Updated: Feb 29, 2020
Oh, January. The heart of cold and flu season. The CDC estimates that so far this 2019-2020 season there have been at least 9.7 million flu illnesses, 87,000 hospitalizations and 4,800 deaths from flu (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2020, January. Weekly U.S. Influenza Surveillance Report. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/index.htm#ILIMap).
Aside from the flu virus, the winter is prime time for more colds, sore throats and coughs. And perhaps you’ve already been sick once or twice this season – there are lots of bugs going around! Between the pain that’s caused and your life plans that illness interferes with, getting sick is the LAST thing you want. And sometimes, you’ll do anything to prevent it from happening!
Fortunately, good nutrition can help prevent the onset of illness, or at the very least, soften the blow. But strengthening your immune system doesn’t come solely from a big glass of orange juice. While vitamin C literally strengthens immune system cells and helps to keep your skin strong and intact, preventing any unwanted bugs from penetrating its surface, consuming plenty of other vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients is the best thing you can do.
As we consider strengthening our immune system, it may be more common for us to vaguely think about the cells that are involved. But your skin and GI tract play a BIG role with protecting you from getting sick, too! These are your body’s first lines of defense that work to prevent bacteria, viruses, and other offending agents from getting into your bloodstream. So don’t forget about supporting the strength of these two major defenders!
Here are five immune system-boosting superstar nutrients:
Water. As you may know, your body is OVER HALF water (about 60-75%), inferring that every part of your body relies on it. Just a few things regular hydration will support in defense of sickness include optimal function of your immune system’s cells, reducing mucous thickness, eliminating germs via coughing or sneezing, and fighting fatigue. Drinking at least 64 fl. oz. water daily is ideal. Boost your water’s super powers by drinking herbal teas, which are caffeine free and deliver antioxidants.
Vitamin A. This fat-soluble vitamin supports soft tissue growth (i.e. your skin and GI tract!), and the function of antibodies and T-cells of the immune system. Where to get it: egg yolks, fish, orange and red veggies like sweet potatoes, winter squashes, carrots, tomatoes, peppers; and green leafy veggies like spinach, kale, romaine lettuce.
Protein. Given the fact that protein is a building block of life, diets low in protein pose a greater risk to infection. Protein supports the growth, repair, and development of tissues including your skin and the lining of your GI tract. It is also involved with the the production of your immune system’s cells, including macrophages, which eat up harmful organisms. Where to get it: fish, poultry, eggs, tofu, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains.
Pre- and Probiotics. Have you heard of PREebiotics? Think of these as food for PRObiotics, which are the health-supporting bacteria you need thriving in your intestines. The microbial environment thriving in your gut is known as your “gut microbiome” and it serves as a defense team against invaders. Nurture this small but mighty colony of bugs to fend off the bad ones. Where to get them: Prebiotics: Foods that contain fiber, including bananas, apples (with skins on), and oatmeal. Probiotics: Fermented foods, including yogurt, kefir, kombucha and kimchi.
Vitamin E. Another fat-soluble vitamin that provides antioxidant benefits to the body, plays a role in the body’s inflammatory response. Diets low in vitamin E may lead to a reduced response to infection. Where to get it: avocado, sunflower seeds, almonds, spinach, olive oil.
Several other nutrients support the strength of your immune system as well, including B-vitamins, vitamins C, D, and K, zinc, iron, selenium, copper, omega-3 fatty acids, and phytonutrients. Getting all of these nutrients is possible when you consume a diet that contains a wide variety of foods, especially containing fresh vegetables and fruits.
And while you’re arming your immune system with good nutrition, you may want to consider what may weaken your defenses. Remember, your GI tract is one line of defense against invaders, and things like alcohol and Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and aspirin, can weaken that defense.
Unfortunately, we are human, and no matter how well we eat, we are still susceptible to infection. If you do get sick, be sure to continue hydrating with at least 64 fl. oz. of water each day. And do not skip the sleep! Please give yourself at least seven hours of sleep each night. (I recommend 7-9 hours regularly, as a rule.) If your appetite is all good, apply all of the above! And if you sense something is really off, visit your doctor!