5 Steps to a Stronger Immune System

When the weather’s cooled down and the days have gotten shorter, the likelihood of catching illnesses from colds to the flu rises. Thankfully, you can take steps to support your immune system during the winter months to help give you the best chance of fighting off infections.

We are all constantly under attack from the germs that surround us. Luckily, our body is built with a fantastic system of defending itself. Although this defense system is powerful, it can be overwhelmed if we don’t provide our body with the nutrients it needs to function at its peak. That’s why we turned to the experts to highlight the five simple steps to support a stronger immune system—so that you can stay healthy and active no matter how cold the weather gets outside.

Eat a nutrient-rich diet

“The best way to support your immune health during the winter is to make sure that you’re eating plenty of nutrient-dense foods,” explains functional medicine practitioner Anya Rosen, MS, RD, LD, CPT. A meal plan rich in whole foods, including vegetables and fruits along with whole grains, nuts, seeds, and beans, may be one of the best strategies when it comes to overall health. “These foods are part of the Mediterranean diet which has been shown to influence the immune system and reduce risk for disease,” adds Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD, owner of Sound Bites Nutrition. “The antioxidants found in these foods may protect cells from damage and also provide nutrients to support the necessary components of the immune system.”

Although almost all nutrients play a role in supporting the body’s immune system, a few stand out from the crowd. Less sunlight exposure during the winter months can lower levels of vitamin D in the body, which can be a concern when it comes to supporting the immune system. 

“When vitamin D levels are low, it can negatively impact the immune system in terms of increasing risk for both developing an infection, as well as autoimmune disease,” explains Sharon Puello, MA, RD, CDCES, who points out that common dietary habits such as tossing the egg yolk or cutting dietary fat too low may be more harmful than helpful. “Vitamin D needs dietary fat along with it in order to be absorbed, so avoid cutting the fat from vitamin D rich foods like dairy unless you consume it with another good source of dietary fat.”

Adequate intake of vitamin C and zinc are also essential to overall immune support. “Zinc deficiency could result in immune dysfunction by impacting the development of killer T cells and B-cells, which protect the body from disease,” explains Andrews. Vitamin C, on the other hand, acts as a powerful antioxidant, helping to reduce oxidative stress in the body and promote healing. 

Filling your plate with a variety of dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, and yellow and orange produce can help you to boost your vitamin C intake, while eating a good source of whole grains along with nuts and seeds can help you to meet your daily zinc needs.

Support your gut health

As much as 70 percent of your immune system resides in your gut, so supporting gut health goes a long way in helping your immune system to perform at its best. “Make sure you are feeding the beneficial bacteria in the gut by eating a varied and fiber-rich diet,” explains Rosen. This includes eating a variety of produce, legumes, whole grains, nuts, and seeds, along with fermented foods. “Including fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kim chi, kombucha, and sauerkraut in the diet can be a good way to improve gut biodiversity,” adds Andrews.

Eating foods rich in selenium may benefit gut health as well. “Dietary selenium can help promote favorable levels of microbes in your gut,” shares Puello. Although this nutrient is found in animal proteins such as fish, pork, beef, and turkey, there are plant-based ways to meet your needs as well. “Brazil nuts are well known for their selenium content, with just a few nuts providing all your selenium needs for the week!” adds Puello.

Use beneficial seasonings

Consider not just what you eat, but how you flavor your food when it comes to supporting your immune system. “There are many nutrients naturally packed in plants which can help support the immune system, including oregano and cloves, which both have natural antiviral and antifungal properties,” states Puello. 

Try sprinkling oregano onto everything from sauces to dressings, marinades, and even in omelets. Cloves can be used in sweet recipes such as in pumpkin pie, but also added into savory dishes such as stews and curries. “Oregano and cloves can even be consumed in teas—either homemade or store bought,” adds Puello.

Limit excessive alcohol consumption

It can be tempting to warm up with a glass of mulled wine or spiked eggnog on a cold winter’s night, but excessive consumption of alcohol may have a negative impact on overall health. “Drinking alcohol compromises your immune system both on its own and by displacing other more nutrient-dense foods,” explains Rosen. 

To help prevent this, follow the recommendations from the 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which recommends adults of legal drinking age who choose to drink limit their intake to two drinks or less in a day for men or one drink or less in a day for women.

(If you are imbibing more alcohol—as many do during the festive season—no judgment here! But, if you want to avoid holiday headaches, make sure that you have an 8-ounce glass of water before you drink any kind of alcohol and a glass of water for each alcoholic drink to help stave off dehydration.) 

Make sure to meet your energy needs

After the excess of winter holiday celebrations, it may be tempting to significantly cut back on your calorie intake, but resist the urge to follow restrictive diets. “Consuming sufficient overall calories from protein, fat, and carbs is important since under-eating can weaken the immune system,” says Rosen. 

If you do wish to reduce your overall calorie intake, do so moderately with a reduction of no more than 250 to 500 calories per day to help promote healthy weight loss, if needed, without reducing your ability to meet your overall nutrient and energy needs.

Taking on an intuitive eating approach may be a better method to help you get back on track. A non-diet approach to nutrition, intuitive eating may help you learn to interact positively with food while maintaining a healthy weight, without stress or food guilt. The key is becoming attuned to your body’s hunger and satiation signals, rather than eating on a set schedule—or mindlessly scarfing down appetizers at holiday soirees, followed by a strict detox diet in January. Read more about it here

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