10 Essentials This Functional Medicine Doctor Uses To Support Immune Strength
Things feel scary and uncertain right now, I know—but I fully believe the more levelheaded and openhearted we are, the better we will be able to survive and thrive. We have to protect ourselves, our families, and communities. Above all, we have to stay healthy.
This is what I've been focusing on over the last few weeks to support my immunity:
A whole-foods, nutrient-dense diet.
Our immune system relies on nutrient-dense whole foods to function well. Death from infections in the developing world is often due not to the infection itself but the body's inability to fight it because of nutrient deficiencies. Since more than 90% of Americans are deficient in one or more nutrients at the minimum dose to prevent deficiency diseases like scurvy and rickets, we all need to focus on improving the quality of our diet.
Vegetables are the foundation of a nourishing diet, and they provide so many immune-supporting nutrients like vitamin C (red bell peppers, broccoli, and spinach) and carotenoids (carrots, sweet potatoes, and kale). Aim for two servings of fruits and eight or more servings of vegetables a day! (A serving is half a cup.)
Berries, pasture-raised meats, and nuts and seeds are also nutritional powerhouses that will hold up great in the freezer, so you can stay stocked without going out.
Cutting out sugars and refined starches.
There has never been a better time for a sugar and junk food detox. I practice my own 10-day reset several times a year to renew my body and feel great.
Studies have shown that refined sugars can suppress your immune system for hours after ingesting. Limiting starch and sugar will help your immune system function better, and your overall health improves. I'm also limiting caffeine and alcohol right now, too, to really protect my system.
Adequate protein intake.
While most Americans eat adequate amounts of protein, some do not, such as the elderly and vegan populations. Protein is critical for immune function, and protein malnutrition is a big risk factor for death from infections.
Eat approximately 1 gram/kg, or about half your body weight in grams of protein a day, or about two 4-ounce servings of organic, clean animal protein (like grass-fed beef, pasture-raised eggs, or wild-caught salmon). Plant-based proteins (legumes, nuts/seeds) are adequate if consumed in enough quantity. Try gluten-free tofu and tempeh from non-GMO soy for the highest protein concentrations. I've currently got my pantry stocked with dried and canned lentils and beans, and my freezer full of high-quality meat, poultry, and seafood.
Loads of garlic, onion, ginger, and spices.
Garlic, onions and savory spices like turmeric go great with soups and vegetable dishes, as well as bean dips and sauces. Use fresh ginger in your smoothies or tea, along with lemon juice or lemon zest. These offer wide-spectrum antimicrobial properties and have a long shelf life.
Fermented foods to support the microbiome.
The gut plays an essential role in our immunity and acts as a barrier against many types of pathogens. Eat sauerkraut, kimchi, natto, miso, tempeh, unsweetened grass-fed yogurt, and kefir to support diverse and abundant bacterial populations that will keep your microbiome healthy. These foods also keep well in the fridge.
Fluids, especially warmer fluids.
Consuming adequate fluids supports all your body's functions including the immune system. I've been making a lot of bone broth, soups, and stews—which is also a great way not to let anything in the kitchen go to waste.
Drink herbal teas like ginger and turmeric tea. Keep a bottle of filtered water with you at all times. Avoid concentrated fruit juices and sweetened beverages, as the sugar content is harmful to the immune system.
We all know sleep restores and heals the body. Without adequate sleep, optimal immune function is next to impossible! Get in a better rhythm and head to bed earlier, aiming for seven to eight hours a night (which is hopefully easier now that most of us are at home during the day).
Incorporating various relaxation and breathing techniques throughout the day to help with stress and allowing the mind to rest is also very helpful!
Mild to moderate exercise (for approximately 30 to 45 minutes) helps support the immune system. Avoid overexertion such as training for endurance events when you are feeling run-down. This will lower your immune defenses.
If you are able to exercise outside in less populated areas, great. If not, find workouts and yoga classes online; I've been making sure I do something active every day even while I'm staying home.
Meditation and yoga.
The data are clear: Increased levels of stress increase susceptibility to viral infections. In one study, volunteers had cold viruses injected into their nasal passages. Only the ones who scored high on the stress questionnaire succumbed. Now is the time to learn meditation, double down on your practice, do yoga, take hot baths, do deep breathing, practice home massage with your loved ones, and more.
I'm really passionate about my meditation practice, but lately even more so. I find taking a break from all the news (twice a day) and just focusing on my body and breath has been incredibly useful in helping manage stress and anxiety during this time.
And lastly, many people want to know what kinds of supplements they could take right now to optimize immune health. There's plenty of misinformation and profiteering going on to take advantage of those scared about the coronavirus, so here are the trustworthy immune-supporting supplements I recommend and use myself, in addition to the diet and lifestyle tips above:
- Multivitamin/Mineral: This is the foundation for any health support regimen. It's a good way to cover the basic vitamins and minerals your body needs for day-to-day function. If you aren't on a good multivitamin you should get and stay on one. Look for a high-quality, broad-spectrum multivitamin and mineral with active forms of the B vitamins, like methyltetrahydrofolate and methylcobalamin.
- Vitamin D3: Adequate vitamin D status is critical for optimal immune function, and this cannot be achieved without supplementation during the winter months. Studies have shown that people with vitamin D deficiency are 11 times more likely to get a cold or flu, while supplementing with vitamin D can reduce colds and flu by 42%. It is best to get your levels of 25-OH vitamin D checked for accurate dosing. Blood levels should be above 30 ng/mL, however, optimal levels are probably closer to 50 ng/mL for most. Many need 5,000 IU or more of vitamin D3 a day in the winter. Start with 2,000 IU for adults, 1,000 IU for children.
- Buffered vitamin C: The role of vitamin C in supporting the immune system has long been known. Take 500 to 1,000 mg throughout the day with meals and snacks. I like to use a liquid or powder that I can mix in water or smoothies.
- Zinc citrate: You can take an additional supplement or consume more foods high in this powerful immune-supporting nutrient. Seafood—especially oysters—red meat, and pumpkin seeds are the best food sources of zinc. Take 30 mg per day.
- Probiotics: A healthy gut flora supports a healthy gut, a major barrier against pathogens and integral to the immune system. Look for brands that offer several species of good bacteria and contain at least 5 to 10 billion organisms per capsule. Lactobacillus plantarum and spore forms of Bacillus are the best for immunity.
- Fish Oil (Arctic Cod Liver Oil): This old-time remedy for good health and robust immunity still stands true! In addition to the good fats, this cod liver oil contains additional vitamins A and D for added immune protection. I always take this on the days I'm not eating fatty fish like sardines and salmon.
- Natural antiviral herbs: Many herbs have broad-spectrum antimicrobial effects or immune-enhancing effects. Formulas contain different immune supporters such as astragalus, green tea extract, andrographis, and monolaurin.
I know there's a lot to take in right now, but it's imperative we use this time to be kind to ourselves and each other. Take care of your health, and encourage others around you to do the same. With these trusted tips, we can ensure our immune systems are ready, willing, and able.
Dr. Mark Hyman is a practicing family physician and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in the field of Functional Medicine. He is the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, a 13-time New York Times best-selling author, and Board President for Clinical Affairs for The Institute for Functional Medicine. He is the host of one of the leading health podcasts, The Doctor’s Farmacy. Dr. Hyman is a regular medical contributor on several television shows and networks, including CBS This Morning, Today, Good Morning America, The View, and CNN. He is also an advisor and guest co-host on The Dr. Oz Show.