The holidays are over and the start of the New Year is prime time to focus on boosting your immune system. Lost sleep, stress over family obligations and overindulging in alcohol and sugary foods, weaken your ability to fight off winter ills and prevent you from continuing through the season in best health. Although there is no silver bullet for preventing or fighting disease, this is as good a time as any to discuss natural ways to keep your immune systems high-functioning.
There is no single food or diet that has been shown to cure or prevent disease, but malnutrition can impair your ability to fight off illness and infection. By malnutrition, we are referring to a lack of vitamins, minerals, and micro-nutrients. It may thus come as no surprise that the same nutrient sense, low inflammatory foods you have come to enjoy on your Paleo diet are the same foods that will help you lose weight, feel healthy, and look great, are the ones that will help your body against potentially dangerous pathogens.
The best thing you can do to boost your immune system is to regularly consume seasonal, local, humanely raised, pesticide free real food. These foods benefit the immune system by providing important vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and other nutrients Adding bone broth can help detoxify the body and cleanse the liver. It helps to keep your gut healthy, and can also reduce inflammation and fight respiratory infections in the body.
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Beyond a Paleo Diet, understanding that all your lifestyle behaviours from when and how you eat, to how much you sleep, to what type of exercise you get will either build or erode immune system resilience.
Focus On Your Gut
The gut wall is the primary barrier between your body and the outside world. Protecting this barrier which determines what can enter into your system and what cannot, is the key to strong immunity. Feeding the microbiome what it needs to thrive will help to maintain a strong, protective gut wall, keeping your less beneficial bacteria in check. A strong microbiome will also help prevent a porous, permeable, ‘leaky gut’ which becomes much more susceptible to pathogenic invaders. A healthy microbiome works together with your gut immune cells (which make up about 70% of the body’s immune system) to keep you healthy!
To cultivate a healthy microbiome, focus on the following:
- Eat fresh, organic, unprocessed foods
- Eat the fibrous stalks on your vegetables
- Add prebiotics (garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus) often
- Include fermented foods
- Sip on healing, collagen-rich, organic bone broth
- Hydrate adequately with well-filtered water as chlorination kills beneficial gut bacteria
- Animal products raised with hormones and antibiotics including conventionally farmed meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs
- Produce that’s been sprayed with toxic herbicides like glyphosate
- Sugary, starchy, and processed foods (even those made with Paleo friendly ingredients)
- Frequent antibiotic use (keep it to an absolute minimum)
- Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs)
Use Medicinal Plant Foods
Food is so much more than filling your belly. The foods you choose can supply your gut and your body with both nutrients and phytochemicals, many of which have been shown to reducing a pathogen’s ability to penetrate cells and replicate inside them. A few easy-to-incorporate, Paleo friendly, immunity-boosters to load up on:
Extra Virgin Coconut Oil: A daily teaspoon provides an antibacterial, antiviral and antimicrobial boost. Add to smoothies, hot drinks, or cook with it, up to a moderate heat.
Alliums: Garlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks and shallots have been used for thousands of years, not only for their flavor and gut-supportive fiber, but also for their powerful anti-viral, antibacterial and antifungal effects. Crush or chop and allow to sit for a few minutes before consuming for maximum effect. A note on garlic: Garlic is tasty and healthy. Additionally, it possesses antimicrobial properties. Studies have shown that garlic can inhibit some flu viruses. however, there is no evidence right now that garlic can help prevent the coronavirus.
Greens: greens are packed with phytonutrients and fiber to feed your gut bacteria. Place mealtime proteins on a bed of greens; use them in your smoothies or add powdered green drinks to your bone broth.
Medicinal Mushrooms: Turkey tail, reishi, cordyceps and chaga are all supportive of immune function. When possible, mix several types together, as they can have a synergistic effect when combined.
Fermented Foods: A few tablespoons of fermented vegetables will provide the probiotics your gut needs to function optimally. Ferment your own veggies, or buy raw, unpasteurized fermented items like sauerkraut, kimchi or pickles.
Spices: The essentials for your food-as-medicine pantry include ginger, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, thyme and cayenne pepper. They are filled with anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antiviral properties.
A relaxing weekend getaway, a spa day, or a sauna session are simple, everyday ways to include self-care moments into a chaotic, over-scheduled routine. Now, however, you may find many (or all), self-care options only available in the home. Prioritizing your self-care will support your physical and mental health, and ultimately, your immunity. This winter, use the time to boost yours by:
Optimize Sleep: Sleep is essential for strong immunity. Aim for 7 – 9 hours a night. The body does much of its cellular maintenance and repair work during sleep and not sleeping enough can dramatically impact your immunity.
Move Often: Movement is a powerful immunity-builder but over-exercising can weaken your defenses. Move frequently throughout the day and keep working out at your normal pace.
Daily Sunlight: A 20-to-30-minute morning dose of sunshine or, in a pinch, light-box exposure, is an easy way to help elevate mood, help regulate your sleep/wake cycle, stimulate vitamin D production and boost immunity.
Meditate: Consistent, daily stress can downregulate your immune system. Increasing your ‘unwind time’ with a few minutes of meditation or yoga at the start or end of your day will provide an added round of relaxation and immune support.
Infrared Light: Using an infrared sauna can reduce stress, tame inflammation and raise the body’s core temperature slightly, which stimulates the production of disease-fighting white blood cells. If you are unable to go to a public facility, consider renting or buying an infrared sauna chamber, or opt for a more affordable, portable, wrap-style infrared blanket or mat. Alternatively, a good tub soak will also encourage relaxation while raising your body temperature, and stimulating the immune system.
The immune system has a self-cleaning mechanism, known as autophagy during which your cells clean up their own debris. When autophagy is tuned up, your body recovers faster and better – the cellular detox process is critical to strong immunity.
To trigger autophagy, add a 16-hour overnight fast to your routine a couple of times a week. This is known as intermittent fasting, and/or time-restricted eating. If a 16-hour fast is too challenging for you at first, start with 10 or 12 hours fasts and work your way up over time.
Read more on fasting and autophagy here
Supplements can provide extra support for the immune system. When shopping for supplements, choose best-quality versions without sugar, lactose, or artificial colors. A few supplements to consider are:
- Vitamin D3: Ideally, your D levels should be in the 50 to 70mg/ml range. Have your doctor check your levels so you can determine how much is needed to close the gap. Recheck D levels after three months to make sure they are within range to avoid overconsuming it, which can be dangerous.
- Fish Oil: 1-3 grams of high-quality fish oil daily will help keep immunity defenses strong, as well as lower inflammation and the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. Source products that contain EPA, DHA and no fillers.
- Antiviral Herbs: Andrographis, olive leaf extract, grapefruit seed extract, oil of oregano, licorice root, isatis tinctoria and elderberry extract provide antibacterial and antiviral support
As well as:
- Vitamin C
- NAC (N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine)
Although following the principles of a Paleo lifestyle will not prevent you from catching a cold or a virus, the dietary and lifestyle factors that you incorporate on a regular basis can play a role supporting your and you immune system in preventing, fighting and or perhaps reducing the severity of symptoms and outcomes.