Facts (and Myths) about Boosting the Immune System
By Sumathi Reddy,
As the new coronavirus continues to spread across the country, having an optimally functioning immune system is more important than ever.
Medical professionals say it is important not to rush to buy supplements and vitamins that promise to enhance your immune system; there isn’t much evidence that such products do any good. Instead, they say, stick with the more mundane, but proven, approaches:
• Keep your stress levels down. It’s a bit of a vicious cycle, of course: The more you stress about the virus, the more likely you are to suffer from it. “Stress can certainly hurt your immune system,” says Morgan Katz, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins University. “Do not panic, try to minimize stress.”
Andrew Diamond, chief medical officer of One Medical, a nationwide network of primary-care providers, says the stress hormone cortisol turns off cells in your immune system. He recommends engaging in activities that people find relaxing, such as meditation.
• Exercise. Low- and moderate-intensity exercise naturally lowers cortisol levels and helps with immune-system function, says Dr. Diamond. One Medical recommends 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day. If you’re apprehensive about germs in the gym, walk or run outside.
But it is important not to go overboard. A recent study found high-performance athletes have an increased risk of infection, says Elizabeth Bradley, medical director of the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine. “Exercise helps boost the immune system, but we have to be careful not to overexercise because it can weaken your immune system,” she says.
• Get adequate sleep. For adults, that means getting seven to eight hours of sleep a night. Children should get more, depending on their age.
• Make sure your vaccines are up-to-date, especially the flu vaccine.
• Eat plenty of plain yogurt every day. “It’s really an easy way to boost your probiotics and help support your microbiome,” Dr. Katz says. “It helps to support the good bacteria that live in your body, which help to fight bad bacteria or viruses.”
Dr. Katz also suggests avoiding antibiotics unless you must take them because they deplete the good bacteria in the system, leaving you more vulnerable to other infections.
Other foods that can help support the microbiome include garlic, onion, ginger, sauerkraut and fermented foods, says Dr. Bradley.
Dr. Bradley recommends eating lots of dark green, leafy vegetables and berries, as well as nuts and seeds, and to minimize foods with sugar and trans fats, which aren’t as nutrient-dense.
Your immune system needs fuel, so avoid ultra low-carbohydrate diets, experts say. In addition, drink lots of water and reduce alcohol consumption, which can disrupt your sleep.
• Stop smoking or vaping. Smokers and those with respiratory disease have a higher rate of serious illness and complications from coronavirus. “Anything that is challenging to your lungs is going to work in the wrong direction,” says Dr. Diamond.