Updated: Mar 25
Now more than ever we need to ensure that we are supporting our immunity. The current worldwide pandemic due to the Coronavirus is enforcing us to stop what we were doing and isolate ourselves from others. The elderly are at most risk, and while many of us may contract and fight off the virus, it can also pose a risk to those individuals with compromised immunity, regardless of their age, although research is showing that there have been no known cases in children under 15 (1). Viral infections are different from bacterial infections, in that they can not be treated with antibiotics. Therefore, we are encouraged to support our immunity through a healthy, balanced diet and lifestyle.
While we need to foster resilience in our everyday lives, we also need to encourage a resilient immune system. This is where a healthy diet and lifestyle becomes our biggest ally. Aside from impeccable hygiene measures and social distancing, consuming a diverse range of fresh, unprocessed food, which provides a good range of phytonutrients and amino acids, is a safe and effective way to arm our defences. Lifestyle measures are equally important here. Getting sufficient exercise and adequate rest and relaxation is key to maintaining a balanced mind and body, necessary for healthy immune system response.
Here are 7 of my recommendations for staying on top form in order to effectively fight off any invading pathogens.
1. Stress management
Maybe easier said than done but one of the best things we can do for our immune system is to try to reduce our feelings of worry and anxiety. There are many ways we can do this, starting with simple breathing techniques. Please remember to breathe deeply, full belly breaths, which helps to encourage mindfulness and relaxation. Mindfulness is the art of cultivating calmness and stability, by focusing our awareness on the breath, bringing us back to our centre. This ultimately allows us to be less reactive when life gets a bit more challenging. Stress, anxiety, and depression can all be alleviated by practising meditation even for as little as 10 minutes a day. Setting your alarm 10 minutes earlier than usual is a good way to fit some meditation into your day. You don’t even need to get out of bed, just sit up straight, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. If you find it difficult to meditate, you might want to start by using some guided meditations. Many can be found on YouTube, as well as phone apps such as Headspace, Calm, and 10% Happier. Give them a try if you feel overwhelmed by our current situation.
Yoga, tai chi, gardening and other gentle exercise such as walking in nature are also highly recommended, as they encourage parasympathetic nervous system activity (2). This part of the autonomic nervous system response is known as “rest and digest”, which is in complete opposition to the sympathetic nervous system response of “fight or flight”. The parasympathetic nervous system positively supports the immune system.
2. Reduce sugar and refined carbohydrates
Sugar and refined carbohydrates as found in highly processed foods such as white bread, pasta, rice, cakes, biscuits, and excessive alcohol cause a spike in our blood sugar levels, which in turn causes insulin to be secreted, and over time can eventually lead to insulin resistance, systemic inflammation, and an immune system response. Instead, buy fresh and whole food produce direct from the farmers or farmers markets if this is available to you.
3. Support the microbiome
The microbiome is a diverse community of good bacteria inhabiting our intestines, absolutely necessary for our good health. These microflora create a protective lining in the intestines, guarding it against pathogenic bacteria and viruses. A large portion of the immune system is located in the gut, specifically the gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT), where up to 80% of mature immune cells live and function.
Recent research shows us that the gut microbiota may be supported, by including fermented foods in our diet (3). The aim is to include small amounts of fermented foods and drinks daily. Fermented foods may increase antibody production, reduce allergies, and stimulate immune cells, therefore strengthening the immune system (4). Different types of fermented foods that you might consider include miso, sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, live yoghurt, and tempeh. Alternatively, a probiotic supplement of at least 30 billion bacteria is a good way to keep the gut and immune system supported.
4. Vitamin C
It has long been established that high dose vitamin C is beneficial in preventing and treating respiratory infections (5), and during viral infections, the vitamin C requirement increases. Vitamin C has antimicrobial, antiviral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity, and can shorten the recovery time of pneumonia (6). Include an abundance of vitamin C-rich foods in the diet, such as leafy green vegetables, broccoli, kiwi fruit, red and yellow peppers, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, lemons and other citrus fruits, and parsley. Cooking tomatoes and peppers with healthy fats such as olive oil or coconut oil enhances the bioavailability of their nutrients.
Selenium is a trace mineral found naturally in the soil. It is a potent antioxidant that is essential for healthy immune system response, as it influences both the innate and adaptive immune systems. It also has antiviral properties. The best food sources of selenium are Brazil nuts (grown in South America), eggs, liver, tuna, cod and sunflower seeds.
Zinc is an essential mineral required for a healthy immune response, it is also vital for creating over 300 enzymes in the body. It is found in animal products such as meat, offal, poultry, fish, seafood, and dairy products. Vegetarians and vegans need to be especially careful to include sufficient zinc, as zinc availability is lower in plant foods than in animal foods. Plant-based sources include pumpkin seeds, tofu, hemp seeds, lentils, oats and fortified cereals.
Sleep and the circadian rhythm are strong regulators of immunological processes. Sleep enhances our immune defences, and protects us against illness. Make sure to stick to regular bedtimes and ensure at least 7 hours of sleep each night, or up to 9 hours for some people. Screen time should be stopped one hour before bed if possible. Phones and tablets emit ‘blue light’ which tricks the body into thinking it is daytime. This impacts on our circadian rhythm, and the secretion of melatonin, the hormone we need to sleep (7).
Being on social media before bedtime can be extremely stimulating, causing an over-active mind, just when we need to be winding down for the day. Read a book or meditate before bed instead of reading your social media feed.
Ensure your bedroom is a darkened environment, with well-fitted curtains, and without electronic devices. Use an old fashioned alarm clock and turn off your phone.
Nutritionally speaking, ensure to consume sufficient magnesium in the diet, e.g.nuts, seeds, dark leafy greens, dark chocolate (in moderation), avocados, and legumes. Magnesium is necessary to help the body relax, supports sleep, and reduces anxiety. Epsom salt baths (magnesium sulphate) before bed encourages a restful night’s sleep.
Including fresh and raw garlic in your cooking not only adds a delicious flavour, it is a great way to support immunity. This is because it is rich in sulphuric compounds with antibacterial and antiviral properties. Freshly crushed garlic has the most health benefits.
Homemade chicken soup is another traditional remedy for fighting off colds and flu (8). Making broth from bones is an easy and inexpensive way to support the immune system. Slow cooking of bones and ligaments releases anti-inflammatory amino acids (glutamine, glycine, and proline), as well as gelatine and collagen, which may help to repair intestinal permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut. Adding vegetables and fresh herbs increases its’ antiviral properties.
Alternatively, if you are vegetarian or vegan, you can make a vegetable broth by including seaweed (9) and shiitake mushrooms (10), which have both been found to support immunity.
This article was written by Helen Ross, a degree qualified registered nutritionist, mBANT CNHC, and owner of The Well Life Lab.
Helen is available for online one-to-one consultations. She specialises in gut health and natural solutions to IBS.
The information in this article is for educational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. If you are experiencing any symptoms of illness, or consider that you might have been exposed to the coronavirus, please follow the advice of your health authority [https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronavirus-covid-19/. This will typically mean staying at home and avoiding close contact with other people.
Do not go to a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital and, in the UK, use the NHS 111 coronavirus service to get advice on what to do.
Fauci, A. S., Lane, H. C. and Redfield, R. R. (2020) ‘Covid-19 - Navigating the Uncharted.’, The New England journal of medicine. doi: 10.1056/NEJMe2002387.
Grossman P, Niemann L, Schmidt S, Walach H. Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits. A meta-analysis. J Psychosom Res [Internet]. 2004 Jul [cited 2014 Jul 10];57(1):35–43. Available from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/1525629
Bravo JA, Forsythe P, Chew MV, Escaravage E, Savignac HM, Dinan TG, Bienenstock J, Cryan JF. Ingestion of Lactobacillus strain regulates emotional behavior and central GABA receptor expression in a mouse via the vagus nerve. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2011 Sep 20;108(38):16050-5
Parvez, S. et al., 2006. Probiotics and their fermented food products are beneficial for health. Journal of Applied Microbiology, 100(6), pp.-1185
Gorton, H. C. and Jarvis, K. (1999) ‘The effectiveness of Vitamin C in preventing and relieving the symptoms of virus-induced respiratory infections’, Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics. doi: 10.1016/S0161-4754(99)70005-9.
Hemilä, H. and Louhiala, P. (2013) ‘Vitamin C for preventing and treating pneumonia’, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD005532.pub3.
West et al. (2011) ‘Blue light from light-emitting diodes elicits a dose-dependent suppression of melatonin in humans’, Journal of Applied Physiology. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01413.2009.
Siebecker, Allison. "Traditional bone broth in modern health and disease." Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients, no. 259-260, Feb.-Mar. 2005, p. 74+. Gale Academic OneFile, Accessed 22 Mar. 2020.
Leonard, S. G. et al. (2012) ‘Effect of maternal seaweed extract supplementation on suckling piglet growth, humoral immunity, selected microflora, and immune response after an ex vivo lipopolysaccharide challenge’, Journal of Animal Science. doi: 10.2527/jas.2010-3243.
Dai, X. et al. (2015) ‘Consuming Lentinula edodes (Shiitake) Mushrooms Daily Improves Human Immunity: A Randomized Dietary Intervention in Healthy Young Adults’, Journal of the American College of Nutrition. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2014.950391.