Spending many hours a week on a college campus, I have been surrounded the last few weeks by coughs and sniffles. Many of them coming from myself. Schools are basically breeding grounds for germs, and most days I feel as though I'm living in a petri dish. If you work in an office or other space surrounded by lots of people, you might feel the same.
When it comes to the cold or flu, B Cells make antibodies that destroy abnormal cells. Once we've been exposed to a cold or flu, we build up immunity to it, so we can't catch the same virus again. But there are more than 200 known viruses that can cause the common cold. Only influenza virus types A, B, and C cause the flu.
At the grocery store, I see people stocking up on orange juice, Emergen-C, hand sanitizers, immune defense pills and "magic elixirs." But what if I told you, these people are only setting themselves up to GET sick. What if I told you that it's the food you eat PRIOR to your exposure to viruses that can make the biggest difference, as well as sleep, assuming your immune system isn't operating at half capacity like little 'ole pregnant moi. Not much you can do there (your body prioritizes the growing fetus to make sure your immune system doesn't attack it. So getting sick while pregnant is just a reminder that your body is doing exactly what it's supposed to be doing). BUT for the majority of you who don't have compromised immune systems, here are some research-supported immune boosting things you can start doing TODAY before you run out to the store to buy a bunch of over-the-counter crap-o-la.
1). Cut Down on Your Intake of Added Sugars
I know I'm a broken record by now, but consuming too much sugar puts stress on our bodies in many ways. In terms of our immune system-- when blood sugar is high, our body generates more free radicals, which damage cells. Antioxidants sacrifice an electron to neutralize these free radicals and prevent further damage. It's important to note that inflammation is a natural and normal immune system function. But when inflammation gets out of control due to poor diet choices, our bodies work harder than they need to. So along comes a cold virus, and what do you think happens?...our immune system is overworked and we end up getting sick.
The American Heart Association recommends that adults eat no more than 6 teaspoons of added sugar a day. The average American currently eats 19.5 teaspoons per-day. That adds up to about 66 pounds of added sugar consumed per-person each year. Considering that sugar is naturally occurring in foods like fruit, vegetables...honey, it doesn't take a lot to hit the 6 teaspoon-per-day mark. It takes some getting used to, but after awhile, it becomes second nature to read labels and stay informed about what's really in the food you're eating, especially sneaky added sugars.
2). Eat More Grass-Fed Butter.
Yep. Butter. This info comes directly from the Dietitians at Nutritional Weight and Wellness.
Butter from grass-fed cows is a major source of heart-healthy nutrients. Butter contains about 400 kinds of fatty acids, including Omega-3s and medium and short chain fatty acids (MCTs). MCTs support our immune system and boost our metabolism (coconut oil is another great source of MCTs). They're also converted directly into energy in our body. Our muscles and organs, including our brain, can use them as fuel.
Butter from grass-fed cows is also higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which provides protection against different types of cancer and helps the body build muscle and burn fat.
Additional benefits: it's an excellent source of Vitamin A (plays a crucial role in the formation and maintenance of teeth, skeletal and soft tissue, mucus membranes and skin, and is essential for reproduction and breastfeeding), Arachidonic Acid (ARA)-- important to optimal immune response, and Vitamin K2.
Studies in recent years have shown no connection between Saturated fat consumption and heart disease, so you can put that myth to rest.
3). Aim for 8-9 Hours of Sleep Each Night
As a pregnant lady who pees no less than 2-3 times during the night, I get that this can be really difficult for a lot of people. There are many nights it takes me a long time to fall back asleep. But I've found ways to combat this issue, by incorporating consistent sleep habits, such as getting into bed as soon as I'm tired. Going to bed earlier is a good way to ensure you get in all the quality sleep you need in a night-- especially if you're woken up frequently, like by babies, kids...or your bladder. For every excuse we make, there is a solution, and it usually involves trading one thing for another. Consistency, though, is key.
According to the US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a study conducted on people who slept less than 6 hours a night for a week showed significant changes in the activity of genes that govern the immune system, metabolism, sleep and wake cycles, and the body's response to stress, which suggests that poor sleep could have a large impact on long-term wellbeing.
4). Eat a Variety of Whole Foods and LOTS of Them.
I'm not a deprivation Nutritionist. I don't support eliminating foods unless you're going to replace them with something else. The reason for this? Eliminating foods can be thought of as "eliminating nutrients" especially if you're eliminating them for a goal like weight loss. Yes, dieters are extremely susceptible to catching colds and flus because most diets involve deprivation.
What should we do instead? Replace processed foods with whole foods. It's a bit more complex than that, but not much. You can't control the ingredients restaurants use or your aunt uses when you're over for dinner, but you can control the food in your own home. So keep the ingredients you buy simple and real.
Opt for seeds and whole grains, like quinoa and brown rice, in place of refined and processed carbs like white rice and white bread. Seeds and Whole grains are packed with fiber, B vitamins, and minerals like iron, magnesium, and selenium.
Eat fruit in place of refined and processed sugars (it's amazing how many recipes you can swap out cane sugar with fruit and hardly notice a difference). The health benefits of eating fruit far outweigh the short high you get from eating something sweet and sugary with little-to-no nutritional value.
Opt for plain Greek Yogurt or Cottage Cheese in place of flavored yogurt or parfaits. This goes for milk-- dairy and non-dairy-- as well. Acai bowls are on the top of my list of "things to avoid unless it's pre/post workout." The amount of sugar in a lot of foods like this that are disguised as healthy is astonishing. Keep in mind, you're more insulin sensitive after working out, so that is the best time to have sugar in any form.
As a rule of thumb, the closer the food is to its natural form, the higher the nutrient quality of that food. Quality is so important.
Don't eliminate foods or food groups. Replace them. And replace them with a lot of variety to boost bio-availability and absorption to meet your daily intake needs.
Unless your immune system is compromised, you likely don't need much supplementation to boost your immune system. Vitamin C, D, B-12 and Calcium are super important, but you can find these in fortified Milk or Almond Milk, camu camu powder (add to a smoothie or yogurt-- it's a Vitamin C superfood), grass-fed meat (B-12-- you need a supplement or shot if you're vegetarian or vegan), vegetables, fruit...we can eat our vitamins, but it does take consistent effort.