There are many things you can do to keep your immune system strong to lessen the severity of illnesses like the common cold, flu and even COVID. Mackenzie McCune, Registered Dietitian at Shore Medical Center, offers the following tips to keep your immune system tuned up and ready to fight infection.
- Exercise regularly. Plan for 150 minutes each week of moderate exercise. Make a goal and stick with what works for you: a 20-minute walk or yoga session each day or 50-minute-high intensity training three times a week.
- Eat a healthy balanced diet. Make your diet high in fruits and vegetables as recommended by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Use the MyPlate technique to determine what your portions should look like for each meal. An easy method to add fruit and vegetables is to put lettuce and tomato on a sandwich, toss some berries in plain Greek yogurt or make a snack of apples and peanut butter.
- Maintain a healthy weight. The best way to keep weight under control is with exercise along with a balanced diet. Take the time to make an appointment and talk with a registered dietitian to see what your healthy weight should be and how to incorporate a balanced diet into your daily routine to help you reach and maintain a healthy weight.
- Get quality sleep. Establish a routine and practice good sleep hygiene. Power down all electronics an hour before going to bed, don’t watch TV in bed, and refrain from drinking water too close to bedtime to decrease frequent waking.
- Reduce Stress. Stress plays a powerful role in the immune function. Stress can directly affect our gut and weaken our immune system. Be sure to include activities every day that help to manage stress: meditation, exercise, connecting with loved ones, going for a walk and finding hobbies you enjoy like painting or crafting.
- Limit or eliminate alcohol. Drinking regularly can weaken your immune system and cause you to get sick more frequently.
- Examine the Over-the-Counter Vitamins. Before adding vitamins to your regimen, take a long look at what is in your diet. Eating a high quality diet can meet the recommended daily vitamin requirements. Our bodies absorb vitamins and minerals more efficiently through food than via supplements. McCune advises that while a multivitamin is okay to incorporate into your daily routine, avoid megadoses of a single vitamin, which may result in stomach cramps or diarrhea.
- Vitamin C is tops for fighting off infection. It has shown to shorten the duration of a cold and act like a natural antihistamine and anti-inflammatory agent. The best source of vitamin C is citrus fruits but don’t forget delicious other sources like bell peppers, strawberries, and papaya, also high in vitamin C. Likewise, dark leafy greens like spinach, kale, and Brussels sprouts are loaded as well. Incorporate vitamin C in snacks as well like bell peppers and hummus or strawberries and chocolate hummus or add spinach to an omelet or sandwich.
- Vitamin E also does its part to help your body fight off infection. To increase vitamin E, think high-fat plant foods like peanuts and peanut butter, hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, and oils like sunflower, safflower and soybean. Pairing nuts with a favorite citrus fruit team up to meet your need for vitamin C and E, nicely packed into one snack.
- Vitamin A can be found in animal foods such as fish, meat, dairy and also plant carotenoids. When it comes to carotenoids think color- like carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut squash, cantaloupe and dark green leafy vegetables. Add a sweet potato to the menu at least once a week to boost your vitamin A intake.
- Vitamin D is one of the real powerhouse nutrients to boost the immune system, according to McCune. Food sources for vitamin D include salmon, mackerel, tuna, sardines and vitamin D fortified milk, orange juice and cereals. The very best source of vitamin D is the sun. Use that as motivation to get out and get moving for at least 20 minutes each day. That 20 minutes is a tandem benefit because it gets in the exercise and the natural vitamin D from the sun. Winter months can make that difficult and McCune suggests consulting with your primary care physician to see if vitamin D supplementation is a viable choice for you.
- Folate/Folic Acid- Folate is the natural form and folic acid is a synthetic form. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, folic acid is a B vitamin and our bodies use it to make new cells. Think about the skin, hair, and nails as well as other parts of the body making new cells every day. It is important for women of childbearing age or those considering getting pregnant to take folic acid to reduce chances for neural tubal defects like spina bifida. Incorporate folate by adding foods like beans, lentils, leafy greens, and avocados to your diet. Folic acid sources are foods such as enriched pasta, bread, and rice. “Making a soup with beans and enriched brown rice will ensure you are getting enough of these two nutrients,” said McCune.
- Iron is important in helping your body carry oxygen to cells and plays a part in many of the immune system processes. Your body easily absorbs heme iron which is iron found in animal products such as red meat, chicken, turkey, oysters, clams and canned light tuna. Vegetarians and vegans can get plenty of iron without the meat through beans, broccoli, kale and iron-fortified cereals.
- Zinc is needed for the production of new immune system cells. It is primarily found in oysters, crab, lean meat and poultry, but like iron, zinc is plentiful in a vegetarian diet with options like baked beans, yogurt, and chickpeas. McCune said before considering a zinc supplement, discuss it with your primary care physician as long-term use may result in other deficiencies such as copper.
“Many of the vitamins and minerals are found in dark leafy vegetables. If the pandemic has you making fewer trips to the grocery store to limit exposure, it is okay to choose frozen vegetables over fresh. Manufacturers freeze fruit and vegetables at their peak which means they pack similar nutritional value as fresh,” said McCune. “Just remember to choose plain frozen options compared to those with added sugars, sodium or flavors.”
Would you like help with improving your nutrition? Try scheduling an appointment with Shore’s Outpatient Nutrition Counseling team by calling 609-653-4600, option 5.