Many of us tend to only consider our immunity when there's an immediate threat: a cold going around the office, a seasonal flu, air travel, the list goes on. However, the reality is, keeping your immune system strong should take precedence at all times. "It's so important for people to think about their immunity beforehand, and take a more proactive approach," says Ella Davar, R.D., CDN. "It's not just one month a year—we need to celebrate it all day, every day."
Lifestyle behaviors that aid in immune support
The choices we make each and every day have a profound impact on our immune system's resilience. Here are a few specific lifestyle choices to note if you're aiming to keep your immunity strong:
1. Get plenty of sleep.
Sleep plays a vital role in so many of our body's functions—and immunity is no exception. That's because hormones connected to immune function, such as melatonin, are elevated when we sleep. Sleep enhances the formation of memory antibodies to bacteria and viruses, to help build a stronger immune system for the future, whereas lack of sleep can negatively affect immune function. Sleep hygiene practices like setting a bedtime, reducing blue light exposure before bed, and creating a soothing nighttime ritual are all valuable ways to promote deep, restorative rest.
2. Move your body.
In addition to countless other benefits (heart health, mood support, and more), exercise is also a vital tool for immune support. Regular exercise can help the immune response, lower illness risk, and reduce inflammation. All that said, it's important to note that there's a bit of a catch when it comes to exercise and immunity—chronic rigorous fitness and overtraining can actually be a detriment to your immune system. That's not to say you can never do a high-intensity workout—just maybe not every single day. Instead, aim for regular moderate-intensity movement that leaves you feeling strong and energized, not absolutely wiped out. Sprinkling in restorative exercise such as yoga, tai chi, and walking can also be great daily practices. Not to mention, these types of movement offer some stress-reducing benefits, too—win, win.
3. Manage your stress.
While "minimize stress" may seem like a lofty task these days, it is an important piece of your immune-support puzzle. In fact, chronic stress actually suppresses our immune response by releasing the hormone cortisol, which lowers an important antibody called secretory IgA that lines the respiratory tract and gut and is our first line of defense against invading pathogens. Luckily, some simple lifestyle interventions can help decrease stress and increase immune function. For example, one study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine suggests that meditation can increase levels of IgA. Other stress-minimizing practices such as journaling, yoga, or even a gratitude practice may be helpful, too—the important thing is to find what works best for you.
4. Wash those hands.
While this may sound like a broken record at this point, keeping those hands clean is important every day, year-round. Studies have shown that the average person touches their face 23 times per hour, which means there's plenty of opportunity to spread a cold, flu virus, and much more.
As a general rule of thumb, it's smart to wash your hands any time you go to the bathroom, touch something dirty, prepare food, or eat a meal. Use common sense. If you think you should be washing your hands, you probably should.
The best foods for immune support.
In addition to smart daily lifestyle habits, nutrition is essential for nurturing a strong immune system. You've likely heard the famous phrase "let food be thy medicine." That sentiment is a mainstay with functional medicine doctors, and it certainly rings true when it comes to bolstering immune defenses.
Nutrient-rich, immune-supporting foods include:
Zinc-rich foods: oysters, crab, lobster, meat, beans, hemp seeds, yogurt, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, whole grains
Vitamin-C-rich foods: guava, sweet peppers, kiwi, oranges, grapefruit
Quercetin-rich foods: capers, red onion, shallots, red apples, grapes, berries, cherries, scallions
Vitamin-D-containing foods: shiitake and button mushrooms, mackerel, sockeye salmon, cod liver oil, sardines, eggs, fortified milk
Spices and herbs: turmeric, garlic, ginger
Veggies: Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, kale, sweet potato
Omega-3 foods (for EPA and DHA): Mackerel, salmon, cod liver oil, herring, sea bass, sardines, anchovies, trout, oysters, caviar
What's more, since 70 to 80% of the immune system is located in the gut, including an array of probiotic and prebiotic foods is also paramount.
And don't forget about hydration! Water keeps your mucus membranes lubricated and protected, so viruses, bacteria, and other potentially harmful pathogens can't latch on to the tissue.
Supporting your immune system isn't only important when you start to come down with something. In order to build strong, resilient immunity—it's important to get proactive. Incorporating immune-supporting practices into your daily life—such as restorative sleep, stress management, movement, optimal nutrition, and potential supplementation—can help your body prepare for anything that comes its way.
Be Intentionally Well!
Integrative Nutrition Health Coach