Behaviors and nutritional tips that can energize the immune system to help protect against disease and fight off infection
Over the past months COVID-19 has drastically changed our lives. With schools closing and people working from home, it has seemed like a different world.
Even with following all precautions and practicing social distancing, there’s still a threat that one could come into contact with the virus. So you may be wondering what you could be doing to keep your immune system strong.
The immune system’s overall function is to limit and prevent infection. This incredible system can distinguish between your body’s healthy and unhealthy cells, and when it receives a signal of an unhealthy cell it responds to the problem.1
Cells can become unhealthy when they come into contact with certain pernicious viruses and bacteria. When the immune system is healthy and functioning properly it acts to address these “bugs” and solve them before they ever become a problem. However, when the immune system is compromised, bacteria and viruses can quickly cause an infection or allergy, which may cause inflammation and other problems throughout the body.
The immune system is a complex system, and a critical factor in staying healthy, especially in times when exposure to germs and viruses is widespread (like what most of the world is facing now).
Let’s dive into what you can do to help keep the immune system strong, and how nutrition can help play a role.
You may have heard about these things called macronutrients. The big three — Carbohydrates, protein, and fat. But what about all the little nutrients that go along with these macronutrients?
Micronutrients are the vitamins and minerals that are necessary for energy production, immune health, fluid balance, and much much more.
Consuming adequate amounts of vitamins and minerals is essential for overall health and wellness. A useful guide to the amount of micronutrients needed to be consumed daily can be found on the USDA website for vitamins and minerals.
Reaching these daily values can be a daunting task but consuming a wholesome diet rich in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables along with whole grains, nuts and legumes, other lean protein sources, and low fat dairy, will help reach these goals. If your diet is lacking in one or more of these areas, you may be missing key micronutrients in your daily intake.
Antioxidants are natural compounds that may prevent or delay cell damage.2 Consuming a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in your daily diet can increase your antioxidant levels. A few antioxidants you’ve probably heard of are vitamins C, vitamin E, selenium, and beta-carotene.
Free radicals are harmful products that occur naturally from converting food to energy, radiation from the sun, exercise, and more.2 Oxidative stress is another harmful property that plays a role in diseases like cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. Antioxidants have been shown to reduce free radicals and oxidative stress in the body. These antioxidants may not always be able to prevent these diseases but they work to offset the stress that is put on the body.
Selenium is a mineral (micronutrient) that is essential to maintaining good health. Selenium can be taken in by the diet in small amounts to reach the recommended dietary allowance (RDA).3
It can be found in many foods, in fortified foods, and dietary supplements. Some foods that have a high amount of selenium are; brazil nuts, tuna, halibut, ham and shrimp.
Selenium aids in the production of antioxidant proteins called selenoproteins. These proteins play a critical role in protecting the body from oxidative stress and damage.
Zinc is another trace mineral (micronutrient) that plays a role in your body's immune system, metabolism function, and protein synthesis.4 Zinc can be naturally found in foods and is also fortified in most over-the-counter cold remedies.
Most meat and shellfish contain high amounts of zinc; beef, crab, and oysters are especially high. It can also be found in fortified breakfast cereals, chickpeas, oatmeal, and almonds.
Drinking enough water on a regular basis is important to keep your body hydrated and functioning properly. But hydration becomes especially important when your body is fighting off illness.
Staying sufficiently hydrated allows the lymphatic system to rid our body of the bad stuff (toxins, etc). Drinking water combined with electrolytes can help with balancing fluid throughout your cells. This additional fluid will help with flushing out toxins, rehydrating sick cells, and regulating your body's temperature. Dehydration slows down that process, weakening the immune system.
Along with ridding the body of toxins, staying hydrated allows the body to move nutrients through your blood. Transporting these nutrients may help with keeping cells hydrated and healthy to fight off infection.
Exercise is known to have a positive effect on your immune system in many different ways. Physical activity increases heart rate and internal body temperature. This increase can help with fighting bacteria and flushing out the lungs and airways.
Exercise can also help with increasing the antioxidant activity in your body. Antioxidants are unique in the once they are used they cannot be reused. This means having a high concentration of antioxidants in the body will aid in reducing free radicals. As we exercise, the more antioxidants we will make, leaving us more protected.6
Exercise is great for you, no doubt about it. However, overdoing it and going too hard or too long while in a compromised state can be counterproductive and can lead to further suppression of immune function.
Research also shows consuming carbohydrates during exercise can help maintain the immune system's effectiveness against illness.7 So consuming your INFINIT pre or intra workout blend might help keep your immune system strong through intense bouts of training, if you start feeling unusually tired or worn down, take a break and listen to your body!
Sleep can have a serious impact on your immune system. Not getting quality sleep or enough sleep can weaken your body’s defense system, which can leave you more susceptible to becoming ill.
To boost your immune system make sure you are getting enough sleep each night to recover your body. While you are sleeping your immune system releases proteins called “cytokines”, these cytokines improve the quality of sleep. When your body has an infection or sickness, certain cytokines need to be released to solve these problems.5 But if the body is sleep deprived, these proteins will not be as effective in fighting off illness.
Looking on the bright side, there is one positive that COVID-19 has provided us. It has either refreshed our memory’s or introduced us all to the importance of washing your hands. Hand washing is one of the best practices to keep diseases from entering the body.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Be sure to wash your hands for at least 20 seconds
- Use warm water and antibacterial soap
- Wash both sides of your hands
- Don’t forget your knuckles and finger tips!
The Immune system is a very complex and important part of everyone's body. Taking steps to improving your immune system can boost your defenses against disease.
Nutrition plays a huge role in maintaining good health. So consuming a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein, focusing on antioxidants like selenium and vitamin C, can help fortify your immune system. Keep exercising, getting quality sleep, and keep washing your hands often.
Stay strong, stay hydrated, stay distanced.
About the Author
Blake Brauning, RD is a Registered Dietitian and Formulation Specialist. He has been with INFINIT Nutrition for over a year, and has quickly earned the title of the INFINIT Swiss Army Dietitian. Blake has held the role of Formulation Specialist, Interim Sponsorship Director, and has even recently jumped into some supportive Quality Control operations. Blake can always been found around food and is an exercise enthusiast, he enjoys the grit of crossfit and the exhaustion of conditioning.
- Overview of the Immune System. (2013, December). Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://www.niaid.nih.gov/research/immune-system-overview
- Antioxidants: In Depth. (2016, May 4). Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/antioxidants/introduction.htm
- Office of Dietary Supplements - Selenium. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Selenium-HealthProfessional/
- Office of Dietary Supplements - Zinc. (n.d.). Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Zinc-HealthProfessional/
- Can lack of sleep make you sick? (2018, November 28). Retrieved March 25, 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/lack-of-sleep/faq-20057757
- Jeukendrup A. Exercise is the best antioxidant. askerjeukendrup. https://www.mysportscience.com/single-post/2018/06/10/Exercise-is-the-best-antioxidant. Published June 10, 2018. Accessed April 2, 2020.
- Gunzer W, Konrad M, Pail E. Exercise-Induced Immunodepression in Endurance Athletes and Nutritional Intervention with Carbohydrate, Protein and Fat — What Is Possible, What Is Not? Nutrients. 2012;4(9):1187-1212. doi:10.3390/nu4091187.