Join forces with your immune system! Taking sick time to recover from a cold, the flu, or that stomach bug going around requires a pause. With the fast-paced life that we have grown accustomed to, it can be frustrating to take time off from your normal routine to recover. Your immune system on it’s own is pretty amazing, but if there are some actions you can take, as simple as adding a certain food to your daily snack or checking in with those stress levels, it kinda seems like a no-brainer. We are going to dive into the big 3 influencers on your immunity levels: stress, diet, and gut microbiome. In addition to explaining and offering practical actions you can take to know how to boost your immune system this season.
Let’s talk about cortisol levels! The basics of cortisol, it is a steroid hormone that is naturally produced in the adrenal glands. The pituitary glands regulate the release of this hormone for a variety of reasons including: to regulate metabolism, immune functioning, blood pressure, blood sugar, and our sleep/wake cycles. It is also elevated when your body and/or mind is stressed.
You might be thinking, what can be classified as a stressful situation? Your body and mind can feel stressed when a factor internally or externally is putting pressure on your body, mind, and environment. Your fight or flight response is triggered and your body produces the hormone cortisol. Stress can be physical, emotional, psychological, environmental, infectious, or any combination.
There are a lot of pressures and stress factors in your life you cannot control- aka a thunderstorm and your power goes out, or a traffic jam on your commute home adding 1 hour to your ride. There are also small stressors throughout the day, that are NOT life threatening. For example, that meeting you are hosting for a new client or even that afternoon cup of coffee. However, the adrenals, our stress regulators, respond to every kind of stress the same, whatever the source. And stress levels can then stay elevated for several hours.
Our society often caters and encourages people to become overly busy, multi-taskers, meanwhile discourages rest, relaxation, and spending time preparing nourishing meals. Juggling demands in our lives makes it hard for the adrenals to stay well.
So we know it’s released when you are stressed, but how does cortisol impact your immune system? Since cortisol is actually an immunity response, it can result in higher inflammation and when it is chronically being released it can cause problems, pain, and weaken other immune responses. To counteract the stressful world we naturally live in, you have control over how you react and cope with stress to reduce your levels of cortisol. Need an in the moment fix for a stressful situation? (aka you just got out of a meeting and you have several new future projects), try out a deep breathing exercise listed below. Or do you feel small stress building up over the day and feel overwhelmed by the afternoon, try a yoga or meditation session.
Deep breathing techniques:
Box breath - slow down your breathing by inhaling for 4 seconds, holding the inhale for 4 seconds, exhaling for 4 seconds, and holding exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat to deepen breathing and distract from immediate stressful situations.
Use a breathing gif (like this one) to match your breathing with the movement of the shape in the image. You can keep one handy in your phone or find one with a quick online search.
Set a minute timer on your phone, clock, or smartwatch to breathe for just 30 seconds.
The benefits of meditation and yoga on stress levels are pretty well know. If you work from home keep your yoga mat in a visible place to trigger a reminder to become your go-to stress reducing activity when you have a 5 minute break in your schedule.
Not a big into meditation and find yourself often in a high stress environment? Try this grounding exercise to help relieve stress: bring attention to your 5 senses one at a time. What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? What do you taste? What do you feel under your feet or in your hands? Just bringing awareness to your surroundings and grounding yourself can be a form of meditation.
One nutrient to be mindful of is caffeine, which can spike your cortisol levels. Cortisol and the heightened attention from being in a stressful state can be helpful when just waking up and diving into work. However if you find yourself continuing to reach for several cups of Joe throughout the day, it can add to the high stress levels and increase intensity during anxious times. Try out some lower caffeine teas, coffee alternatives, or sparkling water to help increase attention in the afternoon without the cortisol spike.
Immune Boosting foods
Adding in some foods to help strengthen your immune system is easier than you might think. You probably have already heard that Vitamin C is a big player in your immune system. However, some other impactful diet items to pay attention to include getting adequate liquids and anti-inflammatory foods.
Vitamin C This micronutrient that is foundational to building antibodies, low levels of this nutrient can impact the number of antibodies, a very important part of the immune system. Antibodies are important for flagging those forigen particles to notify white blood cells what to attack. Needless to say, if you want to reinforce your immune system frontline, aka antibodies, focusing on this nutrient is key. For example, some foods high in this nutrient include:
- Red bell peppers (3x the amount of vitamin C compared to citrus foods), the most concentrated source by gram.
- Citrus fruit (starting with the highest content grapefruit, lemon, limes, oranges, mandarins, clementines).
- Strawberries are high in vitamin A and enhance the absorption of vitamin C, both nutrients are important for skin health
When cells are dehydrated their barrier is weakened, making them more susceptible to outside bacteria. How much water you should aim for each day depends on a few factors such as body metrics, age, environment, activity level. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an good daily fluid intake from water and drinks should be about 80% of your fluids, about 12 cups a day for men and 9 cups per day for women. You can drink your fluids or opt for foods high in water content such as cucumbers, melons, soups, lettuce, smoothie bowls, etc. For a double immune boosting bonus add some lemon to your water for that boost of vitamin C!
For instance, here are three simple hacks to getting in more water:
- For every non-water beverage, drink 2 cups of water. (don’t forget to add a water cup to your coffee order!)
- Dining at a restaurant, kindly ask the server if they could leave the pitcher of water on the table.
- Habit hack: place a pitcher of water out on your counter to trigger a visual cue to drink more water. Added bonus, it can be easier to drink water when it is at room temperature.
Anti Inflammatory Foods
Anti inflammatory foods have been linked with decreased levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) which is another marker for inflammation in the body. When this level is chronically high it can be an indication for chronic inflammation and a weakened immune system. There are many different foods that have anti-inflammatory properties, however there is research to support a diet rich in dark green leafy vegetables that have been associated with decreased CRP. The high content of beta-carotene in these veggies are thought to be the factors helping to reduce the inflammation protein. Throwing a handful of greens in your dishes like stir fry’s, pastas, bowls, smoothies, etc. could help with decreasing inflammation. Here are some dark leafy greens to add to your shopping list next week:
- Dark leafy greens: spinach, kale, collard greens, Swiss hard, and bok choy.
Nutritionist Recipe Tip
Make a smoothie bomb packed with immunity boosting nutrients. Use this recipe for example:
- Blend 3 cups of spinach/kale/greens and 1 cup of orange juice. Pour into an ice cube tray, store in freezer. Now add a few cubes to any smoothie for an increased boost and vitamin C from the orange juice.
What is a microbiome? To clarify, it is a collection of millions of bacteria that are living in your gut. Your gut network that houses a connection between your central nervous system (the brain powerhouse) and your digestive system. This connection is why it has been referred to as the ‘second brain’. The microbiome is vital to building the immune system during fetal development. A fully developed adult has 70% of their immune system in their gut, keeping it strong is a major key in supporting the framework of your natural defense system. We already stressed the importance of managing those pressures in life to support your immune system. With most of the immune system housed in your gut, you can see the connection. Above all, it is important to consider your food choices and how they impact your microbiome. Some key players in prebiotics and probiotics.
Prebiotics are complex scratches that are not digested in the small intestine. They can pass through to fuel your healthy bacteria in the colon (hello probiotics in your large intestine).
- Foods high in those prebiotic resistant starches: legumes, bananas, onions, garlic
Probiotics are those health bacteria in your large intestine that boost your immunity. A diverse microbiome is a healthy environment. If you are looking for a supplement choose one with at least 1 million viable CFU per gram (for more info) There is also research to support probiotics that have improved memory and immunity when exposed to stressful situations.
- Foods high in probiotics are those fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kimchi, fresh homemade sourdough
Nutritionist recipe tip: For a super simple sweet treat that combines probiotics and probiotics, pour ½ cup kefir over 1 cup of frozen berries and top with granola and sliced bananas. Even get added immune boosting benefits from the red and purple berries!
Negative stressors on your microbiome to watch out for are antibiotics and medications. If you are taking antibiotics or other medications, it is even more important to include probiotics (food or supplement form) in your daily routine, to help replenish the bacteria that lines the gut that can be destroyed by those medications. When the healthy bacteria of the gut is thinned or weakened, it can allow food particles to get past the intestines and into the body, also known as “leaky gut”, which can result in even more immune system and other issues!
Another reason being proactive with the actions you take, can positively impact how you can boost your immune system this season before you get to the point of needing medication. You can support your immune system today by including immune boosting foods, managing your stress, and protecting your microbiome.
Let's Boost Your Immune System!
To sum up, sometimes it can be nearly impossible to avoid exposure to germs, bacteria, viral colds. However, you can start today taking some of these actionable steps to strengthen your immune system. Add foods high in immune boosting vitamins and minerals, be mindful about stress management, and care for your gut health. If you find yourself confused about the right strategy to choose or want to take advantage of the features Vessel offers inside of our app, reach out to our nutrition coaches for personalized assistance!
Sydney Mulroy See all the author’s articles