8 Ways to Boost Your Immune System

Ceramic mug surrounded by a tissue box, tissues and glasses

The school year has once again started and winter is sadly on the horizon, which means the cold and flu season is upon us also. While there are many things we readily know we can do to prevent a sniffling nose or a fever, there’s always room to build off those foundations and incorporate immune boosting ideas!

1. Clean Hands

In addition to washing your hands before meals, it’s also a good practice to wash your hands before you touch your face and anytime after you’ve made extensive contact with door handles, keyboards, hand railings, etc. Bacteria, viruses, and even parasites can be found lurking on various surfaces, so having clean hands actually is an important preventive step.

It’s also important to preserve the good bacteria while fighting the bad, especially since more than 70% of our immune system is comprised in the gut, or our microbiome. The microbiome is an extremely diverse ecosystem – rich in bacteria that governs nutrient absorption, neurotransmitter function, hormonal balance, and immune function. In addition to our skin, the gut is the interface between the internal and external environment.

Avoiding harsh hand sanitizers and disinfectants is one way to protect the good bacteria which lives throughout the body. In fact, the FDA has announced that there isn’t necessarily any added benefit to antibacterial soap over plain, water-based soap for illness prevention. There are indications that certain ingredients in these soaps may contribute to bacterial resistance to antibiotics, including triclosan and triclocarban. According to the FDA, “new data suggest that the risks associated with long-term, daily use of antibacterial soaps may outweigh the benefits”.

The Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetic database has given these brands an A+ rating when substituting antibacterial soaps:

  • Everyone hand soap and hand sanitizer
  • Organic to Green hand sanitizer
  • ATTITUDE hand soap
  • Nature Clean Liquid hand soap
  • Be Green Bath and Body hand and body soap
  • Sally B’s Skin Yummies hand soap
  • Beautycounter hand wash

You can even make your own soap if you are a DIY-er!

2. Diet – We Are What We Eat

We’ve all heard this age-old expression, but it’s true – what you eat either works for or against you. Eating a variety of colorful, deep-pigmented fruits and vegetables provides the body with an abundance of antioxidants that combat free radicals, which are known to damage cells, proteins, DNA, and (you guessed it) weaken our immune systems.

Think of a brown apple or avocado that has become oxidized. This is a similar concept to what can occurs in the way the body needs anti-oxidants to prevent further damage. Each color provides different antioxidants, so make it your goal to eat as many colors as possible each day!

While increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables you and your family are eating is fundamental, it’s also key to limit, or avoid, simple sugars. The immune system becomes compromised after ingesting simple sugars (glucose, refined sugar, fructose) in as little as 30 minutes! Consequently, this reduces in the white blood cell’s ability to kill germs – lasting up to five hours after consumption. Keeping the blood sugar stable and within a healthy range has shown to be beneficial for both the immune system and the brain.

3. Hydration, Hydration, Hydration

In general, when you develop flu-like symptoms, it is important to stay hydrated. It is equally important to make sure you consuming enough water (half your body weight in ounces per day) in addition to other drinks that are full of electrolytes, such as coconut water, to optimize hydration.

If you need something that is warm, gut healing, and immune boosting, try homemade bone broth as a stand alone beverage or the base of a veggie-filled soup. There are also immune boosting benefits in many herbal teas such as ginger, turmeric, licorice, lemon balm or lemon peel, and echinacea.

4. Protect the Microbiome

As mentioned before, the epicenter of immunity is your gut! This intricate ecosystem consists of 10 times more bacteria than human cells, so it’s no wonder that the health and integrity of our microbiome can affect every part of our health. With the rise in antibiotic containing products, such as antibacterial cleansers, disinfectants, glyphosate, and triclosan, it’s thought that children today have less than a third of the bacterial diversity as compared to previous generations which may, in part, be a contributing factor to the rise in allergies and other immune-related sensitivities [3]. Given that the intestinal microbiome is the primary interface between the internal and external environment and is constantly integrating inputs (such as diet) with genetic and immune signals, any disruption in this process can set the stage for acute and chronic illness [4].

Repopulating the gut with the good bacteria is crucial in protecting the microbiome! Eating lacto-fermented foods such as pickles, sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, kefir, kombucha, and yogurt can help repopulate the good bacteria while crowding out the bad. You can also supplement with probiotics. In fact, one study showed a dramatic reduction in fever and upper respiratory symptoms in children who took a specific combination of Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium daily throughout the cold and flu season [5]. You can discuss this in more detail with your provider for further recommendations.

5. Emphasize Exercise

Did you know that your body experiences significant detoxification and boosted immune function during exercise? When you participate in moderate-intensity exercise, there is an increase in the production of macrophages, the white blood cells that “eat up” bacteria and viruses.

Movement is also the primary means by which lymph is circulated throughout the body. Lymph is a clear fluid that flows through the body and contains white blood cells, and the lymph nodes serve as filters that collect debris such as fats, bacteria, or other toxic substances. To help promote drainage of the lymph fluid, physical movement is needed as there isn’t a “pump” like the heart in the lymph circulatory system. Furthermore, when toxins are not eliminated through the liver and kidneys, they can be stored in the body’s fat cells. Sweating, often a result of activity and exercise, can help promote the clearance of harmful toxins (i.e. heavy metals, BPA, and other fat-soluble toxins).

6. A Good Night’s Sleep

Another way to significantly increase the number of white blood cells in the body is to ensure adequate sleep. A deficit in sleep can contribute to a rise in inflammation, which is detrimental to the immune system and creates greater susceptibility to catching a cold or the flu.

7. Address Any Stress

Emotional stress can cause physiological stress in the body by lowering the immune system’s capacity and impairing the healthy bacteria in the gut. Stress also lowers the number of white blood cells and the body’s ability to kill germs. In combination with increased inflammation and decreased immune function, you actually feel worse in the event that you do get sick. To help combat the stress, find activities that you and/or the whole family enjoys!

Viruses are just a part of life, and they actually require a living cell host (us humans!) in order to replicate and infect because they lack their own cellular structure. Common viruses you may encounter in your daily life include the common cold, influenza, gastroenteritis and herpes to name a few. If you’re like us and want to decrease your need for a trip to the doctor’s office or urgent care in the middle of the night, read on for a list of our favorite natural anti-viral supplements and general immune support!

Of importance to note, these natural antivirals are most effective if you can get them started at the very first sign of illness.

8. Natural Immune Boosters

Elderberry

Elderberry has been widely used across global cultures and is actually a safe and effective treatment for Influenza A and B with no observed side effects. The anthocyanidins (the beautiful deep purple color) and flavonoids are the primary immune stimulating components. This powerful compound has demonstrated the ability to reduce the duration and symptoms of illness for the common cold, influenza, sinus illness and for illness prevention after an exposure. A common dose is ½ teaspoon every few hours/5 times per day for children under 4 and increase to 1 teaspoon with the same frequency for anyone 4 and up.

Echinacea

This natural immune booster is great to have on board through cold and flu season because the phytochemical compounds have the ability to reduce viral infections as well as inhibit the virus from infecting your healthy cells in the first place. If you are ill, Echinacea also helps to alleviate pain, reduce inflammation, and treat upper respiratory issues. We like the Herb-Pharm alcohol-free extract (follow bottle directions) but you can also find this herb in capsules and cough drops at your local health food stores and co-ops.

Garlic

Garlic is another powerful immune boosting agent with both anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties for common and rare infections. You can use raw garlic, too, but many people like the convenience of capsules. By supplementing with garlic daily, especially through cold and flu season, you have a greater chance of preventing viral illness and/or shortening illness duration! If experiencing any ear pain or other ear infection signs, we also love Garlic and Mullein oil ear drops. Use 2 drops in symptomatic ear 2-4 times per day.

Vitamin D

The active form of vitamin D has several important roles in the body, including calcium metabolism, supporting bone health, and boosting immune function. In the presence of pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, immune cells can synthesize vitamin D resulting in innate antimicrobial function to help fight off invaders before a full-blown infection develops. Vitamin D also serves to “turn on” certain genes and functions necessary to maintain optimal health. Natural food sources of vitamin D include salmon, fish liver oil, organ meat such as beef liver, and egg yolks.

If you have any additional questions or would like to discuss more detailed prevention strategies during the cold and flu season, schedule an appointment with one of our providers!

Resources

1. Antibacterial Soap? You Can Skip It, Use Plain Soap and Water
2. EWG Skin Deep Cosemtics Database
3. Urinary levels of triclosan and parabens are associated with aeroallergen and food sensitization
4. The microbiome and innate immunity
5. Probiotics for prevention and treatment of respiratory tract infections in children

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