As we head into cold and flu season — and possibly another wave of COVID-19 — it’s important to get your immune system working at full capacity, says UCI Health Dr. Alex J. Kipp.
“While there is no silver bullet, there are things you can do to support your immune system,” says the primary care physician who specializes in family medicine.
While conceding that his recommendations may seem to be “on the boring side,” they work, says Kipp, who is also an assistant professor and director of the integrative medicine residency program at the UCI School of Medicine's Department of Family Medicine.
These seven tried-and-true steps to boost your immune system include:
- Eating nutritious meals full of essential vitamins and minerals
- Drinking plenty of water
- Getting restful sleep
- Exercising regularly
- Reducing stress
- Preventing infection
- Getting the annual flu vaccine
Eat nutritious meals
Load up on fresh fruits and vegetables in a range of colors — green, orange, yellow, purple. Each has different beneficial polyphenols and antioxidants that support a well-functioning immune system.
“Eat the rainbow,” advises Kipp, who sees patients in Anaheim and Santa Ana.
Avoid highly processed and fatty foods, which can cause insulin spikes and inflammation that wreak havoc on your immune system, hampering its ability to target viruses, he adds.
A healthy diet provides many the vitamins and minerals needed by the body, including zinc and vitamin D, which help the immune system work well.
Although neither has been shown to prevent illness, Kipp says they have demonstrated effectiveness in helping people get well faster. The daily recommended dose for vitamin D is 1,000-2,000 international units and 25 milligrams for zinc.
If you take them as supplements, Kipp recommends checking the labels for a third-party analysis of quality, such as the insignia for USP, or United States Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit organization that develops standards for medications and other substances. It's an indicator that the vitamin or mineral ingredients have an FDA-approved or accepted use, have been used extensively without a significant safety risk and also meet USP quality standards.
Drinking plenty of water is especially important to prime the body’s lymph system. Think of it as the immune system’s highway, carrying white blood cells and other cells that seek and destroy any foreign invaders such as bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungi. Since lymph fluid is 96% water, if you are dehydrated, that reduces this key system’s ability to do its job.
Get restful sleep
According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), sleep loss negatively affects the immune system in three ways:
- Reducing the body’s production of natural killer (NK) cells, which in turn increases the risk for cancer and viral infections.
- Generating inflammatory cytokines, which heightens the risk for cardiovascular and metabolic disorders
- Reducing the production of antibodies, which help fight viruses and other infections
While people’s sleep needs differ, Kipp recommends aiming for seven to eight hours of restful sleep daily. Develop a regular routine to prepare your body for sleep and train yourself to think of bedtime as being for sleep only.
That means no mobile phone, tablet or computer screen for an hour before bed and no reading in bed. If you are having trouble sleeping for at least 15 minutes, get up and do something boring until you’re ready for slumber.
Melatonin supplements of 1 milligram to 3 milligrams may help you sleep, he says, while doses of 5 milligrams to 10 milligrams may be useful to support the immune system.
Exercise has many health benefits, not least of which is lowering the production of stress hormones like cortisol, which can suppress the immune system.
Physical activity also boosts overall circulation, which makes it easier for immune cells and other infection-fighting molecules to travel throughout your body.
Activities that get your heart pumping are best, but any exercise you enjoy is good.
“If you do get sick, don’t push yourself as hard,” Kipp says. “But if you can manage some exercise, it will help the body heal a bit faster.”
Meditation, yoga and qigong — an ancient Chinese practice that combines meditation, controlled breathing and gentle movement — are proven methods to reduce stress and support the immune system, Kipp says.
Other activities such a journaling or shinrin-yoku — a traditional Japanese practice of immersing oneself in nature using all five senses — may also be beneficial.
Simple breathing exercises are another useful strategy. He recommends the 4-7-8 technique — inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, exhale for 8 counts. Performing this exercise at least four times stimulates the body’s vagus nerve and triggers a relaxation response, he says.
Take steps to avoid catching the flu. COVID-19 and most other respiratory viruses, including influenza, are spread through the air or by droplets.
And because many viruses, including COVID-19, don’t survive long outside a host’s body, we've learned that wearing a mask, especially indoors in crowded spaces, is far more likely to help prevent infection than disinfecting surfaces.
Masks not only prevent airborne diseases from entering your system, they also keep you from spreading disease when you’re sick.
“Masking is so helpful in keeping viruses from getting into a person’s mucus membranes that we saw a lot less cold and flu cases last season,” Kipp explains.
But infectious disease experts say it is still important to wash hands thoroughly after encountering high-touch surfaces (door handles, railings, elevator buttons) and to observe physical distancing in crowded spaces in order to prevent the spread of both COVID-19 and influenza.
Be sure to get vaccinated for the flu — and COVID-19 if you are eligible. Ask your doctor which options are best for you and whether you should receive both at the same time.
The annual flu vaccine is recommended for almost everyone age 6 months or older. It’s particularly important for children under age 5, for whom the flu can be dangerous.
If you find yourself experiencing sniffles, a cough or fever, Kipp recommends taking it easy and watching for symptoms that are cause for concern, such as:
- A fever that doesn’t go down after taking medication like ibuprofen, or one that returns after you start to feel better
- Shortness of breath that doesn’t go away after resting
- Oxygen levels below 92% (measured with a home pulse oximeter)
- Weakness to the point of being unable to get out of bed
- Unable to keep food down or urinate
- Feeling ill for a week, recovering then feeling sick again
Call you primary care physician's office if you experience any of these symptoms and speak with a nurse who can determine whether you need to see the doctor.
Because COVID-19 symptoms are similar to those for flu and colds, Kipp recommends getting a COVID-19 test for even mild symptoms to help decrease the spread of the virus.