On Nutrition

We’re entering cold and flu season, and we’re still in COVID-19 season, despite the good news that one or more vaccines may be on our horizon in 2021. While the top two things you can do to stay infection-free right now are diligently wearing a mask and practicing physical distancing, the reality is that this is easier for some people than for others. If you fall into the “not so easy” camp, you may want to know how to boost your immune system.

As I wrote about at the beginning of the pandemic, you can’t boost your immune system per se, but you can form habits that support it, so that it’s not functioning below your personal baseline. Nutrition is part of this, yes, but there are no magic immune-boosting foods, contrary to what a lot of clickbait articles might suggest. Here are some solid nutrition and lifestyle tips that offer a well-rounded approach to staying healthy this winter.

Move often. Physical activity activates our immune cells during and immediately after exercise, so fitting in some enjoyable, and moderately intense, activity each day (such as brisk walking, biking or dancing) can help keep your immune system strong. If you’re now spending most of your day in front of a computer, you might also want to find small ways to break up your sitting time.

Top off your vitamin D. Vitamin D plays a role in immunity, and while it’s not a magic, immune-boosting bullet, clinical trials have shown that moderate doses (400 to 1000 IU) help protect against upper respiratory infections. This applies to colds and flu far more than to coronavirus, but given that having low vitamin D levels is common in northern climates like ours, taking some supplemental vitamin D in the winter and winter-adjacent months isn’t a bad idea.

Get your fiber fix. Most of your immune cells reside in the wall of your intestines, so supporting a vibrant, thriving community of beneficial bacteria and other microbes inside your intestines (aka your gut) helps support immune health. Those friendly critters like to eat prebiotic fiber, so including fruits, vegetables, whole grains and pulses (beans and lentils) in your meals will help keep them happy, and you healthy.

Keep up on sleep. Our brains and body systems — including our immune systems — restore and replenish themselves while we’re snoozing. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep, but many things can interfere with getting enough, even if you don’t struggle with insomnia. If you’re chronically not getting to bed on time, take a serious look at what you’re doing instead. Is it really worth the trade-off?

Eat the rainbow. Including a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables in your virtual or actual grocery carts — and then actually eating them, of course — provides abundant vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, many of which act as antioxidants. This supports immune system health.

Reduce and manage stress. Yes, these are stressful times, but reducing sources of stress where you can — and taking steps to minimize its effects when you can’t — has benefits for body and mind. When stress levels are high, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode, and if this stress is frequent or prolonged, our immune systems take a hit. Would you benefit from ingesting less news and social media, and perhaps using that time to meditate, do some yoga, read some fiction, watch a funny movie — or get to bed on time?