The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is having a profound effect on the entire world. Cities, states and even entire countries have been shut down in an effort to stop the spread of this invisible and sometimes deadly enemy. Since the world’s top medical experts are saying it will take at least a year to a year and a half to develop an effective coronavirus vaccine, we’re all left wondering what we can do in the meantime to protect ourselves and our families.
You might be surprised to learn that there are, in fact, a number of things you can do to protect yourself and help strengthen your body’s first line of defense — your immune system.
3 Key Ways to Boost Your Immune System
You’ve probably heard people describe our efforts to curb the coronavirus as a war. Actually that’s a pretty good metaphor — both for the actions being taken in our communities and for how your own individual body is fighting to keep you healthy.
When a foreign invader like the coronavirus tries to attack your body, your immune system goes on full alert, gathers its forces and mounts an attack on the invading virus. The stronger your immune system is, the better chance it has of killing the virus before it can cause significant damage.
1. How Sleep Supports Your Immune System
One of the best things you can do to make sure your immune army is in tip-top fighting shape is to make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep. While you’re sleeping is when your body both produces and releases cytokines, a type of small protein that works with your immune system to target infection and inflammation. Conversely, when you don’t get enough sleep, your cytokine army gets depleted and the order to go to battle is not given.
Another group of soldiers in your immune system’s army, natural killer cells (NK cells), act as sentries. They are a type of white blood cell that recognizes and rejects viruses. A 1994 study found that when people were deprived of four hours of sleep for just one night, NK cell activity was reduced by 72%. That’s a shocking number and underscores the importance of getting adequate sleep every single night. Although this part of the study was somewhat scary, another aspect of the study brought more encouraging news. After getting a full night’s sleep the following night, the participants’ NK cell activity returned to baseline.
How Much Sleep Do You Need?
You may be wondering just how much sleep you need to keep your immune system functioning optimally. A 2015 study published in Sleep Health reviewed 11 years of medical and scientific research on sleep duration and the related health consequences. After analyzing the data, the National Sleep Foundation recommended the following appropriate sleep ranges for individuals based on age.
Hours of Sleep
Newborns (0-3 months)
Infants (4-11 months)
Toddlers (1-2 years)
Preschoolers (3-5 years)
School-age Children (6-13 years)
Teenagers (14-17 years)
Younger adults (18-25 years)
Adults (26-64 years)
Older adults (65+ years)
The National Sleep Foundation does note that the amount of sleep needed for any given individual may vary based on things like health issues and risk factors. If you have a chronic illness or a compromised immune system, you may require more sleep than the average person in your age group.
Of course, since one symptom of many chronic illnesses is an inability to sleep well, you may be wondering what you’re supposed to do. There is no one answer that works for everyone, but here are a few articles that may help you find a solution that is right for you.
2. Foods That Nourish and Strengthen Your Immune System
In order to be in top fighting condition, an army needs to be well nourished. Your immune army is no different. Eating foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants will help keep your immune system in its best fighting form.
Foods to Eat
Sadly over the past few decades, for many of us, eating a home-cooked meal has come to be a rare treat rather than a normal daily occurrence. As our lives have gotten busier and more complicated, we’ve turned to eating out or picking up fast food rather than cooking nutritious meals ourselves. But now that we’re being told to stay home and shelter in place due to the coronavirus, it’s a perfect time to dust off those pots and pans and focus on feeding our bodies healthy foods that strengthen our immune systems.
Subscribe to the World's Most Popular ME-CFS Newsletter (it's free!)
The following nutrient-rich foods can go a long way toward helping support your immune system:
Fruits – Apples, berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, melons and papaya
Vegetables – Bell peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, mushrooms, spinach and sweet potatoes
Proteins – Beef, eggs, fish, legumes, poultry and yogurt
Grains – Brown rice, buckwheat, farro, oats and quinoa (stick with whole grains)
Nuts – Almonds, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, pistachios and walnuts
Seeds – Chia seeds, flax seeds and sunflower seeds
Fats – Avocados, butter (preferably grass-fed), coconut oil and olive oil
Herbs / Spices – Black pepper, cinnamon, garlic and ginger
Beverages – Coconut water, green tea, kombucha tea, kefir and water (purified or spring)
Foods to Avoid
As important as it is to eat nutritious whole foods, it’s equally important to avoid eating a lot of processed foods that are full of additives, preservatives, sugars and/or artificial sweeteners. All of these ingredients can take a serious toll on your health in general and specifically on your immune system’s ability to function at its best.
Here are some examples of food categories that should be limited or avoided altogether to support a healthy immune system:
- Processed Foods – Prepackaged foods including mixes, frozen meals, canned foods, lunchmeat / hot dogs and fast food
- Refined Carbs – Chips, crackers, pasta and white bread
- High Sugar Foods / Beverages – If sugar or another sweetener is listed as one of the first two or three ingredients, it should be avoided. Some examples include: sweetened cereals, sodas, sports drinks and energy drinks.
3. Supplements That Help Boost Your Immune System
As much as we’d like to think that we can get all of the nutrition we need from our food, the fact is that most of us are deficient in one or more of the nutrients necessary to maintain a strong immune system. Now more than ever, it’s important to make sure we’re giving our immune army every weapon possible to fight off this coronavirus enemy.
Following are some immune system-supporting supplements to consider:
- Vitamin C – Vitamin C is at the top of most lists when it comes to immune system support. It’s a powerful antioxidant that protects your cells from harmful free radicals and helps your white blood cells protect you from invading pathogens.
- Zinc – Zinc plays an important role in immune cell development and communication as well as your body’s inflammatory response.
- Vitamin D3 – Vitamin D3 boosts your white blood cells’ ability to fight off invaders and helps reduce inflammation. A 2011 article in the Journal of Investigative Medicine noted that a vitamin D deficiency was associated with an increased susceptibility to infection. And in 2009, the National Institutes of Health reported on a study that associated low vitamin D levels with colds and flu. They said that “vitamin D may play a role in helping the immune system ward off respiratory diseases like the common cold.”
- ZMA – ZMA is a synergistic blend of zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6. In addition to the fact that each of these nutrients plays an important role in immune system support, the blend of all three is particularly good at promoting the restful, restorative sleep that is so essential to keeping your immune army strong and ready to fight.
- Guaifenesin – Guaifenesin has been described as “the first level of immune defense” because it helps your mucus membranes do what they’re supposed to do — wash away invading pathogens and allergens. As a powerful expectorant, guaifenesin helps loosen and liquefy mucus, then expels it from the body by coughing.
Of course, the best case scenario for any army is not to be attacked in the first place. To that end, it’s important to follow the CDC guidelines on how to protect yourself and avoid being exposed to the coronavirus. However, there are no guarantees with such a highly infectious virus. Despite your best efforts, it’s possible that you may inadvertently come in contact with it. Therefore, the best thing you can do for yourself is to make sure your immune army is prepared and your immune system is as strong and healthy as possible.
May you be safe, be careful and be well.
Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth’s Editor-in-Chief. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) in 1997 and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE magazine. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, then worked for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network before coming to ProHealth. To learn more about Karen, see “Meet Karen Lee Richards.
Irwin M, Mascovich A, Gillin JC, et al. Partial sleep deprivation reduces natural killer cell activity in humans. Psychosomatic Medicine. 1994 Nov-Dec;56(6):493-8. doi: 10.1097/00006842-199411000-00004
Hirshkowitz M, Whiton K, Albert SM, et al. National Sleep Foundations’s sleep time duration recommendations: methodology and results summary. Sleep Health. 2015 Mar;1(1):40-43. doi: 10.1016/j.sleh.2014.12.010.
Aranow C. Vitamin D and the Immune System. J Investig Med. 2011 Aug; 59(6): 881–886. doi: 10.231/JIM.0b013e31821b8755
Duval W. Low Vitamin D levels associated with colds and flu. National Institutes of Health. March 9, 2009.