Boost the Immune System to Fight Viruses
Our immune system is kind of like internal armor - it is designed to protect us against harm from foreign invaders such as viruses, bacteria, and free radicals. But sometimes if our armor is weakened, our immune system can become overwhelmed, and we get sick. This post offers tips for boosting the immune system so it can mount the best defense, and we can stay as healthy as possible.
If we can avoid introducing the virus or bacteria into the body/mucous membranes in the first place, that is the best protection of all. This would include smart strategies like good thorough hand washing with soap*, avoiding touching your mouth, nose, or face; and if you are sick do the right thing - stay home until you are not contagious in order to prevent spreading it to others. Social distancing has been identified as another key step in the lowering the transmission of pandemic viruses – which means avoiding large gatherings, no hand shaking, and staying several feet away from people.
But it is not always possible to completely avoid viruses and bacteria - some viruses can live on surface areas for days, and can be transmitted from seemingly "healthy" individuals: or you might find yourself in close quarters with sick people (like an airplane)! In order to support our immune system, we need to avoid foods and habits that make our immune system more vulnerable, and make sure we are getting enough of the key nutrients that give our immune system a boost!
SUPPORT THE IMMUNE SYSTEM:
AVOID SUGAR: If you have ever considered taking a break from sugar -- now is the time to do it! Eating sugar is one of the worst things we can do if we want to stay healthy, because sugar lowers our white blood cell effectiveness, which makes our immune system more vulnerable to viruses and bacterial infections. Chapter one of my book 'The Perfect Metabolism Plan' is titled "break up with sugar" because the #1 step to reach a healthy weight, and keep your metabolism humming, is to eat for blood sugar stability. If you need more support in breaking up with your sugar habit, consider taking my course The Break up with Sugar Program.
GET YOUR ZZZZs: Studies show that sleep deprivation can negatively affect the body's ability to mount an effective immune response to infection. So it is a good idea to practice good sleep "hygeine" - which includes turning off electronic devices at least 1 hour before bedtime.
REDUCE STRESS: Been burning the candle at both ends? Working like a dog? Can't remember the last time you had any "downtime?" When we are under stress, our immune system is not as capable when it comes to fighting off viruses and infections. So being mindful about ways that we can reduce our burdens during cold and flu season may just help us get through the season without getting knocked down with an illness. I always say, if we don't take a break occasionally, our body will force us to.
AVOID CIGARETTES & VAPING: Studies have found that both cigarette smoking and vaping can lower the body's immune system response.
LIMIT CONSUMPTION OF ALCOHOL: An occasional glass of wine with a meal is not likely an issue, but excessive drinking can reduce the immune system's response and make someone more susceptible to complications developing from viral infections. Alcohol can negatively affect the microbial balance of our digestive system, which plays a big role in our immune system.
There are certain nutrients that are known to support the immune system and may offer protection from many different viruses taking hold. See supporting research at the end of this article.
VITAMIN D: Sometimes referred to as the “sunshine vitamin,” the sun is our best source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is essential to a healthy immune system. Without sufficient vitamin D, our immune system may struggle to mount an effective response. During the winter months, our vitamin D levels can decline, especially anyone that lives in areas where the climate is cold and there is not a lot of sun. Wearing sunscreen and working indoors can also lower our vitamin D levels even in the sunnier Summer months. You don't need to tan or burn to get vitamin D from the sun. About 20 minutes of sunshine daily for persons with light colored skin is often enough to boost vitamin D levels. Darker skinned indivduals tend to need slightly more sunlight for get optimal vitamin D levels. You can also get vitamin D from sardines, herring, salmon, beef liver, egg yolks from free range chickens, and mushrooms grown in the sunlight. Optimal vitamin D is important for bone health, and even cancer prevention. Some experts estimate that up to 70% of breast cancers could be prevented simply by optimizing vitamin D levels. To determine if you need to supplement, your doctor can check your vitamin D levels. Ideally, vitamin D should be between 40-60 ng/dL. Some people may find that despite supplementing, they can not get their vitamin D levels to go up. This could be due to a magnesium deficiency, as magnesium is required for the conversion of vitamin D3 to it's active hormone form, so optimizing magnesium along with vitamin D is important.
ELDERBERRY (SAMBUCUS): Edited 3/14/20: There is some emerging concern/caution with the use of elderberry during the COVID-19 outbreak, as one of the serious complications of COVID-19 is something called a "Cytokine Storm," which is when the immune system goes into overdrive in reaction to the virus. There is concern that certain immune boosting nutrients could potentially exacerbate this mechanism. This type of reaction is exceedingly rare with garden variety colds and flus, but this novel Corona Virus is different. Read: Is Eldberry Safe to Take Right Now? My current recommendation is to stop taking elderberry during the COVID-19 pandemic, and to avoid it if you have any immune system disorders, are pregnant, or have other underlying health issues. Other herbs, foods, and supplements of possible concern are ecchinacea, and even chocolate. A study conducted in Sydney found that elderberry had a potent antiviral effect against influenza, inhibiting the entry and attachment of the virus into the host. Another study found elderberry to be effective against bacteria as well - including strep bacteria. Elderberry can be found in many forms - liquid, tea, lozenges, and capsules. Generally, the liquid tends to be more potent, but the lozenge can be good protection for the throat, and is good for on the go. The tea is delicious and calming and can be served warm or iced. Note: Elderberry can be stimulating to the immune system, so persons with an autoimmune disease or another health condition should consult their doctor before taking. It is also a mild diuretic, so persons on medications or with a medical condition should consult their doctor. Additionally, some people like to make their own elderberry syrup - it should be noted that elderberries must cooked before consuming, as the raw berries contain a cyanide-inducing glycoside, which is removed during the cooking process and in commercial elderberry products.
VITAMIN C: The human body can not manufacture vitamin C, so we need to consume it in order to keep our vitamin C levels up. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps the body fight infection, it is also important for collagen production, neurotransmitter production, iron absorption,* and heart health. The term for severe vitamin c deficiency is scurvy. Good food sources of vitamin C include: papaya, lemon, orange, and other citrus fruits; strawberries and other berries; bell peppers, kiwi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, pineapple, leafy greens, parsley, and thyme. High doses of vitamin C supplements can sometimes cause loose stools. Liposomal vitamin C is a highly bioavailable form of vitamin C that does not affect the bowels, it is the next best thing to IV vitamin C. During cold and flu season, I try to up my intake of vitamin C rich foods, and/or supplement 1,000 mg of vitamin C daily. At the first sign of illness (often sore throat), I will increase my vitamin C to 1,000 mg. of liposomal vitamin C taken 2-3 times a day. If supplementing, look for a non-GMO form of vitamin C, or choose a liposomal vitamin C. There are studies underway to look at intravenous vitamin C therapy for the treatment of pneumonia, sepsis, and even COVID-19. **Because vitamin C increases iron absorption, persons with hemochromatosis may want to avoid supplementing vitamin C, talk to your doctor.
SELENIUM: A trace mineral, selenium simply does not get the recognition it deserves for the critical role it plays in fighting viruses. Studies have shown that selenium deficiency can make a host more prone to viral infection, viral mutation, as well as enabling the infection to become more virulent/severe. According to a study from Poland, optimal selenium levels may reduce the risk of cancer, and inhibit the progression of HIV to AIDs. Our soils are becoming increasingly depleted of minerals, and selenium is no exception. Because it is a trace minerals, selenium is measured in micrograms, not milligrams. But when it comes to selenium, more is definitely not better. We only need a little bit of selenium in order to meet our body's needs, in fact since our body can not excrete excess selenium, it is possible to get too much (symptoms of excess selenium include garlic breath odor, metallic taste in mouth). The best food source of selenium is the Brazil nut, just 2-5 a day can get you to your optimal levels of selenium. In fact, stick to 5 a day to avoid getting too much selenium. Also important for healthy thyroid function, persons with hypothyroid might find that selenium might give their thyroid a little boost. However persons with Graves disease, hyperthyroid, or autoimmune thyroid should talk to their doctor before supplementing selenium. When supplementing, it is important to NOT take more then 200 micrograms daily. Avoid taking a selenium supplement on the days that you eat Brazil nuts.
ZINC: Zinc is a mineral that is very important to our immune system, hormones, and even our brain function ("no zinc, no think"). Studies have shown that zinc may shorten the duration of viral infections like the common cold. One study found that zinc impaired viral replication of RNA viruses including poliovirus, flu and coronaviruses. The best food source of zinc by far is oysters. Zinc is also found in beef, chicken, pork, shellfish, pumpkin seeds, hemp, and legumes. Zinc deficiency is common in the elderly, vegetarians, and persons with gastrointestinal issues. If left untreated, a zinc deficiency can not only lower immunity, but it can also lead to a loss of our sense of smell and taste, picky eating, growth issues in kids, and a poor appetite (good to check zinc levels when there is an eating disorder or anorexia). You can test zinc levels without a blood test, using a simple liquid zinc assay. Taking high doses of zinc over long periods can deplete our copper levels, so avoid taking high doses of zinc for an extended period of time (unless your doctor has recommended it, such as for copper overload or another reason). 30 mg. of zinc daily is a safe dose for on-going supplementation and prevention. That can be doubled at the first sign of a sore throat for 1-2 weeks.
GLUTATHIONE: Sometimes referred to as the "master antioxidant," glutathione is an amino acid that is important for the immune system, cellular repair, and detoxification. The human body can produce glutathione, and we can also obtain it from sulfur-rich foods like garlic, onion, cruciferous vegetables, as well as meat and dairy. One of the best forms of glutathione supplements is liposomal. See below for my specific supplement brand recommendations.
TURMERIC (CURCUMIN): A powerful anti-inflammatory and pain reducer - turmeric is sometimes nicknamed "Nature's Advil." Because of its pain and anti-inflammatory benefits, the Arthritis Foundation recommends supplementing 400-600 mg. of turmeric up to 3 times a day for arthritis relief. A member of the ginger family, turmeric has a deep yellow color, and is found in curries and mustards. In addition to its anti-inflammatory properties, turmeric has a powerful effect on the immune system - one study found that it prevented infections from pathogens including the influenza, hepatitis C, HIV, and also bacterial infections from Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Pseudomonas. Other studies have found it to inhibit the Zika virus, chikungunya, HPV, and also may help protect against certain cancers - including of the breast, pancreas, prostate, lungs, and blood. Note: Turmeric may stimulate contractions, so it should be avoided during pregnancy. It also has blood thinning properties, and therefore should also be avoided before surgery and by those on blood thinning medications. Turmeric can be steeped into a tea, made into a "golden milk", the spice can be added to curries, soups, and pretty much any dish. There are also turmeric (curcumin) supplements as well.
I have created a list of my favorite supplements for preventing viral infections - these are the supplements that we are currently taking at our house to boost our immune system and stay as healthy as possible. To see the list, go to my Fullscript Supplement Dispensary, once you create an account, scroll down to "Practitioner Favorites," and click on my "VIRUS PROTECTION KIT".
Please note: Viruses like influenza and COVID-19 can develop into very serious, even life-threatening illnesses in certain people (especially elderly and immunocompromised), contact your doctor or hospital if you are concerned for yourself or a loved one in order to seek medical care.
*Avoid the antibacterial soaps with Tricolsan, which wipes out all bacteria (including the good bacteria), and may contribute to the creation of resistant strains of bacteria. Stick with plain soap, and make sure to wash for at least 20 seconds - getting under the nails, and around the thumb and fingers.
**NOTE: These recommendations are based on the available information on viruses in general. This year on top of the typical cold and flu season, we also have the added concern about the novel Corona virus (COVID-19). The COVID-19 virus is particularly virulent and novel, it appears to be mutating, and one of the severe complications appears to be overstimated immune system - called a "Cytokine Storm." So certain foods and supplements that boost the immune response, may not be safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read: Is Elderberry Safe Right Now? to learn more. Experts are essentially rewriting the rule book on the fly when it comes to COVID-19, even common sense therapies like Ibuprofin are being questioned - so is important to stay on top of emerging evidence and research regarding this particular virus. This article will be edited and updated as new information becomes available.**