The World Health Organization has declared COVID-19, or coronavirus, to be a pandemic. As we all scramble to stock up on food and paper goods and try to track down containers of hand sanitizer, we also want to do everything we can to make sure our immune systems are in tip-top shape. So we checked in with four doctors for their tips on how to stay healthy.
But first, a note on boosting your immune system from Rand McClain, M.D., who tells us that the term “immune-boosting” is often misconstrued. “One’s immune system is developed mainly during the earliest part of life, starting with immunity conferred by mother to child during the third trimester of pregnancy and later through breast milk and challenges to the adaptive immune system into adulthood through which the body fights and learns (read “strengthens”) throughout the remainder of life.” He adds, “The idea that we can take a Chevy and turn it into a Ferrari is not possible…yet.” But while we might not be able to overhaul our immune system, Dr. McClain stresses that it can certainly be assisted with some of the tips below.
1. Go Back to Basics
The basics of healthy living, that is. Interestingly, the majority of the doctors we spoke to stressed the importance of general wellness (read: no crazy diets or supplements). “Unfortunately, there is no magic bullet,” Shannon Sovndal, M.D, a board-certified doctor in both emergency medicine and emergency medical services, tells us. “It really comes down to fundamentals—the things your mom and grandma told you. Eat healthfully. Get plenty of sleep. Avoid stress (as much as possible). Don’t put your hands in your mouth (or nose). And for God’s sake, wash your hands!” Dr. Sovndal’s statements were echoed by Dr. McClain, who told us, “The most important immune supporting tool that I see most [people] in the Western world eschew is adequate sleep. Regular sleep—seven to nine hours nightly—and during roughly the same period, daily exercise and proper nutrition (including hydration) are keys to maintaining health and a well-functioning immune system.” He added that stress-reducing techniques like breathing exercises, meditation and yoga can also help keep the immune system functioning at its highest level. Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network adds, “It’s best to have a healthy lifestyle with a nutritious clean diet and exercise no matter if there is a pandemic or not. The most important actions are social distancing, washing your hands and not touching your face. If you are sick, please stay home!”
2. Choose Your Meals Wisely
You are what you eat, do you know what we mean? Here are some of the essential immune-boosting foods we should be eating more of, per Dr. Raphael Kellman, Founder of the Kellman Wellness Center in Manhattan and author of The Microbiome Breakthrough:
Natural probiotics: Sauerkraut, kimchee, kefir, fermented vegetables, unsweetened Greek yogurt
Natural prebiotics to nourish the healthy bacteria: Jerusalem artichoke, jicama, garlic, asparagus, dandelion greens
3. Avoid Processed Foods
We know we should limit processed foods in general, but it’s especially important when we’re extra concerned about our immune systems. “Processed foods lack nourishment and can take the place of nourishing foods that would support the immune system,” says Dr. Joan Ifland Ph.D., Nutrition Counselor and Founder of Food Addiction Reset. She’s realistic, though, that most people will slip up from time to time and indulge in, say, a doughnut. “If this happens once or twice in a long while, it's not a big deal,” she admits. “But when it happens frequently and the immune system is habitually deprived of nutrients, then the immune system cannot function to fight off viruses. When this happens, instead of having a mild case of the flu where symptoms are contained by your vigorous immune system, you could end up in the hospital because the virus has overwhelmed a weak immune system. When a powerful virus like coronavirus is on the loose, we all want our immune systems to be in top condition.”
4. Be Wary of Supplements
While it would be super convenient to be able to take a pill and stay healthy forever, Dr. Sovndal warns against placing too much stock in supplements. “A lot of people have tons of suggestions based on vitamins, herbs and supplements, but none have consistently shown to give any real benefit if you’re living the lifestyle above," Dr. Sovndal explains. Dr. Parikh agrees, telling us, “No supplements have been linked to immune boosting, but you should take vitamin D if you are low or deficient, as low levels can affect your immune system.” (A doctor-ordered blood test can determine if you’re deficient in vitamin D.)
5. Take Care of Your Gut
Gut health is all the rage right now, with increasing evidence linking your microbiome to brain health, emotional health, cardiovascular health and more. Your microbiome is also linked to your immune system, and Dr. McClain recommends paying close attention to the amount of fiber you're eating. “Keeping fiber in the diet helps not only maintain healthy bowel habits, it can help keep the flora of the bowels (aka the microbiome) healthy, promoting the growth of ‘good’ bacteria that support the immune system,” he says. “Good bacteria in the bowels not only help the immune system through promotion of general health, but the good bacteria directly affect the growth of ‘bad’ bacteria.” Here are some foods to avoid if you’re looking to improve your gut health.