Strengthening your immune system

This year's cold and flu season—combined with the COVID-19 pandemic—has many parents worried as they prepare to send their children back to school.

But the fight against respiratory viruses is not hopeless.

Dr. Tyler Curiel, a physician scientist who studies the immune basis for human disease at University Health, emphasizes that following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for slowing the spread of respiratory viruses—physical distancing, wearing face coverings, good hand hygiene—will help keep all communities healthier.

Assuming people follow those guidelines, Dr. Curiel said, there are also steps you can take to boost your immune system. While only a few nutritional supplements have been scientifically shown to be effective at protecting against disease, being good to your body in other ways will help you fight off infection and keep you healthy. Getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet and staying physically active all contribute to strong immune function.

Eat healthy to stay healthy

A healthy diet supports a healthy body, immune system included. But it can sometimes be confusing to know what foods to eat and which to avoid. Dr. Jan Patterson, an integrated medicine physician who specializes in infectious disease at University Health, offers a few hints.

“Eat a plant-based diet as much as possible,” Dr. Patterson said, adding that plants have phytonutrients, which have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory effects on human health. “In Texas, beef is big. Go ahead and enjoy your steak, but don’t forget to eat some vegetables, especially green vegetables, and fruits and whole grains, too. Some people go the entire day without eating anything green. Those foods are good for the microbiome, which is a very important part of the immune system.”

Oily fish, such as salmon, and other foods containing omega-3 fatty acids are also beneficial for your body, Dr. Patterson said.

Limiting alcohol and refined sugar is good for your health, but don’t worry too much if you want to indulge in a little red wine or dark chocolate—in moderation, of course. Both contain flavonoids and resveratrol, which are antioxidants that promote a strong immune system and good cardiovascular health.

Supplement when necessary

In a well-rounded diet, most people will get the vitamins and minerals they need. But two supplements—zinc and vitamin A—have been scientifically studied and clearly shown to help boost the immune system, Dr. Curiel said.

“You can buy them over-the-counter; even the cheap generic versions will work,” Dr. Curiel said, adding that he takes a 40mg zinc supplement once a week. “Buying an ‘immune booster’ supplement for your smoothie isn’t going to hurt you, but they’re expensive and no more helpful than generic zinc.”

He said there’s no clear recommended dosage of supplemental vitamin A to take, but that the amount in whichever bottle you purchase is fine.

In addition to dietary supplements, Dr. Patterson said, some spices and herbs can also have a positive effect on immune function.

“Some spices have powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial effects, and some also have antiviral effects,” Dr. Patterson said, listing cinnamon, turmeric, clove, ginger, oregano, thyme and parsley as some of the most beneficial seasonings.

Get plenty of exercise and plenty of sleep

Physical activity supports the immune system in many ways. First, it’s simply good for your body to be physically active every day.

“There’s really good evidence that exercise can improve your immune system and reduce your risk for infection and cancer, especially breast cancer,” said Dr. Curiel, who encourages following CDC recommendations and your primary care doctor’s advice for how much exercise you need.

Regular physical activity also helps us maintain a healthy weight. Obesity, along with diabetes and high blood pressure, contribute to poor immune function. If you need to lose weight, getting more regular exercise and choosing healthy foods will help you attain your goal as well as boost your immune system.

“Get outdoors if you can,” Dr. Patterson suggests. “Seeing the sun and the greenness around us is beneficial for our mood and the immune system.”

Getting enough exercise also can promote better sleep—which is good for the immune system, too. Dr. Patterson notes that data show people who skimp on sleep get more infections than those who get enough shut eye, which is about eight hours for most people.

Give your brain a break, even when you’re awake

Stress can interfere with the immune system by raising our level of cortisol, a steroid the body makes naturally. While it’s a useful hormone used in a fight-or-flight situation, for example, the long-term effects of elevated cortisol levels due to chronic stress are unhealthy. Plus, stress can make it difficult to sleep.

Simple habits, such as exercise, can help you relieve stress. Dr. Patterson also encourages meditation as a mind-body practice that helps reduce anxiety and supports a healthy immune system. Whether it’s guided imagery, prayer, mindfulness, meditation or something else, these practices help calm and center the mind.

“The data show this kind of practice helps us fight infections and boost our immune system,” Dr. Patterson said.

Focus on what you can control

With so many germs floating around this fall, everyone working together taking steps to prevent disease will help keep communities healthy. It’s more important than ever to practice good hygiene: washing hands often and using hand sanitizer. Wearing face coverings and masks will also protect communities from spreading respiratory viruses—whether it’s cold, flu or COVID-19.

“Universal masking is the baseline this year, and it’s our ticket to reopening safely,” Dr. Patterson said. “It’s going to help us with kids going back to school. It helps keep the community safe, our kids safe and teachers safe.”

And don’t forget to schedule your annual flu shot. While the flu vaccine is never perfect, it’s still better than not getting it at all, Dr. Patterson said.

There’s no immune-boosting magic bullet, but focusing on things you can control—like sleep, diet, exercise and good hygiene will go a long way to keep you and your family healthy this fall

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