How To Improve Immune Function With Diet & Lifestyle Changes
Updated: May 3
"Our immune system’s are and will ever only be our only defense against any microbe or antigen.”
Let’s start changing the conversation. Instead of talking about how we can “hide” from a virus, let’s talk about how we can enhance our immune systems so that the virus doesn’t cause problems.
A healthy immune system will save us. Adequate nutrition, vitamin D levels, low stress and decreased environmental exposure (mold and chemical toxins) are where our conversations needs to focus.
The immune system represents a complex network of organs, tissues, and blood products whose role is to balance a state of tolerance with swift and decisive action. As an integrative practitioner my focus is to promote lifestyle balance and immune optimization by minimizing the impact of stressors and maximizing therapies that positively modulate the immune response. Fundamental tools include a comprehensive understanding of the immune system, its diagnosis, and its management; proper application of healthy diets, food elimination, and detoxification; exercise; dietary supplements; lifestyle interventions such as stress reduction, sleep, meditation, and acupuncture therapy.
1. Optimize Gut Health
The microbiome plays an integral role in keeping the immune system ready to fight off any intruders. Humans have more bacterial cells—a lot more—than human cells. Bacteria live on the skin, in the nose and ears, and, most of all, in the gut.
Until recently, if most people thought about those bacteria at all, we tended to think of them as fairly separate from us. They help with digestion, but otherwise they stay on their side of the intestinal lining, and we stay on our side. But, in fact, there is a lot of interaction between the body’s immune system and bacteria in the gut. Researchers at Johns Hopkins are now in the early stages of figuring out how the composition of the gut changes in different diseases, how the body’s immune system interacts with these tiny hitchhikers and particularly how that relationship may function in disease.
“A huge proportion of your immune system is actually in your GI tract,” says Dan Peterson, assistant professor of pathology at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “The immune system is inside your body, and the bacteria are outside your body.” And yet they interact. For example, certain cells in the lining of the gut spend their lives excreting massive quantities of antibodies into the gut. “That’s what we’re trying to understand—what are the types of antibodies being made, and how is the body trying to control the interaction between ourselves and bacteria on the outside?” (source)
However If you have an overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria and parasitic infections, your body is going to have a challenging time regulating your immune system.
How can you optimize gut health? Take out the pathogens and parasites. Everyone has parasites. Not just if you have travelled, but if you have pets, eaten sushi, pork, been around farm animals, had food poisoning etc.
I work with clients to eliminate parasites to optimize gut function.
2. Eat Fermented foods and other foods with antiviral properties
These include coconut oil, raw garlic, oregano, ginger, walnuts, pomegranate, green tea, apple cider vinegar, and medicinal mushrooms (shiitake, maitake, reishi, cordyceps, turkeytail).
Fermented food: The probiotics contained in fermented foods have tremendous immune-boosting powers and aid in healthy gut functioning. Some examples of delicious fermented foods include sauerkraut, pickles, miso, kefir, and kombucha (low sugar).
Learn to Make your own HERE.
3. Community and Connection
Studies have shown that people who are more socially connected to family, friends and community are happier, healthier, and live longer.
People who are more isolated than they want to be are less happy, their health declines earlier in their midlife, their brain function declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. (source).
Who are the 5 people you surround yourself with most? These are the people who help shape your identity. Are they toxic or do they bring you joy and happiness?
4. Expand Your Palate and Eat the Rainbow
When you diversify your diet with a variety of nutrient dense organic foods you are strengthening your microbiome. The closer your plate is to the garden the better! Organic CSA and farmers market resources are a go to when your own backyard is not producing. Choosing to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables is an important way to boost your immunity. Each color provides a different antioxidant power, so be sure to eat the rainbow every day.
By choosing variety and not eating the same thing everyday, you are allowing your body to utilize an abundance of different health compounds that are extremely health promoting. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy wild foods so much. The flavors in the wild are are unique and intense, quite different than the grocery store variety, (that are cultivated, sprayed with pesticides and taste like watered down versions). Next time you go to the grocery store try something different like okra, or how about that water chestnut, its delicious and often ignored. Or check out your local farmers market where you can get higher quality fruits and veggies and experiment with something new every week.
5. Stay hydrated
Stick to water, herbal teas, and bone broth. No soda or sugary drinks —these can cause deleterious effects on your immune system. What’s an estimate of how much water you need? Divide your body weight (in pounds) in half and drink that number in ounces.
Water quality is important. Water should be free of heavy metals, chlorine, fluoride and contaminants. I like to use a Big Berkey Water filtration system.
If you live in the U.S, you can check your water quality source HERE for heavy metals and pollutants in your tap water.
I also like to add a pinch of sea salt to my water to replenish electrolytes and add minerals. I also love the bioactive Carbon Mineral product from CELLCORE BIOSCIENCE. (use my code SJLWWHE8)
6. Drink bone broth
Bone broth has amazing immune-supporting properties. Animal Bones contain an abundance of minerals and 17 different amino acids, many of which are found in bone broth as proteins like collagen and gelatin. While ancient folk wisdom suggests that a hot cup of bone broth can help soothe the sick and cure the common cold, modern studies have confirmed that the components of bone broth can boost the immune system. Researchers believe the amino acids in broths and stocks—like arginine, glycine, cysteine, and glutamine—help reduce inflammation and boost our immunity. Make it at home or pick up some organic broth at the grocery store.
5. Avoid simple sugars, deep fried and processed/junk food.
Did you know that blood shows lab evidence of a lowered immune system within 30 minutes of eating simple sugars (like glucose, refined sugar, and fructose) and causes a 50% reduction in your white blood cells’ abilities to kill germs? White blood cells are your “army” cells that fight off germs. This effect is most noticeable 2 hours after ingestion, but is still present 5 hours later! Keeping blood sugar levels healthy has been shown to improve immune system activity.
6. Moderate daily exercise
MOVEMENT IS MEDICINE - Your body is meant to move, simple as that.
Moderate exercise can boost the production of macrophages, the kind of white blood cells that “eat” bacteria and viruses.
Not only do we expel toxins through the skin through sweating, but enduring physical activity causes increased neuroplasticity (new synapses/connection in the brain), the release of feel good endorphins and neurotransmitters, reduces inflammation and oxidative stress and moves lymphatic fluid. Our lymphatic system is a high traffic area for debris, metabolic waste, toxins and antigens, and does not have a pump of its own and must work off of the pump of the cardiovascular system and through the body’s movements.
7. GETTING OUTSIDE
Diversify your exposure to different outdoor environments as much as possible. Seek diversity in your day and breathe in new ecosystems. Your microbiome is an extension of your greater ecosystem that you interact with each day. The more you adventure, the deeper your health will root.
An increase in sleep increases your number of white blood cells. On the other hand, loss of sleep even for a few hours increases inflammation in your body, which can make you more susceptible to catching the flu and having more severe symptoms.
9. Stress Management
life isn't what happens to you, it is how you respond to what happens to you. Emotional stress creates physiological stress in your body that lowers your immune defenses and makes you more vulnerable to illness. Stress has been shown to lower your white blood cells’ abilities to kill germs and actually creates more inflammation that may make you feel even sicker. There are many ways to minimize stress depending on your interests— a few options include meditation, yoga, or reading a book!
10. Minimize Toxin Exposure
Everyday our bodies are exposed to toxins through our food, our water, our air and our personal care products. Did you know that When toxins build up over time and overload the body, they gradually undermine your health and reduce your immunity?
Two areas that contribute to some of the highest toxin exposure are processed or toxin-contaminated foods and everyday personal care products. Paying attention to what you put on your body is just as important as paying attention to what you put in your body.
(See my previous post on hormone disrupting toxins).
11. Dry Brushing
The practice of dry brushing has been gaining popularity, and with good reason. Dry brushing has many immune boosting benefits because it assists with lymphatic drainage.
The lymphatic system is a major part of the body’s immune system. It is made up of organs and lymph nodes, ducts, and vessels that transport lymph throughout the body.
Did you know that we have 15 liters of lymphatic fluid and only 5 liters of blood? WOW!
Many of these lymph vessels run just below the skin. Brushing the skin regularly helps stimulate the normal lymph flow within the body and helps the body detoxify itself naturally.
HOW TO DRY BRUSH
Use a firm natural bristle brush with a long handle, which allows to reach you entire back and back of the legs.
Dry brushing can be done daily over the whole body, preferably in the morning before showering. Start with a gentle brush in circular motion, the skin is typically brushed toward the heart, starting at the feet and hands. I always brush in a circular clockwise motion towards the centre of my body and I dry brush each section about 7-10 times.
12. Acupuncture and Massage
Acupuncture is probably the most popular alternative therapy practiced in the United States, Europe and many Asian countries. It has been applied clinically for more than 5 thousand years according to the ancient oriental medical theory. More and more research has revealed that acupuncture can regulate immunity. Acupuncture has modulating effect on the nervous, endocrine and immune systems. The influence of acupuncture on cellular immunity mainly include that it can promote the proliferation of T cells, improve the ratio of CD4+ T cells/CD8+ T cells and modulate the synthesis and secretion of cytokines in the immune response. (source).
My Favorite Immune Boosting Foods
Stinging nettle is packed with vitamins, minerals, and trace minerals along with hefty dose of potent phytonutrients including deep-green chlorophyll and carotenoids. In fact, more than 100 chemical components have been identified in nettle. Nettles have antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal effects. Nettle tea has notable antimicrobial activity against gram-positive and -negative bacteria when compared with standard and strong antimicrobial compounds. You can purchase it in capsule, tincture or in loose form to make tea. (See my recent post on Nettle Here)
Blueberries contain flavonoids — a type of antioxidant that can help reduce damage to cells and boost your immune system. (source)
Blueberries can also increase beneficial bacteria such as Bifidobacteria and lactobacillus species. These bacteria have been shown to modulate the immune response. (source)
3. Reishi Mushrooms
One of the most important effects of the reishi mushroom is that it can boost your immune system. (source)
While some details are still uncertain, test-tube studies have shown that reishi can affect the genes in white blood cells, which are critical parts of your immune system.
What’s more, these studies have found that some forms of reishi may alter inflammation pathways in white blood cells. (source)
Research in cancer patients has shown that some of the molecules found in the mushroom can increase the activity of a type of white blood cell called natural killer cells. (source)
Natural killer cells fight infections and cancer in the body. (source)
4. Grass Fed Butter or Ghee
Grass-fed butter is a source of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a natural fatty acid that has positive effects on the immune system. (source)
What about grass-fed butter compared to your standard butter from grain-fed cows? Grass-fed butter nutrition is notably higher in many nutrients than butter from cows that are fed grain-based diets. Studies have shown that the milk from grass-fed cows is significantly richer in fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins. (source)
5. Bitter Greens
Bitter is a flavor that many people avoid.
Today’s sugar-laden and food-processed society has caused a drastic change in our natural ability to enjoy bitter foods that are essential for our well-being. Our taste buds have been destroyed from an over-consumption of sweet and salty foods. All one has to do is just read through the ingredients of most processed and packaged foods, to know that marketers have directly targeted these two taste buds. In fact, we have a widespread problem with digestive disorders from gas, bloating to IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), gluten indolence and Cohn’s disease. Proper digestion is important in order to absorb nutrients from the food that we eat. One way to improve your digestion and thus improve your overall health is through the consumption of bitter green.
Bitter foods should be an essential part of a regular healthy diet because they:
1. Stimulates digestive juices
2. Increases stomach acid, initiates enzymatic activity, stimulates bile and gastric juices
3. Strengthens and detoxifies the liver
4. Strengthens the immune system
5. Decreases inflammation and improves bowel function
5 Of My Favorite Immune Boosting Supplements
Consider boosting your immune system even more with nutritional supplements to give your body increased antiviral defense:
1. Omega 3 - Omega-3 essential fatty acids have a host of immune benefits.
Foods high in Omega 3 fats: salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines, halibut, eggs, oysters, some seaweeds.
2. Probiotics. One study showed a dramatic reduction in fever and upper respiratory symptoms in children who took a probiotic with a specific combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium daily throughout the cold and flu season. Probiotics are what make fermented foods pack such a punch.
Foods rich in probiotics: yogurt with “live active cultures”, fermented foods (sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi), aged cheeses, kombucha, raw apple cider vinegar
3. Vitamin C. A powerful antioxidant which can assist our ability to ward off and deal with infection.
Food high in Vitamin C: kiwi, bell peppers, strawberries, citrus fruits, broccoli, tomatoes, and kale.
4. Vitamin D3. Studies have shown that people supplemented with adequate levels of Vitamin D3 during the cold and flu season had significantly lower rates of infection. Vitamin D3 increases our body’s production of cathelicidin, an antimicrobial compound, to help fight viral and bacterial infections.
Foods with a good source of Vitamin D: cheese, fortified milk/nut milks, egg yolks, salmon, tuna, sardines, mushrooms. Always take vitamin D3 with K2.
5. Zinc. Zinc is required for the normal functioning of white blood cells, and supplements has been found to improve our immune cells’ ability to ward off infection.
Foods high in Zinc: meat, shellfish, fish, eggs, yogurt, beans, lentils, nuts and seeds