Here’s the truth: your body comes into contact with “germs” ALL. THE. TIME. And sometimes they’ll challenge your immune system in a way that causes acute symptoms like fatigue, congestion, sore throat, body aches, headache, fever, chills, tender and swollen lymph nodes, nausea, and diarrhea. (As an interesting side note, detox reactions share many of those same symptoms.)
It’s not an effective strategy to focus on avoiding germs because that’s just not possible—they’re everywhere! That approach also ignores the fact that exposure to germs is NOT the only factor in determining if you get sick. Your overall health (or “terrain”) makes an even bigger difference! Which is why multiple people can be exposed to the same pathogen but only some get sick or develop symptoms. And why some can have very mild illness while others deal with more severe symptoms.
Focusing on the germ, and not your overall health, is also very disempowering because it doesn’t allow you take action until after you’re already sick!
But focusing on your health allows you to improve your chances of staying healthy AND of experiencing milder illness and a shorter duration when you do get sick (because it happens!).
You’re Gonna Get Sick Sometimes…
.…so I want to help you prepare your immune system for the inevitable reality that you WILL come in contact with microbes that you don’t really want throwing a party in your body.
We need to pivot away from fearing infection (it doesn’t help anything that fear dampens the immune system!) and turn our focus toward doing what we can to become more inhospitable to these various bugs we’ll encounter.
We’ve got to stop placing so much focus on the germ itself, and start placing a LOT more focus on the environment and resiliency of the host—YOU!
First of all, I want you to keep in mind that the evolution of humans included coming into contact with different microbes. So we have natural mechanisms that assist us in mounting a proper response when this occurs, even if we’ve never seen that particular bug before. Survival of the species, right? (Also, the human body is friggin’ brilliant!)
Our own bodies are also rich with microbes (they live in your gut, mouth, skin, and lots of other places), and a healthy balance of these bugs helps keep wannabe invaders in check. This is one reason why the health of your gut—where TRILLIONS of these guys live—can play such an influential role on the health of your immune system.
We also know that people who are challenged by chronic disease and inflammation—such as those dealing with diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and obesity—are much more likely to experience severe illness or death when acute infections arise. This is why optimizing your health is the most important thing you can do if you want to minimize your risk of serious or life-threatening acute illnesses!
Is it a guarantee? Hell no! There are no guarantees—in life or in health.
Does it make a difference, and is it worthy of your time, energy and effort? YES! YES! YES!
How To Strengthen Your Immune System
Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting you can prevent acute illnesses like the cold, flu, or C-19 using the following strategies.
But I can tell you from experience with my own health and from working with hundreds of patients that when you focus on optimizing your health, you’ll be less susceptible to the germs you encounter, and you’ll have a much better chance of kicking ass the next time one is trying to give you some trouble. So let’s get to it!
Improve Your Nutritional Status
Your body NEEDS the right kind of fuel to work the way it’s intended to function, and you can’t skirt around this reality by taking a bunch of supplements. Nutrition is a big topic, but my goal is to make this information digestible (😉), so here are four ways you can support your immune system with food:
#1: Focus on eating nutrient-dense, whole foods
I’m talking about high-quality protein, healthy fats, and complex carbohydrates. Food that is natural, not made in a facility with added preservatives and other chemicals. Meat from animals that are eating their natural diet. Seafood that is wild-caught, not farmed. Colorful vegetables and fruits that aren’t laden with pesticides or herbicides (the EWG’s Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen lists can be really helpful in this area if you’re on a budget).
Yes, I’m telling you to eat REAL food. It actually is that simple (and that important!).
#2: Eat enough protein every day
Focusing on high-quality protein is really important, but what matters even more is that you eat enough of it! A good rule of thumb is to aim for a daily goal of 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight. So eat 145 grams of protein per day if you weigh 145 pounds. If you’re carrying excess weight, you can adjust that amount based on a healthy and realistic goal weight instead.
Generally speaking, 1 ounce of meat, poultry or seafood = 7 grams of protein. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, you’ll have to rely on protein powders (and probably lots of starchy legumes and soy) in order to meet your daily protein needs—which is one reason I don’t believe that vegetarian or vegan diets are optimal for health long-term.
#3: Enjoy healthy fats daily
Fats got demonized decades ago thanks to the oversimplified message that eating fats makes you fat, but the truth is that we NEED fats. Our cells are made of fats. Fats in the form of cholesterol are the backbone of all our sex hormones. Many of our nerves are insulated with fat. The brain is nearly 60% fat. Several naturally occurring fats also help calm inflammation, and this is really important when we’re talking about immune function AND just about every chronic disease that exists.
So what are healthy fats? Tallow and lard from pastured animals, wild-caught cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines, anchovies, bass), avocados, olives, extra virgin olive oil, coconuts and coconut oil, pastured eggs and meats, bone broth (also great for the gut!), and nuts and seeds (if tolerated).
#4: Include probiotic-rich foods
By now you’ve probably heard about the importance of probiotics, which is really just a name given to products that contain beneficial and health-promoting bacteria that live in your gut. Probiotic-rich foods are a great way to support gut health and function, and because about 70-80% of your immune system is in your gut, they’re also a great way to support your immune system!
Sauerkraut, kimchi, and other fermented vegetables are probiotic-rich options you can eat. Avoid vinegar-based products (these are devoid of probiotic goodness), and opt for natural ferments in a base of salt water. Good quality fermented foods can be pricey when store-bought, but it’s actually really easy to make your own (free recipes online are super abundant). Be careful with kombucha and yogurt—these products are usually high in sugar!
Keeping inflammation down promotes healthy and balanced immune function AND reduces your risk of just about every chronic disease we know of (that’s one heck of a bonus, right?!). Although lifestyle choices play a significant role in your levels of inflammation (don’t worry, I’ll get to that), what you eat is one of the biggest contributors. So which foods cause inflammation?
Foods Your Body Reacts To
Food allergies and food sensitivities (there’s a difference—stay tuned for an article on that) are foods that cause an immune reaction when you eat them. Testing can be a helpful way to identify allergies and sensitivities, but you can also listen to your body! If you get symptoms after eating a food—even if they’re mild—it may be better to avoid it. If a food gave you symptoms when you were a kiddo, it could still be an issue now and it’s worth removing it from your diet to find out (100% elimination for 8 weeks is the gold standard).
Every time you eat a food that you’re allergic or sensitive to, it triggers an immune response, which raises inflammation, weakens your body’s ability to fight off invaders, and sets you up to develop autoimmunity. The most common foods that cause problems for people (even if they aren’t technically allergies or sensitivities) are gluten, dairy, corn, soy, nightshades, eggs, and nuts.
Sugar and artificial sweeteners
Sugar and artificial sweeteners are seriously inflammatory, and consuming sugar actually weakens your immune system for several hours. Most people get WAY more sugar than they should, and if you aren’t actively reading labels, I promise you’re getting a LOT more sugar than you realize.
Ideally you should cut sugar out of your diet completely. I know this is easier said than done thanks to how sugar hijacks your brain chemistry (something the food industry is well aware of and uses to their advantage). But at the very least, keep sugar intake to a minimum. The American Heart Association recommends staying under 25 grams of added sugar per day, but I suggest staying under 20 grams.
As a side note, refined grains (anything made from grain flours, even if the label says “whole grains”) are basically sugar to the body. If you really want to support your immune system, get refined grains out of your diet, and definitely avoid them when you’re in the middle of fighting something (I’m talking to you, chicken noodle soup and saltine crackers).
Industrial seed oils
Industrial seed oils are highly processed and refined oils that are incredibly inflammatory, easily oxidize with heat, light and air (this creates free radical damage—NOT something you want), incorporate themselves into the structure of your cells (NOT a good thing for cell function), and are found in just about any food you consume that is prepared by a restaurant or that comes in a package. I know, I know.
So what are these oils you should be avoiding? Soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, palm oil, peanut oil, vegetable oil, vegetable shortening, margarine and all other butter substitutes (yes, I’m telling you to eat REAL butter), and anything that says “hydrogenated.”
Get Enough Sleep
There’s a reason you (should) spend 1/3 of your day sleeping (which translates to 1/3 of your life!)—it’s THAT important!
Sleep is when your body repairs and regenerates cells and tissues, detoxes, converts short-term memories into long-term memories, and so much more. Adequate sleep is arguably the single most important thing you can do on a daily basis to support your overall health and immune function!
You should consistently get 7-9 hours every night. And if you’re someone who thinks they only need 5-6 hours of sleep because that’s what your body does “naturally,” then I’ll just say this: if you’re thriving, don’t change a thing! But if you’re not, then I encourage you to consider that your body is sleeping that amount because of other imbalances that are present.
Beyond getting 7-9 hours of sleep nightly, the time you go to bed also matters. The earlier the bedtime, the better! You want to be aligned with the natural light-dark cycle as much as possible, so I routinely suggest being asleep by 9:30-10pm.
This might sound too simple to matter, but water is life! That’s why you can only survive a few days without it. So if you want a healthy immune system, make sure you are hydrated! A good rule of thumb is to drink 50-75% of your body weight in ounces (for example, if you weigh 160 pounds, drink 80-120 ounces), and no—the water in coffee, sodas, or other beverages doesn’t count!
Drinking enough water is crucial, but the quality of the water also matters. Avoid water bottled in plastic (unless you want to drink the plastic chemicals that leach into the water when the bottle gets warm during transit and storage). If you’re able to, drink spring water or invest in a good quality water filter. One of the more affordable water filters on the market that removes a lot of chemicals, including fluoride, is Clearly Filtered. The EWG also has a water filter guide here.
Pro tip: if you aren’t drinking spring water, it’s a good idea to add sea salt or minerals to your drinking water.
Spend Time Outside
Unprotected sun exposure is how your body naturally produces vitamin D, and we know that folks with low vitamin D levels are more susceptible to acute illnesses (like the cold, flu and C-19) AND chronic immune dysfunction (like allergies and autoimmunity).
Being in nature also has a positive effect on overall wellbeing, stress reduction, and boosting immune function—win, win, win!
So spend time outdoors EVERY DAY, and—weather permitting—get at least 15-20 minutes of unprotected sun exposure (just don’t burn!).
Enjoy bonus health benefits if your skin comes into contact with the earth (grass, dirt or sand). “Earthing” helps decrease inflammation and normalize your circadian rhythm, and the electrons you absorb from the earth also help combat free radical damage.
Reduce Exposure to Toxins
This is a BIG topic when it comes to health because toxins are actually one of the root causes of chronic symptoms and disease (read more about that here), but they can also make you more susceptible to acute infections because of how they strain your immune system and cause inflammation. So which toxins should you avoid?
PERSONAL CARE AND CLEANING PRODUCTS
Unfortunately, toxins are plentiful in skin care, makeup, feminine products, cleaning products, laundry detergents, and more. Chronic exposure to toxic ingredients found in these products can seriously impact your health—and not just your immune function but also hormonal balance, gut health, cognition and brain function, energy, and more.
NEWS, SOCIAL MEDIA AND PEOPLE
The information we take in through our eyes and ears, even if it’s fictional, has a HUGE impact on our mental-emotional wellbeing. So does the vibe of the people we’re around. Stay informed, but avoid over-exposure to the news and social media. Be careful what kind of shows and movies you spend your time watching. And pay attention to the company you keep and how you feel after spending time with someone. Stress, anxiety and overwhelm reduce immune function!
TOBACCO + ALCOHOL
Quit smoking (this includes e-cigs), and reduce or ideally eliminate alcohol. Both increase inflammation and dramatically decrease the health and responsiveness of your immune system, among other negative and health-robbing effects. I know this isn’t easy (I used to smoke and drink, so no judgement here), but you absolutely possess the strength and ability to let go of these harmful habits, and there are SO many resources available to help you.
Some people are really sensitive to electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) from cell phones, wifi, Bluetooth and other wireless technology, and electronics like computers and appliances. We also have evidence that EMFs can disturb immune function, stimulate allergic and inflammatory processes, impact tissue repair, and damage mitochondrial function (your mitochondria are responsible for producing the energy your cells use to function, so this is a BIG deal).
It’s nearly impossible to avoid EMFs, but anything you can do to reduce exposure helps. Some ideas include turning off your cell phone and wifi router while sleeping, avoiding Bluetooth when possible, and turning off electronics when not in use.
Move Your Body
Your body was made to move, so move your body every day! Regular physical activity is incredibly important for overall health and a balanced immune system. It also helps circulate lymph, which plays a really important role in immune function (the lymphatic system produces and releases white blood cells and other immune cells that monitor and destroy foreign invaders). Lymph also carries away waste products that are normally produced by cellular metabolism, and remember—toxins dampen immune function, so you don’t want those building up!
Just be sure not to overdo it. Exercising too much or too intensely is stressful and can weaken your immune system, so always listen to your body! Also be sure to include exercises that BUILD MUSCLE! Muscle is incredibly important for metabolic health, and metabolic dysfunction increases your risk of more serious and life-threatening acute illnesses, as well as chronic disease. A strong body translates to a stronger immune system!
Last but not least, take time to actively reduce stress on a daily basis. Stress significantly weakens immune function, so if you want a strong immune system, you’ve got to incorporate stress-reduction practices.
Some ideas include deep breathing, meditation, prayer, exercise, relaxing baths, journaling, expressing gratitude, reading, spending time with loved ones, creative activities like coloring or other forms of art, listening to music, dancing, and getting outside. Figure out what works for you!
Don’t Wait Until You’re Sick—Take Action Now!
As you can see, there are several ways you can support your overall health and immune function. You aren’t powerless, and you don’t have to sit around waiting for the inevitable scenario of encountering a microbe that may challenge your immune system!
What you put in and on your body, and how you live your life, has the power to support OR compromise your immune system and overall health.
Address the Root Causes of Your Chronic Symptoms
Remember that your risk for severe acute illness increases the more you are dealing with chronic symptoms and disease, so if you’re struggling with your health, this is your invitation to embark on a healing journey that involves identifying and addressing the root cause(s) of YOUR particular symptom picture and health imbalances. Learn how my root-cause approach can help you optimize your health here.
Knowledge is power, so please share this information with your loved ones. It’s a collective win every time an individual reaches greater levels of health! We owe it to ourselves, and to each other!