I started this blog because people have been coming out of the woodwork to ask my advice about whether or not there is something that they can do to bolster their immune systems during these uncertain times. My patients and my family will get an individualized treatment protocol to answer that question, and anyone with access to a Naturopathic doctor, herbalist, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) practitioner, or other qualified integrative health professional also has this advantage. But, what about everyone else? It’s hard for me to watch the helplessness and hopelessness around this situation without shouting from the rooftops, “We are not powerless in the face of viruses. There are many things that we can do to improve our immunity to help prevent, shorten or lessen the severity of a virus in our bodies.” Don’t get me wrong. I’m worried too. And, when I first saw the writing on the wall about what was coming our way, I had several sleepless nights. But, then I made-a-plan and ordered what I needed to get my immune system optimized and instructed my family and patients to do the same. And, even though the following suggestions won’t make any of us bulletproof, I know that I’m giving myself and “my people” a better shot at weathering the storm. I want everyone to be “my people.” I want everyone to get the benefit of having a Naturopathic physician on their team, so this post is my attempt to get helpful information out to those who would like to receive it. That said, there is no substitute for individualized advice. For example, glycyrrhiza (licorice) is an excellent anti-viral and immunomodulating herb (two for one), but without knowing if you have high blood pressure, an issue with potassium, or are pregnant (all contraindications for this herb), I wouldn’t recommend it universally. All doctors swear an oath to “first do no harm.” In this post, I am simply going to point you in the right direction by laying out my thoughts around boosting immunity and fighting infections. Based on my training, clinical experience and research, there is much that we can do to move from helpless to empowered. Good luck and stay well.
Please note that a new virus may not conform to patterns that we expect in other viruses. But the basics of wellness, prevention, and “building the terrain” (the French concept of strengthening the host to make them less susceptible to infections) all still apply. To do that, you need to prepare your body, supplement supply, and your pantry for the fight. There has never been a better time to support our immune systems than right now. “Support” means not only adding extra health-boosting practices (e.g., taking well-chose vitamins, minerals, and herbs), but also eliminating those things that take a toll on our systems, thus draining our immune system’s resources (e.g. smoking).
To optimize your ability to ward off infections or rebound quickly if you do get an infection, you want to:
- Sleep well. This is crucial right now and many of us are having trouble with it due to a new degree of anxiety around the virus that has shut down the world. More in-depth “sleep solutions” help is coming in a future post, but, for a start, try following some basic sleep hygiene guidelines, such as:
- Restrict your news consumption to earlier in the day, and/or watch it less frequently.
- Turn off all screens at least an hour before trying to go to sleep. I know that this feels annoying but just try it. You can still read a book, do some gentle stretching, talk to your partner, listen to music, take a bath with a candle and a book and some Epsom salts (heaven).
- Reduce or stop all alcohol consumption. Alcohol affects our circadian rhythms often causing frequent awakening throughout the night.
- Drink enough liquid early in the day so that you aren’t thirsty for a huge amount right before bed. A full bladder can be disruptive to sleep.
- Avoid caffeine altogether or limit it to early in the day. My personal cut-off for green tea and dark chocolate (both of which have less caffeine than coffee and black tea) is 3:00 pm. Experiment to see what you can tolerate, but don’t ignore the possibility that even a mid-morning coffee could be causing your insomnia or disturbed sleep. We all metabolize caffeine differently. Just because your mother can tolerate it (and I mean lots of it) doesn’t mean that you can.
- Eat well. I designed a three-month seminar series on this issue (www.slendever.com if you are interested), so I have a LOT to say on the subject. The basic ideas when it comes to prevention and immune support are to:
- Feed yourself nutritious food (healthy protein, healthy fat, and vegetables at every meal, and a bit of fruit once or twice a day)
- Keep your blood sugar balanced. Blood sugar imbalances are important to address for your overall health and particularly for your immune system’s health, as imbalances wreck-havoc on the adrenals. Your adrenal glands are responsible for secreting cortisol –a stress hormone—which among other things will pull up a plummeting blood sugar level. Why is your blood sugar plummeting in the first place? Too much sugar/carbohydrate load, leading to an up-spike in insulin, followed by a fast drop in blood sugar. If you are anywhere on the spectrum from slightly shaking if you don’t eat on time, to reactive hypoglycemia, to insulin-resistant, to diabetic, your body is under a huge amount of extra stress. Please work with someone to get your blood sugar in better control. This will help with virus prevention as well as almost every other imaginable disease process. It’s a game-changer.
- Reduce sugar intake. Even if you don’t have any issues with blood sugar imbalances, sugar suppresses the immune system. As Dr. Joseph Pizzorno (one of the giants of the Naturopathic profession) writes in his book “Total Wellness”, “Three ounces of sugar in any form (sucrose, honey, fruit juice) results in a 50% reduction in white cell activity for one to five hours.” He goes on to say that, “The average American consumes a surprising 150 grams of sucrose every day. This does not include other refined simple sugars, such as fruit juice and honey. Given these data, it seems likely that most Americans are chronically suppressing their immune systems with sugar” (Pizzorno, 1998). Please notice that I didn’t say to “avoid” sugar altogether, which is something that I would have said before reading this 2016 study published in Cell. Dr. Medzhitov, professor of immunobiology at Yale, and his team experimented with mice to see if the old adage “Feed a Cold, Starve a Fever” had any merit. Their findings were remarkable. The mice who were infected with a bacterial illness and then fed glucose died. While the mice who were infected with a viral illness lived when fed glucose but died without it. (Wang, 2016) The take-home here is not to go on a sweets binge if you start to get sick, but in this era of ketogenic diets, it makes me wonder aloud whether the keto-ers are unwittingly putting themselves at risk. So, the bottom line is not to eat so much sugar that you suppress your immune system, but not so little that you make your metabolism less resistant to a viral illness. [Author’s note: my husband was giddy with joy when he read this. Visions of sugar plums danced in his head. I had to call off his bake-athon and break it to him that a bit of fruit or a piece of gluten-free toast or a touch of honey in tea would break down to enough glucose to do the trick here.]
- Avoid known food allergies and intolerances. Every time we eat food, our body pulls the nutrients from it, but it also has to deal with any inflammation caused by it. This inflammatory response is orchestrated by the immune system. We need to help our immune system by unburdening it of the things that we can control in order to allow it the capacity to ward off the things we can’t.
- Listen to your body. If you don’t yet know if you have food allergies, take this opportunity to learn to tune-in to yourself. An elimination diet can help you to figure this out (this is part of what we do at www.slendever.com). You can start right now by paying attention to what your body is telling you. If you seem to get congested after eating bread (and other gluten-containing products), try eliminating or cutting down. If a glass of milk gives you gas and bloating, try switching to almond, coconut, oat or a variety of other kinds of milk. If you do become unwell with cold or flu symptoms, you will probably lose your appetite. Listen to your body on this one too. Don’t overload your system; a few days of broths and herbal teas with honey and lemon does a body good. If you’re regularly or chronically congested, just start by eliminating dairy (as it’s inflammatory and mucus-producing). We want upper airways to be open and functioning optimally, not inflamed or in some cases nearly swollen shut and full of excess mucus. That is a recipe for infection to take hold.
- Keep your mental, emotional, and physical stress in check. Journaling, meditation, time in nature, yoga, swimming, staring at a fire, taking a bath, pleasure reading, hypnotherapy, acupuncture, floating, counselling, gardening and herbs are among the things that I suggest that my patients add to their lives. Remember, our biology was built before the age of computers, TVs, interstates, rush-hour, taxes, performance reviews, etc. We need to build-in an array of de-stressing techniques to give ourselves the best chance of finding balance. And, just a reminder that lack of sleep, poor diet and too little or too much exercise are all forms of stress. So, if you get those items in better control you will be half-way there when it comes to winning the battle against stress.
- Hydrate yourself. The goals are to keep your blood and lymphatics circulating efficiently, to flush microbes through the digestive tract down to the stomach where the stomach acid can kill them, and to keep mucus membranes in the mouth, throat, nose, eyes, and upper respiratory tract moist so that they can continuously defend against any viruses that make it that far. A dry mucus membrane is a less defended one because dry membranes allow microbes to adhere more easily and stop our cilia (tiny brooms that sweep away bugs) from working properly. A good rule of thumb is to drink (in ounces) about the equivalent of your body weight in kg or half your body weight in lbs each day. For someone who weighs 150 lbs/68 kg, they’d aim to drink about 70 ounces of water per day. Herbal teas and broths count toward that goal and have the advantage of being hot. Viruses are intolerant to temperature extremes, so drinking hot beverages could kill any virus that has managed to make its way into your mouth or throat on contact. You can also put a humidifier or essential oil diffuser in your bedroom and work spaces to help keep respiratory passageways moistened.
- Exercise moderately. Muscles in use squeeze blood vessels and lymphatics, which in turn helps the immune fighters carried within them to be circulated more efficiently. All exercise has this effect to some extent. A flowing river is always healthier than a stagnant one. Gentle walks or jogs outdoors or an at-home yoga or stretching session for thirty minutes per day are ideal. Mini-trampolining, biking, swimming, pilates, gardening…whatever will get you up and moving is worth doing a few times per day. It’s also worth noting that now is not the time to push yourself too hard. An over-worked body robs the immune system of several of the key nutrients that it will also be burning through to defend you. And, overdoing it can lead to inflammation. Let’s leave the immune system’s attention on fighting viruses not putting out fires caused by pushing your body too hard.
- Fresh air and sunshine both do a body good. Get outside when you can…and open your windows (except maybe during times of high pollen counts). When it comes to sunshine, if you won’t freeze and won’t burn, expose as much unprotected skin as possible to the sun for about 30 minutes/day. This can be split up into smaller chunks at a time if say three ten-minute walks works better for you. Where you live in the world (the latitude), the time of year, the time of day, the natural pigmentation level in your skin, and how much sunscreen you wear, all influence how much vitamin D your body can make when the sun hits your skin. 30 minutes per day in Maine in March, is not going to do much, I’m sorry to say. Vitamin D is hugely important for your immune system for lots of reasons, but one of the biggies is that it is considered a “defensin.” (Prue H. Hart, 2011) Defensins are your body’s security guards. They kill the virus before it gains entry. If for whatever reason you don’t get enough sunshine to keep your level of vitamin D in the optimal range of 60-100nmol/L (and that’s most of us), then I suggest that you take a supplement. In fact, I suggest that everyone take a vitamin D supplement during cold and flu seasons and during the pandemic (unless you have a known excess of vitamin D, which is rare). If you don’t know your levels, add it to your list to discuss with your doctor at your next visit. The UK guidelines state that doctors shouldn’t even do routine Vitamin D blood work unless patients are taking more than 2,000IU/day (which is the bare minimum that we should be taking right now, in my opinion). More on that in my second post in the “A Naturopathic Approach to Colds and Flus” series: Immune Support Beyond the Basics. Let’s also remember that Vitamin D is not the only benefit of sunshine, so taking supplemental Vitamin D doesn’t mean that we don’t still need to be out in the sun. A 2016 study done by researchers at Georgetown University has demonstrated that blue light from the sun (or special lamps) independent of Vitamin D levels causes key immune cells (T-cells) to work more quickly. (Phan, 2016)
- As for fresh air, if you can’t get outside, then try to improve your indoor air quality. Indoor air is drastically improved within minutes of opening a window and allowing air to circulate through the room. And, if you or any of your housemates are unknowingly shedding the virus, this “airing” of a room can help to protect those who haven’t yet been infected. One important caveat to this is that allergy season is coming swiftly for much of the world. Even if you don’t suffer from seasonal allergies, a new study published in March 2020 in the journal Allergy cautions that: “The ability of pollen to suppress innate antiviral immunity, independent of allergy, suggests that high-risk population groups should avoid extensive outdoor activities when pollen and respiratory virus seasons coincide.” (Gilles S, 2020) Considering that that collision is about to happen for the Northern hemisphere, what are we to do? You may consider getting an air purifier and keeping your windows closed. If you do choose to take this new warning to heart, indoor plants (think: spider plants not pollen producing plants) are also very helpful at improving indoor air quality. You may also consider wearing a mask when outdoors. Check your local pollen counts and take it from there. I personally don’t think that the risk of having pollen suppress our immune systems outweighs the benefit of my family being outdoors all spring. If any of us develop any allergic or respiratory symptoms, I will reconsider that stance. For more on seasonal allergies and mast cell stabilizing treatments, sign up for my newsletter to get my upcoming post Mast Cell Stabilizing and Histamine Clearance delivered to your inbox.
- Don’t smoke. There has never been a better time to quit. Put simply, quitting is the number one best thing that you can do for your health. Smoking is particularly deleterious for COVID-19 patients, as mortality rates in smokers are higher. Not only are you burdening your entire body and immune system with having to overcome the toxic load that you are ingesting each time you inhale, you are also inflaming the lung tissue which needs to be pampered like a princess right now. And, deep inhalation can draw viral particles into the lungs. Just try your best to quit, please.
- Wash your hands. I’ll reiterate what every other health professional on the planet has said — wash your hands with soap, frequently, for at least 20 seconds at a time. Wash them when you come home from being outside. Wash them after touching groceries that you bought two days ago (even if you think that you disinfected things well). Wash them before you eat. Wash them after going to the bathroom. Wash them “just because” a few extra times. And, try to break the habit of touching your eyes, nose, or mouth.
Now is a wonderful time to start making some, or all, of these changes. If you need help or support, visit the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians or the UK’s General Council and Register of Naturopaths to find a list of Naturopathic doctors near you. If you are interested in taking a deeper dive into immune support, please read my next post in the series, Immune Support Beyond the Basics. Be well.
Gilles S, B. C. (2020). Pollen exposure weakens innate defense against respiratory viruses. Allergy, 576-587.
Phan, J. P. (2016). Intrinsic Photosensitivity Enhances Motility of T Lymphocytes. Scientific Reports.
Pizzorno, J. (1998). Total Wellness, Improve your health by understanding and cooperating with your body’s natural healing system. Prima.
Prue H. Hart, S. G.-J. (2011). Modulation of the immune system by UV radiation: more than just the effects of vitamin D? Nature Reviews Immunology, 13.
Wang, H. H. (2016). Opposing Effects of Fasting Metabolism on Tissue Tolerance in Bacterial and Viral Inflammation. Cell, 1512-1525.