So much of the COVID-19 pandemic is beyond your control — all of our control — and yet it’s undoubtedly affecting you, your family and your community. However, you can feel more empowered by making changes to support your immune system and your overall health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends hygiene protocols — such as physical distancing, consistent handwashing and avoiding touching your face — but you can take additional steps to stay safe.
To keep your immune system healthy and your body strong, think about personal choices you can make — from eating healthy to getting enough sleep.
Foods to optimize immunity
Lifestyle alterations can have a positive impact on the gut microbiome, which is a cornerstone of your immune system. What you eat plays a pivotal role in keeping your immune system operating at its best. Research shows that changes in dietary habits heavily influence the gut microbiota and can consequently alter immune response.
Keeping the microflora of your gut in tip-top shape is key to fending off colds and the flu, especially at a time like this with coronavirus infections spreading, says Geeta Maker-Clark, MD, a family and integrative medicine practitioner at NorthShore University HealthSystem.
“Food has always been powerful medicine. That remains true with the threat of viral infections,” Maker-Clark says. “The immune system relies on protein, phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins, minerals and good fats to work well, among many other aspects of a healthy lifestyle.”
The gut microbiome needs balance, especially when it comes to keeping the good and bad bacteria in check. Microbial imbalance is associated with a variety of illnesses, according to a review published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society in 2017. A high-fiber diet has been associated with a decrease in airway inflammation and a decrease in respiratory-related deaths, according to the review.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to consume vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, beans and mushrooms in order to have a diet rich in antioxidants, B vitamins, vitamin C and vitamin D. A diet high in saturated fats, such as fried foods and processed red meats, can alter the microbial composition of the gut and cause inflammation.
“Plant foods contain compounds called phytonutrients that have antioxidant, antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties,” explain Rachelle Mallik, RDN, a Chicago-based registered dietitian and founder of The Food Therapist.
While there’s no guarantee that by eating more plant foods you will not get a cold, flu or COVID-19, eating a healthy diet can help keep your immune system strong to fight off and recover from infections.
If fresh food is hard to get because of limited options at the grocery store, consider other options. “Enjoy food in all forms: fresh, frozen, canned, jarred and boxed. Many frozen and shelf-stable foods are just as nutritious as their fresh counterparts,” Mallik says.
Look for specific nutrients to keep you healthy. Aim to get vitamin C from foods, as it can decrease the severity of colds and flu. “Citrus fruits, tomatoes, and many yellow, orange and red produce contain vitamin C,” Maker-Clark says.
Vitamin D is a vital contributor to good immune function and health. Your skin produces vitamin D in your body from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, therefore it’s good to get outside every day. Dietary sources include fatty fish like salmon and tuna, whole eggs, mushrooms (that have been exposed to ultraviolet light, as indicated on the label), and vitamin D fortified foods such as dairy milk, plant-based milks and orange juice.
If you know you are deficient in vitamin D, it’s a good idea to supplement with vitamin D3. Consult with your healthcare provider or a registered dietitian nutritionist to determine the optimal dosage for you.
While it might be easy to unwind with a glass of wine or a beer, overdoing alcohol may weaken your resolve to eat healthfully, as well as your immune response. Instead, Maker-Clark recommends, “Hydrate by drinking plenty of water, as this keeps your mucous membranes healthy and less likely to have small breaks that can allow viruses and bacteria an entry.”
Because adequate fluids are needed for the body to function properly, sip water throughout the day. Decaffeinated tea and coffee, as well as vegetables and fruits, give your body water, too.
Being properly hydrated can elevate mood and enable you to get more done throughout the day. Research in The Journal of Nutrition found that mild dehydration can lead to lower mood, headaches and difficulty with focus and completing tasks.
“With physical distancing and dreary days in Chicago, we need all the mood boosters we can get, so keep refilling your water glass or bottle and sip throughout the day,” Mallik says.
Rest and connect
And when you’re not eating and hydrating? Sleep. At least for seven to nine hours per night, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
Regularly sleeping less than seven hours per night can have negative effects. “Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus,” Maker-Clark says. She cautions that during this period of high anxiety and worry, it is even more important that we give virus-fighting T-cells a greater ability to activate.
At the end of the day, perfect eating and a perfect sleep schedule are not the goal. Instead, aim to create some structure and good habits while you are cooped up at home. And above all, use this time for virtually connecting with others.
“Physical distancing does not mean social distancing,” Maker-Clark says. “Call friends and family and stay connected to your community to avoid feeling isolated, lonely and depressed.”
Find gratitude in the simple things in your life — that’s an immunity booster in itself.