This post was written by Sarah Weaver, MSN, FNP-C, HN-BC, Integrative Nurse Practitioner, Holistic Nursing outreach and empower leader, Parkview Health.
Heading back to school can bring on an extra dose of stress. This year is no different, with many children going back for in-person instruction, creating layers of questions and concerns surrounding exposure and possible quarantine procedures.
And, while we all know the basics to stay healthy right now, including social distancing, handwashing, mask-wearing, avoiding crowds and staying home when we don’t feel well – it’s important that we all do our part to help flatten the curve of the Delta variant and not expose high-risk individuals.
This begs the question, beyond these health safety basics, how can we empower our immune system? Let’s take a closer look at what that might entail, including which things help nourish the body when dealing with an infection and which ones you should avoid.
Eat the rainbow. In the Holistic Nursing Certification program, we teach our clients to fill 50% of their plate with non-starchy vegetables. Preferably, these vegetables would be a wide variety of colors. Each color has a unique set of phytonutrients that help support the body. For instance, red and orange peppers have higher levels of vitamin C, beta-carotene and bioflavonoids, which assist the immune system. While green foods like avocados, broccoli, and limes help decrease inflammation, cell protection and brain health.
Manage your stress (alcohol-free). While it may be tempting to drink while watching the news, this will only increase inflammation and tax your immune system on several different levels. Instead, reduce mind-body stress and opt for a walk or bike ride outside, try an exercise video on YouTube, and stay hydrated with water and herbal teas. The goal is to consume about half your body weight in water, up to 100 ounces.
Utilize supplements (responsibly). Just like last year’s toilet paper mania, it’s easy to go overboard with supplements. There are a lot of different products that offer support to the immune system. The best thing you can do is get most of your nutrition from whole foods and use supplements to help support any gaps.
If you’re unsure of where to start, here are some of the mainstays of healthy immune function:
- Zinc: Normal development and function of the immune system require adequate zinc levels. Capsules are okay to use, but lozenges are better. Additionally, foods like beef, baked beans, pumpkin seeds, spinach, asparagus, lamb, sesame seeds, chickpeas and lentils are all great options to help increase your zinc levels.
- Vitamin C: This can increase cellular uptake while also boosting white blood cells, which are the soldiers of your immune system. You might even consider using liposomal vitamin C if your budget allows. Citrus, bell peppers, strawberries, guava, Brussel sprouts, broccoli, tomato, kale and mango are excellent sources of this essential nutrient.
- Vitamin A: This helps produce white blood cells, which fight viruses and bacteria. It also helps form mucous membranes that line the respiratory tract. However, in supplement form, you get more benefit from retinyl palmitate rather than beta-carotene (a precursor to vitamin A). With that said, sweet potatoes, carrots, greens like spinach and kale, cantaloupe and bell peppers are excellent sources of beta-carotene, which, based on the body's need, will turn into vitamin A.
- Vitamin D: This essential vitamin helps gene expression in the immune system. And, unfortunately, vitamin D deficiency is not uncommon in the Midwest. Thankfully, you can get your levels checked with a simple blood test.
White hazards. The first step to kickstart your immune system is to avoid highly inflammatory foods. This means sugar or anything that your body converts into sugar. For many, this means reducing things like sugar, bread, noodles and rice, down to 1-2 servings a day. Sugar starts an inflammatory response cascade by increasing insulin. The goal for sugar intake should be between 4-6 grams of added sugars per meal or 24 grams per day. Instead, load up on complex carbs like beans, sweet potato, winter squash and fruit.
Remember, a resilient immune system is a gift that you give to yourself. Paying attention to your nutrition can help strengthen your body’s response and give you extra peace of mind.
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