The fall season should raise your concern for developing flu, bronchitis, pneumonia, the common cold – and of course we are still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Daily, our bodies encounter billions of germs – some of which are beneficial and some that can be dangerous. Healing after a viral, bacterial infection or surgery is difficult for many of us as we age, but even more so when you have diabetes. Blood sugars are hard to manage during times of physical stress (illness, infection, surgery) which adds a significant burden to the healing phase. Some symptoms you experience when you are sick are actually due to your immune system trying to get rid of the invaders. There are multiple things you can easily do to support your immune system to help fight off illness. A healthy lifestyle and positive mental attitude can certainly have an impact.
What is the immune system?
The immune system is an involved network including proteins, cells, bone marrow and organs. Its job is to protect against pathogens such as viruses and bacteria that can damage you and possibly cause death. “Immunosuppression” is when your immune system is not working as well as it should. Immunosuppression can be a result of chemotherapy, radiation treatment, malnutrition, taking medications for an organ transplant, having HIV or taking steroids like prednisone.
Should we boost your immune system?
This is not a trick question. Boosting your immune system is not the same as supporting your immune system. A “boosted immune system” means it is triggered and kicks off to make you feel sick with symptoms. A runny nose, scratchy throat and fever are the immune responses to pathogens. Too much of a reaction from your immune system may cause inflammation and even a chronic autoimmune disease.
Autoimmune diseases attack your own body by mistake. Your body can’t tell the difference between foreign cells and your own cells. The exact causes are unknown, but genes and environment may play a significant role. Common autoimmune diseases include type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis. You do not want an immune system in overdrive or fighting mode all the time, you just want to support it. You want it calm and unagitated until you really need it to function.
How can you support your immune system?
Foods. High Protein Sources.
A large part of our immune system is found in our digestive tract. Eating healing foods and avoiding foods that encourage inflammation can prove good results. Healing foods help reduce inflammation, elevate immune function, and promote healing. After an illness, surgery or injury, good fuel or high-quality protein accelerates tissue repair. Protein helps fight infections, assists cell division, and is needed to make enzymes, hormones and other chemicals in the body. “Protein is the building block of life”. Every cell in the human body contains protein including bones, muscles, cartilage and skin. Even hair and nails are made mostly from protein. It repairs cells and makes new ones.
Proteins are made of amino acids and the body requires amino acids to maintain proper health. Your body does not make essential amino acids, so they must be supplied by food. Protein foods should account for 20-35% of your daily intake. The normal recommended daily allowance (RDA) is .36 grams per pound body weight. After illness, injury or surgery, the RDA recommendation becomes .7 to .9 grams per pound body weight. High quality protein comes from animal products which provide all 9 essential amino acids. Lean meat, milk, fish, eggs, and skinless poultry are quality protein which are great for healing. High quality protein can also be found in plant foods such as soy, beans, legumes, nut butters and certain grains. Quinoa and wheat germ contain amino acids.
Let’s look a little deeper:
- Eggs: whole eggs contain vitamin A and B12, zinc, iron and selenium. Each of these supports immunity. Egg whites are a high quality protein.
- Fish and fish oils: fish and fish oils are calming to an over-active immune system, but are also high-quality proteins to assist in tissue repair. Eat salmon, which contains B vitamins, iron, omega 3 fats and selenium. Watch fish oil supplements prior to surgery since they can increase bleeding.
- Shellfish: crabs, oysters, shrimp, lobster, and mussels are loaded with zinc, which assists in healing after surgery. Zinc may also protect you from the common cold, or at least shorten it.
- Poultry: skinless chicken and turkey are packed with glutamine and arginine-2 amino acids, which are known to aid in recovery and healing. Glutamine provides in cell production and arginine assists in collagen production and wound healing. Poultry also has vitamin B6 to increase red cell formation; a building block for blood formation.
- Low fat dairy: low-fat milk, cheese and Greek yogurt (live and active cultures) are known to bolster immune defenses.
- Plant sources of high-quality protein: plant sources of protein have both high and low amounts of amino acids. Mixing and eating a variety of plant-based proteins can provide all nine essential amino acids for healing.
- Nuts, nut butters and seeds: nuts and seeds contain high amounts of vitamin E, zinc and magnesium; all important elements to protect you from cellular damage. Almonds, Brazil nuts, hazel nuts, walnuts and pecans as well as almond butter, cashew butter and peanut butter are immune supporters. Flax seeds, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds are immune support helpers.
- Tofu: soy and tofu provide all 9 essential amino acids; unusual for a plant product.
Athletes, seniors, surgical patients, ill patients and pregnant women may benefit from eating extra high-quality protein unless there is a problem with kidney disease. Ask your health care provider if it is right for you. There is no need to “jump on the high protein/low carbohydrate bandwagon.” Eating a well-balanced diet with variety still is the best.
Other Important Calming and Healing Foods
- Fruits and vegetables: most Americans still fall short of the recommended daily allowance of these miracle workers. All the shades of the rainbow from fruits and veggies are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants for supporting the immune system and healing you after a health problem.
- Cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussel sprouts are known to offer many health advantages. They produce isothiocyanates which promote immunity and cell repair. They suppress inflammation and can cause death in infected cells. Try not to overcook these veggies; just quickly steam them to retain most of their nutrients.
- Sweet potatoes or red bell peppers: sweet potatoes are healthy high carbohydrate foods which are critical for recovery from illness, injury and surgery. They provide energy for healing and they contain hexokinase and citrate synthase – enzymes needed in healing, as well as high amounts of vitamin C. Red bell peppers and tomatoes have more vitamin C than citrus fruits. Vitamin C aids in all healing processes.
- High quality carbohydrates: brown rice, wild rice, barley, millet, amaranth, whole grain bread and kasha provide energy for healing. They are high in vitamin B, vitamin E and fiber. Fiber foods aid your gut microbiome, which can help immunity and keep germs from entering the digestive tract. A strong gut microbiome is essential for a healthy immune response.
- Green leafy vegetables: These are loaded with nutrients, elevate wound healing and help promote a swift recovery. They contain polyphenols, which decreases inflammation. Green leafy veggies have vitamin C, vitamin A, manganese, magnesium and folate. Your choices should include spinach, mustard greens, kale, parsley, kelp, arugula, swiss chard and Bok choy. Steam or stir fry lightly to retain all the nutrients.
- Berries: strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries are a great choice of a low sugar fruit for body recovery support. They are high in vitamin C for collagen production. The anthocyanins (provides deep color) are anti-viral and anti-inflammatory. Concentrate on low glycemic index fruits, but any fruit in the correct portion size is acceptable, even tropical fruits like bananas.
- Citrus fruits: lemons, limes, tangerines, grapefruits, and all varieties of oranges are loaded with vitamin C, a building block for more immunity. They help boost the production of white blood cells to fight off infections. Papaya and kiwi also have high vitamin C levels for tissue repair. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals that can damage cells and tissues leading to inflammation.
- Healthy fats: olive oil, avocados, and olives contain healthy fats and offer anti-inflammatory properties and can fight off harmful bacteria and viruses.
- Ginger, basil, turmeric, rosemary, black coffee and green tea are excellent for calming an overactive immune system and preparing it to be ready when needed.
Foods to Avoid for a Healthy Immune System
Inflammatory foods to avoid include processed meats, high marbleized fat meats, hydrogenated fats, trans-fats, sugary and refined foods. These will have a negative effect on your immune system.
No Smoking & Limit Alcohol
There are no surprises that smoking raises C-reactive protein and levels of body inflammation. You can receive beneficial results after quitting for 30 days. Immune function will be enhanced. Excess alcohol intake reduces immune function. Both smoking and drinking can depress your immune system by suppressing antibodies created by the body to fight pathogens. Excess drinking causes dehydration which gives the body an attractive environment for virus entry.
Create a Clean and Tranquil Space, manage Mental Anxiety and Stress
There is no denying that keeping your home space calm and clean will aid in your immune function. This includes cleaning messes which may require cleaning and disinfecting. First clean by using a surfactant that lifts dirt. Then disinfect which removes bacteria, germs and viruses. Let the disinfectant air dry. You decide if you want to use strong disinfectants such as Clorox wipes, spray or bleach or Lysol products which are 99.5% effective against viruses and bacteria. Another option is a natural product such as vinegar, alcohol or hydrogen peroxide which are 90% effective against bacteria. Natural sounding products may not be natural at all. Read labels. When choosing harsh, chemical products, wear rubber gloves, a face mask and have good ventilation for protection.
Try organic essential oils such as lavender or clove which are natural and have anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. Use soy, scented candles instead of synthetic perfumed ones. Avoid artificial air scented plug ins. Place fresh flowers and indoor plants to improve your air quality. Keep windows open whenever possible. Invest in quality soft lighting which will give you a sense of peace compared to harsh bright lights. Avoid wood burning fireplaces which can cause poor air quality. Use comfy, wool blankets to stay warm instead.
Purchase wind chimes for a feeling of relaxation or play soft melodic music. Consider a sound machine with sounds of the ocean, bird sounds or a rumbling brook, which can instill calmness. Install a small waterfall feature in your yard if there is space. Add gentle, daily stretching, yoga, deep breathing and meditation to complete the scene and restore your immune system. Today’s world of stress can really destroy your immune system. A strong, calm and satisfied mind bolsters your physical well-being.
It does not matter if you are a morning person or night owl. Just get your proper and restful sleep, somewhere between 7-8 hours per night. Studies have shown, “sleeping less than 6 hours lowers your resistance and ability to fight infections”. Sleep hygiene and worthwhile recommendations are lacking, compared to advice on eating and exercise when it comes to diabetes and immunity. Prioritize your sleep patterns, duration and quality. Consider tart cherries, a source of melatonin and magnesium, for improved sleep.
Always talk to your physician before using any supplements which may interfere with prescription medications. Add the most common bedtime tricks which are: avoid exercise, blue light from electronics, large meals, alcohol and caffeine at least 3 hours before bed. Keep your room extra dark and cool. Eat a high quality carbohydrate and protein small snack roughly 30 minutes before bed. Sleep disorders (sleep apnea – common with diabetes) lower your T-cells, increase inflammatory cytokines and may lead to sickness more frequently. Poor sleep results in weight gain, obesity, hormonal changes, high cortisol levels and poor healing.
Uncontrolled gum disease can play havoc with your immunity. Gum disease is proven to increase systemic inflammation and raises your risk of heart disease, stroke and certain types of cancer. Good mouthcare is important. Make sure to brush, floss and use a water pik regularly. See your dentist or periodontist as needed. Consider using a mouth rinse and only chewing sugar-free gum. Gum disease may be genetic, but with care can be combated. If you remain gum disease free, the more successful your immune system will be.
You Must Move
Exercise can be either steady state such as walking at a set speed for 30 minutes or high intensity (HIT) short bursts of intense activity. Both ways help with cell regeneration. It also promotes turnover of immune cells. Exercise makes the body more resilient, increases lung capacity and builds the heart muscle. It flushes out toxins from the lungs when breathing rates increase, slows cortisol production and increases blood flow. Exercising promotes the destruction of pathogens by raising the body temperature. Exercise can even slow changes that happen to the immune system with aging. Try to be active, daily.
The Bottom Line
There is no one diet, supplement or life-style modification that will guard you from all pathogens. Avoid the “too good to be true supplements” because they do not exist. Fall is the season for an increase in cases of flu, bronchitis, pneumonia and the common cold. We are still dealing with COVID-19. Remain focused and diligent. Stay away from contagious people, wash hands frequently or carry sanitizer, follow mask guidelines and socially distance. Clean common area surfaces with a disinfectant frequently. Stay home when you are not well. Rest as much as possible. Sneeze into a tissue and dispose of the tissue properly. Wash your hands often.
Contact your health care provider if you are not improving in 24 hours. Stay informed with up to date guideline changes from the CDC. Stay hydrated with water which thins out mucus in the respiratory tract. Consider a humidifier when the heat in your home comes on. Get plenty of fresh air and sunshine for a natural dose of vitamin D. Store and cook food properly to avoid stomach bugs and viruses. Get your yearly flu shot and talk to your health care provider about a shingles shot and pneumonia shot. Supporting your immune system is indeed helpful to fight off viruses, bacteria, fungus and other pathogens, especially in the fall. Stay well!