At present, there is little we can read in the media that is not related to COVID19, and one of the main topics with which we might encounter is; how to avoid getting the virus, or how to prepare your body in case you can’t avoid getting infected. So, no wonder we have been hearing and reading so much about “boosting your immune system” and what foods might help. However, is it true that we can actually “boost” our immune system only with food?
Let’s start by understanding how our immune system actually works. We have three types of response to a possible threat. First, we have the natural barriers which include the skin, mucus, membranes, tears, earwax and stomach acid, and which main purpose is to defend our body from organisms that can cause infection by making it difficult to enter. Then, when the barriers are not enough, we have the innate immune response, which involves internal signaling and the release of chemicals and cells that will induce our body in the fight against the threat.
Nonetheless, when this is still not enough we have what is called adaptive immune system, and this third component is characterized by the release of cells that are specific to the pathogen that the body is fighting, these cells are not only responsible for creating a specific “memory” in our bodies, hence preventing us from getting infected again, but they also are the cause of an inflammatory reaction in our bodies which is what ultimately causes us malaise when we are sick.
Saying we would like to “boost” our immune system wouldn’t, therefore, be as desired as one might think, because this could also mean that our body could have an exaggerated reaction causing us lots of discomfort and worsening the symptoms. Still, we do want to have a good response from our immune system to be capable of fighting pathogens and this can be achieved by having a healthy lifestyle which involves a lot more than just some specific foods.
While there is no specific information as to how being active improves our immune response, there is a lot of evidence relating health with an increased physical activity. The best part is, you don’t need to be vigorously active, moderate physical activity is already beneficial. Aim to 30-60 minutes of brisk walk, at least 5 times per week.
Get Enough Sleep
Even if we feel that our body is resting while sleeping, it is still working on some important functions. To mention a few; during sleep our immune system release cytokines which we need when we are fighting infections. Furthermore, there is evidence showing a reduced number of antibodies and defense cells as a consequence of sleep deprivation. Also, lack of sleep has been related to a major risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which imply a weak immune response.
In order to be healthy we should sleep 7-8 hours for adults, 10 hours for teenagers, and 10 or more hours for school-aged children.
In stressful situations our body releases a hormonal response that cause a decrease in body’s lymphocytes (defense cells), thus, this makes our bodies less capable of fighting pathogens. Moreover, prolonged stress can also lead to higher levels of inflammation, consequently leading to a tired, overworked immune system.
Sometimes, is difficult to control the situations that stress us, but we can learn to have a better response to them. Meditation and yoga can help in this process.
The market is flooded with multivitamins, antioxidant pills, probiotics, and different types of products that promise to boost your immune system. But the truth is, there is absolutely no evidence that these products can help you if you already have a healthy and complete diet.
While vitamin C, and other antioxidants are a key part in the process of developing a strong immune system. It is unlikely that you have a deficiency of such nutrients, therefore, making it completely unnecessary to use these supplements. On the other hand, while a healthy microbiota has been linked to overall healthy individuals, there is not enough evidence to support the benefits of probiotics, instead it is recommended to have a balanced, varied, healthy diet to create a proper environment and develop a good microbiota. Even, if there is no harm in using these types of supplements, it would be better to invest our resources and time in things that could actually help us.
As for Vitamin D…
Vitamin D is the only micronutrient which has been proven to be likely deficient in people with standard diets, and several studies have linked low vitamin D levels to higher risk of respiratory infections, and more severe symptoms once individuals get infected. In fact, there is evidence showing an important role of Vitamin D in the innate and adaptive immune responses, making it a key target to monitor while evaluating our diets.
Being quarantined may suppose an obstacle for us to have a sunlight bath (which by the way is one of the ways our body gets its vitamin D). But, don’t worry we can find this nutrient in many common foods such as:
- Fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sardines)
- Cod fish oil.
- Beef liver.
- Egg yolks.Wild mushrooms
- Fortified foods (milk, orange juice, cereals and oatmeals, soy milk.)