Getting Sick and Boosting the Immune System
Rainy season often increases your likelihood to get common illnesses, like a cold or the flu. The change in weather, from sunny to rainy to sunny again all within the span of less than 12-24 hours, definitely makes us more prone to getting sick. We Filipinos know too well that we cannot avoid this fickle change in weather, no matter what month or what season it is. This is probably why we carry around umbrellas on any given day; to shield us from the searing heat of the sun or to keep us from getting drenched by the rain, or both.
Nowadays, we’re down with the flu or we catch a cold so often that it has become seasonal expectations. It does not surprise us anymore. The thing is, getting sick often leads to missed days at work, decreased productivity, overall diminished quality of life, and cuts the amount of much needed quality time spent with loved ones. So, why not learn some simple and practical steps to boost your immune system? Wouldn’t you want to know them?
A strong immune system serves the overall security and defense of our body. It protects against potentially harmful substances and enables the body to put up a defensive barrier against invaders that may go through. Our immune system is a lot like an active army that has soldiers and matching arsenal that destroys or suppresses invaders.
Once our immune system recognizes something as a threat, it starts a chain reaction and rapidly mobilizes to fight off any threat. There are times, however, when our immune system is unable to mount an adequate response against invaders that cause illness. The immune system can be weakened by bad food choices, bad habits like smoking and lack of sleep, inappropriate lifestyle, environmental toxin exposures, pollution and inadequate nutrition.
Growing up, Filipino children of earlier generations were given homegrown advice, such as don’t play in the rain, put a bimpo under your shirt baka matuyuan ng pawis, eat your fruits and veggies, drink lots of water, get adequate rest, baka mabinat. Much of it is still in place but Millenials are apt to be better learners.
Other measures to prevent the spread of flu or colds include covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, keeping someone who is sick at home in a separate room, and avoiding crowded places where there is a higher likelihood of getting the “bug”. Handwashing with soap and water is also a simple yet important step in protecting ourselves, and those around us. It has been scientifically and clinically proven to prevent the spread of infectious organisms. Make it a good habit to wash your hands frequently, whenever and wherever possible.
When we do get sick, we often go for over-the-counter remedies like antihistamines, decongestants, NSAIDs ( nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), or other liniments, ointments or salves to help soothe our symptoms. Yes, they help ease the discomfort but they’re not very helpful when it comes to preventing colds and flus or shortening the duration.
Particular attention should be given to the use of antibiotics, which are lifesaving to millions when used properly. Inappropriate, unnecessary or overuse of antibiotics tend to create other medical problems. While antibiotics are necessary for the right cases, they won’t be of any help in treating infections that are caused by a virus. When you go to the doctor and you are not prescribed antibiotics for your colds, it doesn’t mean that the doctor is holding out on you or that he or she made a mistake. It means that it is not appropriate for the particular illness or diagnosis that you have at that time as evaluated by your doctor. Since antibiotic resistance is a huge problem, doctors and pharmacies are now more judicious in prescribing and dispensing them, for good reason. Consider drug sensitivity reactions with injudicious antibiotic use.
A cold is a self-limiting viral infection of the upper respiratory tract or your upper airways. There are numerous different viruses that could cause a cold, and two of the most common are coronaviruses and rhinoviruses. Because there are many different viral causes of colds, the body naturally has a hard time building up resistance to all of them.
The flu is also a viral respiratory infection specifically caused by the influenza virus. It has for types (A, B, C, D) and can cause mild to severe illness. Humans are primarily affected by influenza viruses A and B, which are the same types that are responsible for seasonal epidemics of the flu each year.
The common cold and the flu are both spread through hand contact with an infected person, by touching something contaminated with the virus, or by inhaling droplets when an infected person sneezes or coughs.
Because of this, it’s quite easy to catch a cold or get the flu. Now, these viruses are found everywhere: at work, in school, in the mall, in the cinema, and in many other places. Even if you manage to evade the virus from where you’ve been the entire day, your loved one or a family member or someone from your household might inadvertently bring a virus home.
How do we keep ourselves protected? Well, apart from trying to avoid it, we can fortify our defenses and take steps to strengthen our immune system. Even when do get sick, there are other supportive measures, other than taking the pill-popping approach for symptomatic relief, that we can take to help to reduce the intensity of symptoms and shorten the time you are sick. These steps involve making small and practical changes in your nutrition, lifestyle, and environment.
How to Leverage Nutrition in Boosting your Immune System
Our usual diet is characterized by too much refined sugar, saturated fats and omega-6 fatty acids, too much salt and too much processed foods. While these are known to damage our heart, kidneys, blood vessels, and other organs, this modern diet has also been shown to have negative effects on our immune system.
Let’s look at how we can leverage nutrition to support our immune system. Let’s say you do get sick. You’ll likely not have the appetite to eat something, but even then, you should still eat because the nutrients from your food help boost your immune system. But what should you eat? Let’s first look at what to avoid.
Among many of its negative effects on our health, like leading to obesity and diabetes, too much sugar also weakens our immune system. It’s more difficult to stay protected against viruses, or any other infectious agent, when the food we eat is just full of sweets, refined carbohydrates and simple sugars. A diet high in sugar can suppress our immune response for some time after ingested. (1)
This means we have to avoid desserts, sweets, cookies, donuts, pastries, bread, pasta and other food items that have flour and refined carbohydrates because these are the food items that spike your blood sugar very quickly after eating them. Not to mention the liquid sugars like sodas, concentrated fruit juices, powdered juice or iced tea, sweetened beverages, energy drinks and even sports drinks.
Food triggers are those food items that initiate an inflammatory response in our body. An inflammatory response is curated by our immune system and is a normal and protective reaction towards potentially harmful substances. However, there are instances and imbalances where partially digested or undigested food particles are perceived by the immune system as a harmful substance. This is when they act as food triggers.
These food triggers lead to a chronic, low level, inflammatory response that eventually throws your immune system off balance. One way this imbalance manifests itself is the inability to mount an appropriate response against infectious agents, just like the viruses that cause the common colds or the flu. Bottomline is that the more we eat these food triggers, the more vulnerable we are to infectious invaders like viruses, bacteria, fungi and even parasites.
Two of the most common food triggers are gluten and dairy. Among all the other common food triggers, avoiding these two for at least 3 weeks have the biggest impact in improving symptoms and health in general. So whether you are trying to boost your immune system to prevent getting sick or to help your recovery, you’ll definitely benefit from avoiding gluten and dairy.
One of the common sources of gluten is wheat that is found in breads, cereals, crackers, pastas, pastries, etc. Dairy includes milk, butter, and cream. Aim to avoid food items that contain gluten or dairy or both.
After looking at what to avoid to help boost our immune system, let’s shift our focus towards what we do need to eat. Yes, getting nutrition just right can be confusing and complicated, but we’re going to share some easy to remember tips when building a strong foundation for nutrition that supports your immune system.
As a general rule, go for a whole foods and nutrient-dense diet. That means avoid the processed foods and go for fresh and high quality food. Stay away from the packaged and instant food that are sure to be devoid of nutrients that help support your immune system. Focus on lots of colorful non-starchy vegetables, moderate amounts of low glycemic index fruits, some starchy vegetables, good quality protein, and healthy fats.
Make sure you have a source of good quality protein in every meal. This is even more important when you are sick or when your body is recovering from an illness. Because proteins are essentially what the building blocks of our body are made up of, they are crucial components of a strong immune response. When consuming proteins, aim for clean and lean sources of animal protein. You can also choose to get your protein from plant-based sources like legumes, nuts and seeds.
Eating more colorful non-starchy vegetables and fruits, means you are getting more immune-boosting nutrients like Vitamin C. This also means that you are taking advantage of the phytonutrients that help support healthy immune function. Eat more of the non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens. You can also have moderate amounts of starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and squash.
If you are sick, it’s helpful to have more clear soups and broths that are made from scratch with lots of fresh vegetables. Instant noodles or soups in packets or cans are discouraged. Also, try drinking more teas,that help boost the immune system like ginger tea, and green tea. Make sure that you keep hydrated. Your body is going to need adequate hydration for recovery. Of course water as a major source of hydration is essential, so drink lots of water, especially when you are sick.
Garlic and Onions:
Besides being great sources of flavor, garlic and onion also have antimicrobial properties. They are members of the Allium family that are rich in sulfur-containing compounds that contribute to them having antiviral and antibacterial properties. When garlic is crushed, it releases Allicin, a compound that helps boost immunity.
Incorporate garlic and onions to your diet. Add them to dishes like soups, broths, vegetables, salads. Level up the immune boost by adding ginger as well.
Ginger has been found to have antimicrobial activity. It’s also been found to help prevent viruses from attaching onto the lining of our airways. (2)
Ginger also helps ease some of the other symptoms of flu like nausea and stomach discomfort. Try incorporating more ginger into your soups or dishes. You can also try making your fresh brew of ginger tea. Slice a few pieces of ginger, add a little bit of honey, and boil it in water. Strain it and pour into your cup and add a slice of lemon. You can store any leftover tea in the refrigerator so you have more to enjoy later. Bonus ingredients are honey, which is a good cough remedy, and lemon, which is an excellent source of vitamin C.
Fermented foods are an excellent source of beneficial gut bacteria. These good bacteria that populate the gut help maintain a healthy cell lining not only in the gut but also the lining of our airways. This is important because it is that lining that serves as the first line of defense against harmful substances, like infectious viruses, from the outside environment.
Fermented foods introduce good bacteria that help strengthen our immune system. The overall health of our gut microbiome, or the population of bacteria in our gut, is an essential component of a healthy immune response to infectious agents like viruses.
Some sources of fermented foods include kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut and pickled vegetables. Incorporate these food items to help fortify your immune system.
How Your Lifestyle Can Help Boost Your Immune System
Our lifestyle has an immense impact on our health. We know that having poor lifestyle choices predisposes us to illnesses that affect our heart, kidney, liver, blood vessels and other organs. We should also be aware of the fact that these poor lifestyle choices also affect our immune system. Lack of good quality sleep, too much stress, and too much or too little exercise can impair our immune response. We can take steps to modify these lifestyle factors to boost our immune system.
Our immune system needs good quality sleep in order to have optimal function. Lack of sleep and poor quality sleep have been linked to reduced resistance against the common cold. In general, sleep deprivation negatively affects our immune response. Insufficient sleep and poor sleep quality are associated with reduced resistance to the common cold; this effect undoubtedly holds true for the flu as well, since sleep deprivation compromises immunity. (3)
Sleep is also essential for our body’s healing and recovery. When you are down with the flu or with the common cold, your body all the more needs good quality sleep. In addition to good quality, disruption of our circadian rhythm, has also been shown to make our body more prone to viral infections
Help your body get good quality sleep by setting a rhythm. Set a time when you should already be asleep. Getting into this habit trains our circadian rhythm. When you’re in bed, make it conducive to sleep. You can try keeping the room dark as this helps your body;’s melatonin production.
Generally, you should aim for 7-9 hours of good quality sleep. When you’re sick, a good goal is about 9-10 hours of sleep. Your body could definitely us that extra bit of time for repair and recovery.
Stress, nowadays, is considered a normal part of our everyday life. Whether it’s from work, from our home, from relationships, and from within, it’s always there. We’ve conditioned ourselves to function without acknowledging the potentially negative of stress on our health. Most of us have yet to learn how to attune ourselves to stress so we can properly address it, for the sake of our overall health.
Stress definitely plays a factor in depressing our immune system. It makes it easier for us to get sick and at the same time harder for us to recover. A depressed immune system stems from a lot of factors, and physical, mental, emotional and spiritual stress is definitely among the top factors.
So how, then, can we address stress to help boost our immune system? Start with mindfulness practices like meditation. Meditation can actually help reduce the severity of symptoms of cold and flu illness, as well as improve the quality of life. (4) Other mindfulness practices include breathing exercises and prayer.
When you get a cold or the flu, listen to what your body is telling you that you need to slow down and rest. It’s okay to rest when you are sick. Your body needs it, your health needs it. Remember that when you are sick, your productivity drops, and forcing yourself to work while you are sick just makes it harder for your body to recover.
Of course you don’t have to wait until you are sick to address stress. Make mindfulness practices part of your daily routine and feel the difference it brings to your health. Make sure that you allow yourself to rest, even if you aren’t sick. Our “always on the go” culture perceives rest as the least priority. When it comes to our health, rest should actually be one of our top priorities. This goes beyond physical rest and includes mental, emotional, and spiritual rest. It’s okay to take five minutes in the day to just breathe and think of nothing else. It’s okay to take a short nap. It’s okay to set “me time” and just read a book, enjoy a cup of tea, or just sit.
When it comes to exercise, remember that a little goes a long way. Thirty minutes of mild to moderate exercise daily actually helps boost the immune system. Try not to push yourself to do intensive, long, and gruelling workouts because exercising too much may depress your immune system. Make sure to have a rest day in between workout days, especially after intensive training.
When you are already feeling under the weather, listen to what your body is trying to tell you. Avoid overexertion, like endurance training, because it will depress your immune system. When you aren’t feeling well, it’s okay to miss gym day. Your immune system needs to focus on recovery so it’s important to let it focus on that instead of trying to address the inflammation in muscles and joints and other parts of your body. Remember that moderation is the key
3 Supplements You Can Take to Boost Your Immune System
Before considering taking supplements, take the Food First approach. Go back to building a good foundation for your nutrition to help boost your immune system. As much as possible, get all the nutrients that you need from the food that you eat. It is counterproductive to take supplements while you continue to enjoy a high sugar, highly processed, nutrient depleted diet. General rule: go for whole foods, fresh and varied sources, with lots of vegetables and moderate amounts of fruit.
There are situations where your health could benefit from taking supplements. When you do take supplements, make sure it is of good quality, manufactured properly, and is free from additives, preservatives, colorings, food triggers (like gluten), and other potentially harmful substances to the body.
This serves as the foundation of nutrients and aims to cover the basic micronutrient needs of your body for its day to day function. Micronutrients are nutrients that your body needs in small amounts to function properly. Micronutrients include vitamins and minerals, as well as phytonutrients. They serve as essential components of several bodily processes like digestion, detoxification, and of course immune defense and repair.
During periods of increased demand, just like when we have a cold or the flu, you can imagine that your body needs more of these micronutrients. Take good quality multivitamins and minerals on a daily basis to provide what the immune system needs to function properly.
Vitamin D has beneficial effects on our immune system and getting Vitamin D to adequate levels in the body is important for proper immune function. It’s best to work with your healthcare practitioner to get your 25 OH vitamin D levels checked. It should be at least 30 ng/dL, but optimal levels are at about 40-50 ng/dL. The best source of Vitamin D is sun exposure. However, it is part of Filipino behavior to always cover up and use an umbrella against the searing heat of the sun. This decreases sun exposure and consequently production of Vitamin D in our body.
A good dose to start with is 1000-2000 IU daily. Again, work with your healthcare practitioner to determine how much you need based on your blood levels as some people may need higher doses.
We all know the immune boosting effects of taking vitamin C. This is why we try to get more of it from the fruits and vegetables that we eat. Taking Vitamin C daily helps keep us from getting sick. Getting extra doses also helps reduce the duration of the illness when we do get sick from a cold or the flu. (5)
Consider taking around 1,000-3,000 mg per day of Vitamin C when we are sick. Then stick with daily dosing of no more than 1,000 mg per day when recovered.
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0271531784800573 (Depressed lymphocyte transformation in a whole blood culture system after oral glucose ingestion)
https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0378874112007404 (Fresh ginger (Zingiber officinale) has anti-viral activity against human respiratory syncytial virus in human respiratory tract cell lines)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2629403/ (Sleep Habits and Susceptibility to the Common Cold)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3582749/ (Obasi et al. (2012) Advantage of meditation over exercise in reducing cold and flu illness is related to improved function and quality of life. Influenza and Other Respiratory Viruses 00(0), 00–00.)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6057395/ (Extra Dose of Vitamin C Based on a Daily Supplementation Shortens the Common Cold: A Meta-Analysis of 9 Randomized Controlled Trials)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4074336/ (Fast food fever: reviewing the impacts of the Western diet on immunity)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3448089/ (Diet-Induced Dysbiosis of the Intestinal Microbiota and the Effects on Immunity and Disease)
https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02850113 (Preventing the common cold with a garlic supplement: A double-blind, placebo-controlled survey)
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2870528/?tool=pmcentrez (Epidemic influenza and vitamin D)