The concept of our immune system is so vague, so abstract – we can’t see it, touch it, or hear it. It’s hard for us to visualize, yet we’re constantly in search of the best ways to support, fortify and boost it.
Whether it’s the common cold, the flu or Coronavirus, these key strategies can protect us year-round, serving to reduce our risk of getting sick. And – even better – many of these stay-well strategies also serve to elevate our mood and our energy.
There’s the obvious, the stuff we know: Mask up. Wash your hands like it’s your job. Use sanitizer liberally, both on your hands and on surfaces. Maintain proper social distance. And if you do get sick or have any symptoms at all – please, do your part and stay home.
Then there’s the not-so-obvious, like our sleep patterns and our gut health.
Sleep is essential for optimal immune function. Sleep deprivation, simply put, leaves us vulnerable. Multiple studies show a correlation between sleep and immune system, with the odds of getting sick as much as four times higher in people who get less than six hours of sleep per night.
Gut health is everything. Our gastrointestinal (GI) system is filled with millions of bacteria, a vast community of microorganisms that populate our intestine and support our GI function. These microbes also directly influence our immune system.
An imbalance in this microbial population living inside of us can compromise our immune system, in part by leading to ‘leaky gut’– also referred to as ‘intestinal hyperpermeability’ – which means that pro-inflammatory compounds and toxins can make their way from our gut into our bloodstream where they can wreak havoc on our whole-body health.
So many behavioral and environmental factors can negatively affect our gut bacteria, including antibiotics, alcohol and a sedentary lifestyle. Factors that can positively benefit our gut bacteria include fiber-rich vegetables and fruits, regular exercise and probiotics.
Probiotics are linked to a full spectrum of health benefits, particularly gut support, which plays a key role in immune system. Probiotics have been shown to prevent upper respiratory infection; people with probiotic-rich diets tend to get sick less often, and for those who do, the duration is shorter. Top sources of probiotics include yogurt, kefir and kombucha. If you opt for probiotic supplements, look for live active cultures that are refrigerated, versus products that have potentially been sitting on shelves for months.
Vitamin D | 5000 IU. Maintaining optimal blood levels of vitamin D appears to help maintain our body’s defense against infection – vitamin D receptors are found in most immune cells, and vitamin D supplements have been shown to lower the incidence of respiratory tract infections. Several studies have also shown that people with low levels of vitamin D are more likely to test positive for Coronoavirus than those with normal levels.
We make D from sunlight; it’s also found in low levels in foods like milk and salmon. It’s challenging to get enough through our diet, though, so I typically recommend supplementing with 5000 IU vitamin D, especially for those who aren’t getting at least 15 minutes of direct sunlight on a regular basis.
Zinc, especially in the form of lozenges, may prevent viruses from multiplying or attaching to our throat and nose. A handful of trials have shown that taking 75 mg zinc lozenges daily translated to 1-3 days fewer symptoms for colds, while others studies show no benefit. The short answer is that zinc may be an effective prevention or treatment strategy for some people but not others.
Vitamin C doesn’t prevent most people from catching a cold but may shorten the duration by a few days. In ultra-endurance athletes, however, supplementing with vitamin C has been shown to significantly reduce risk of cold, as much as 50 percent.
There are no completed controlled trials of vitamin C in patients with Covid, though more than 30 studies are underway, and reports of using vitamin C to treat patients with respiratory conditions are promising, with few safety concerns.
If you choose to supplement with C, I typically recommend 1,000 mg vitamin C, ideally in divided doses.