tissues, and organs as the enemy, causing an autoimmune response that creates inflammation and attacks vital organs.
Signs of a Weakened Immune System
There are several telltale signs that your immune function is less than optimal, including:
- Poor wound healing (e.g., cuts that take a long time to heal)
- Always tired
- Frequent infections
- Digestive problems
- Persistent skin rashes and infections
- Chronic stress
I have treated thousands of patients with all types of immune dysfunction, from cancer patients to those with autoimmune conditions. Here is what I recommend for everyone as a foundational approach to immune health.
Let Food Be Thy Medicine
There is some debate about whether Hippocrates penned this famous quote, but there is no doubt about the wisdom of these words. The right fuel is essential for optimal immune function, and it affects every other system in your body — including your digestive, cardiovascular, neurological, and hormonal health.
Often considered the “second immune system,” the digestive system takes on a more prominent role because of its numerous immune-related responsibilities. Inflammatory foods and ingredients like refined sugars, trans-fats, and processed foods have been shown to significantly impair immune function — in some cases, immediately after they are consumed. Eliminating these types of foods from your diet will absolutely reduce threats to your immune system.
A note about sugar: watch out for gummy vitamins and herbs. Many brands of elderberry gummies, for example, have more than 5 g of sugar per serving, which is a lot when you consider you are consuming that every day or even multiple times per day.
The Best Foods to Eat for Total-Body Immune Health
My top choices are:
- Lean protein
- Sprouted whole grains,
- Nuts and legumes
- Lots of organic fruits and vegetables
- Antioxidant-rich spices
- Cultured foods
- Healthy fats like olive, coconut, and omega-3 oils.
Brightly colored fruits and veggies are particularly important. Their phytonutrient compounds, which are responsible for their rich pigments, provide exceptional antioxidant activity, anti-inflammatory support, immune-balancing, and other key benefits. Berries, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, peppers, mangoes, and dark leafy greens are some examples, but there are countless options.1
Cruciferous vegetables are also important. Broccoli, kale, cabbage, and cauliflower contain beneficial compounds called glucosinolates, molecules that combine glucose, nitrogen, and sulfur. These have been shown to protect against cancer and support immunity.
Garlic is another go-to immune food. Packed with allicin, an ingredient that fights harmful invaders, garlic is a powerful way to support immunity, and it grows during flu season when it is needed most.
Onions are high in quercetin and other antioxidant compounds; onions are excellent foods for supporting immunity and helping to control overactive immune responses including seasonal allergies. Speaking of quercetin, an analysis of two studies showed that quercetin supplementation significantly reduced the need for hospitalization, length of hospitalization, admission to the ICU, and death in people with Covid.2
Green and black teas also help optimize immune function. Studies demonstrate that potent antioxidant compounds and phytochemicals in green and black teas support the immune system and offer other important benefits.3
Cultured foods like yogurt, miso, and sauerkraut are rich in beneficial bacteria that play important roles in regulating immune activity — particularly in your digestive system. These foods boast friendly microbes that deliver numerous benefits for immune and total-body health, including influencing gene expression to train the immune system for better responsiveness.4
Lastly about nutrition — hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Good health advice, no matter how trite, is worth repeating. Plus, did you know that immune cells travel and communicate through our circulatory and lymphatic systems? That means hyper-viscosity is the enemy. Water helps prevent hyper-viscosity. So, stay well hydrated with plenty of filtered water. In addition to water, other hydrating beverages include caffeine-free herbal teas (hibiscus is particularly hydrating), electrolyte-rich coconut water, and cactus water.
The Proven Immune Benefits of Walking and Moving Meditation
One of the worst things we can do to our immunity is to sit for hours on end. Fortunately, it does not take much to energize both the metabolism and the immune system. A short 30-minute walk each day can do the trick. Even better, practice a moving meditation such as yoga, Tai Chi, or Qi Gong. Several studies have linked these practices to improved immune response, right down to the genetic level! One study showed that just one session of yoga activated numerous genes related to immunity. These mind-body practices also help promote relaxation, reducing levels of cortisol, adrenaline, and other inflammatory hormones that, when elevated over time, can weaken the immune system.5
Why Sleep Matters So Much for Immune Health
It is capital C critical to get a good night’s sleep. I am talking about 7 to 9 hours per night. Without good sleep, multiple systems begin to break down, immunity included. Research continues to show the profound impact of restful sleep on all areas of health, with effects on immune function. Lack of sleep has been clearly shown to increase the risks of developing infections and autoimmune reactions.6
Stress and Your Immune System Are Not Friends
Chronic stress is indeed the enemy of your immune system. Numerous studies have shown that positive feelings are related to strong immunity. Research shows that, conversely, stress hampers immune response. Happiness is great medicine, and it’s one of the best ways to achieve balance in your life. In that regard, simple meditation practice and/or other healthy stress relief techniques should be a key part of any immune-enhancing program.7
In addition to a nutrient-dense, unprocessed diet built around fresh, whole foods, there are many supplements that can help balance immunity. The basics: vitamins A, B-complex, C, and D3 have all been shown to support immune function. Vitamin D3, in particular, is important to help activate T-cells and other important components of the immune system. This vitamin plays numerous critical roles in the body; however, because it is produced in response to sunlight, many people are deficient, particularly people living in northern climes and those of us who work indoors.
Vitamins C and D3 Help Reduce Covid Complications
A growing body of research supports supplementation with these two vitamins for Covid prevention and treatment. In one study, patients taking vitamin D3 who were hospitalized with severe respiratory symptoms were less likely to be admitted to the ICU and less likely to die from Covid. The findings are similar for vitamin C — it has been shown to reduce the risk of dying from Covid.8,9
Zinc: The Top Mineral for Immune Health
Another important immune supporting nutrient is zinc, which is a key component in T-cells, B-cells, macrophages, antibodies, and other immune cells. A zinc deficiency is known to reduce immunity, and many people do not get enough of this mineral. Poultry, liver, whole grains, beans, raw nuts and seeds (especially pumpkin seeds), and wild seafood are all good sources of zinc.
Astragalus: The Immune Herb
Astragalus root has been used in traditional Asian medicine to support immunity, as well as protect against stress. Astragalus offers anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antibacterial activity, among other important benefits.
Modified Citrus Pectin, a Super Nutrient for Total-Body Health and Immunity
Pectin is a complex carbohydrate and soluble fiber that has been prescribed for its digestive health benefits. However, pectin molecules are too big to absorb into the circulation, limiting their effectiveness throughout the body.
Luckily, this problem has been solved by breaking down the large pectin molecules enzymatically into a much smaller, more bioavailable size. The result is a powerful super-nutrient called modified citrus pectin (MCP). Once in the bloodstream, MCP provides a wealth of total-body benefits, including immune-balancing and optimization.7
MCP is especially helpful for immunity because it controls an inflammatory “survival protein” known as galectin-3. It’s an alarm protein that gets triggered in response to acute injuries, traumas, and threats. This is a normal, healthy response. Unfortunately, in today’s stress-driven world, galectin-3, in many cases, never gets turned off, leading to chronic inflammation, overactive immune responses, and other complications. You have probably heard about the “cytokine storm” involved in Covid infections — galectin-3 plays a key role in this as well. I talk more about galectin-3 in my new book, The Survival Paradox.
Train Your Immune System with Medicinal Mushrooms
Medicinal mushrooms are yet another wonderful way to enhance your immune function. These ancient healing fungi are powerful immune modulators. That means they help to balance immunity by energizing a weak immune response and reigning in an overactive one. They help “train” the immune system to restore balance and function optimally.11
Mushrooms contain beta-glucans, complex carbohydrates that energize macrophages and other immune cells. In addition, mushrooms support cell signaling, a critical immune function as first responders alert the rest of the body about a dangerous pathogen and coordinate an effective response.
Medicinal mushrooms provide countless health benefits — improving immune function, fighting cancer, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, balancing blood sugar, improving neurological health, protecting the liver, and reducing inflammation are at the top of the list.
There are several ways to incorporate mushrooms into your diet. Culinary varieties, including shiitake, oyster, and maitake, are particularly good in soups and sauces.
I recommend a botanically-grown mushroom formula that includes turkey tail, reishi, cordyceps, and other mushrooms to maintain strong immune function against viruses, fungus, and bacteria. The beauty of this combination supplement is that the mushrooms are grown on a blend of immune-supporting herbs, which helps enhance their effectiveness.
Immune Health Is a Daily Commitment
Our immune system works hard to take care of us. We can return the favor by adopting practices that help our immune cells function more effectively, combat infections and long-term illness, and support overall wellness. These and other immune-supporting measures can go a long way toward balancing and supporting overall immune health, naturally.
- Milani A, Basirnejad M, Shahbazi S, Bolhassani A. Carotenoids: biochemistry, pharmacology and treatment. Br J Pharmacol. 2017 Jun;174(11):1290-1324.
- Khan N, Mukhtar H. Tea Polyphenols in Promotion of Human Health. Nutrients. 2018 Dec 25;11(1):39.
- Zhang CX, Wang HY, Chen TX. Interactions between Intestinal Microflora/Probiotics and the Immune System. Biomed Res Int.2019;6764919.
- Qu S, Olafsrud SM, Meza-Zepeda LA, Saatcioglu F. Rapid gene expression changes in peripheral blood lymphocytes upon practice of a comprehensive yoga program. Plos one. 2013 ;8(4):e61910.
- Asif N, Iqbal R, Nazir CF. Human immune system during sleep. Am J Clin Exp Immunol. 2017 Dec 20;6(6):92-96.
- Black DS, Slavich GM. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):13-24.
- Eliaz I, Raz A. Pleiotropic Effects of Modified Citrus Pectin. Nutrients. 2019 Nov 1;11(11):2619.
- Wasser SP. Medicinal Mushrooms in Human Clinical Studies. Part I. Anticancer, Oncoimmunological, and Immunomodulatory Activities: A Review. Int J Med Mushrooms. 2017;19(4):279-317.