Whether you’re concerned about catching the flu, a common cold, or the more-feared COVID-19 this fall and winter, there are preventative measures you can take to promote a healthy immune system. The most essential? Optimizing your health and immune system. One way to do this is through integrative medicine, which combines conventional medicine’s medications, imaging and care with a natural approach that emphasizes nutrition.
Dr. Chris Link of Integrative Medicine – Natural Healing Alternatives and Medical Acupuncture, says his practice focuses on five pillars for health: nutrition, sleep, exercise, stress management and nutra-ceutical supplements such as herbs, minerals and vitamins.
Before we dive into what specific supplements or herbs you should be adding to your grocery cart, let’s focus on how to promote holistic wellness and an overall healthier immune system with those pillars. “You want the individual as healthy as possible so that they are resilient to any viruses or infection,” Link says. “If someone is really stressed, not sleeping or eating well, it’s much more likely they will catch a cold and it will get deep into their system.”
The first step in helping out your immune system is to make sure you’re eating nutrient-dense foods. Basically, this means stay away from the grocery store chips, cookies and crackers. “Eat more real whole foods and less processed foods,” he says. This includes vegetables, meat, fish, berries, nuts, eggs and olive oil. “A healthy diet is number one when it comes to supporting your immune system.”
The second step is another one that many of us neglect: a proper amount of sleep. “If a person misses a couple nights’ sleep because they aren’t sleeping well, the likelihood that they will catch the flu goes up considerably,” Link says. “It only takes two nights of poor sleep for your immune system to break down, and you want to be resilient against viruses such as the flu and COVID-19.” He suggests seven to nine hours of sleep per night.
As the weather gets colder, it can get trickier to drag ourselves out of bed in the morning and get in that recommended light-to-medium exercise each day, but it’s absolutely essential. If you don’t exercise — or even if you exercise too much — you are making your body more susceptible to sickness.
Whether you’re feeling stressed out because of too many responsibilities at home (hello, third sports practice of the week!) or because of work, it can be difficult to manage that stress and that can affect your health. “Eating whole foods, getting good sleep and exercise are important to reduce stress,” Link says. “Also be careful not to over commit, allow yourself downtime, and avoid excessive alcohol intake.”
The final pillar of a well-toned immune system is broken into two parts: vitamins and supplements and herbs and foods. Link recommends a few vitamins and supplements for everyday use:
- Vitamin D. “This is the most important vitamin for the immune system,” he says. According to Link, almost 50% of adults are vitamin D deficient, which can cause increased susceptibility to viruses such as the cold and flu. The average adult needs around 2,000 IU per day and this is best found in supplements, since most foods we eat are not rich in vitamin D. Recent studies have also shown that being deficient in vitamin D is a risk factor for becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, Link says.
- Zinc. Up to 40% of adults are deficient in this important mineral, Link says. “Zinc acts to limit the spread of COVID-19 through the body by decreasing the virus’ ability to replicate.” He recommends adults take 10 to 20 milligrams of zinc per day.
- Omega-3 oils. Omega-3, or fish oil, isn’t only good for our hearts; it also helps decrease inflammation, which can enable your body to have an appropriate and balanced response to infection and/or viruses.
- Vitamin C. Believe it or not, that orange you eat every morning isn’t enough vitamin C for your body — not even close. At 1,500 milligrams per day, vitamin C has been shown to decrease the frequency and duration of viruses, Link says. There are only about 50 milligrams in one orange, so turn to vitamin C supplements to fill the gap.
The herbs & foods
You may have heard of taking vitamin C when you have a cold, but what about eating raw garlic? Check out these four herbs/foods that can help boost immune function or just make you feel better when you’re a little under the weather.
- Echinacea. Echinacea is a flower that once dried can be taken either in a supplement or as a hot cup of tea. “It is best used when a person gets a cold rather than as a preventative measure,” Link says. “It acts to ready the immune system for a prompt and effective response to the pathogen.” So, make sure to stock up for the next time you feel a scratchy throat or sniffle.
- Elderberry. Technically a fruit, it is also known as Sambucus, the tree that it grows on, and has antiviral properties that help thwart viruses’ entry into our cells, according to Link. Take elderberry at a high dose when you do have any symptoms, either via a pill, lozenge or syrup.
- Honey. Technically not an immune booster, Link says honey is a safe cough suppressant that can coat the throat much better than most over-the-counter drugs or cough drops. Not only does it naturally suppress your cough, but it can also soothe sore throats and mucous membranes — and it’s safe for all ages.
- Garlic. Not just for flavoring your favorite dishes, garlic is great for respiratory and immune support because it helps active infection-fighting white blood cells, according to Link. It also acts as a mucolytic – helping to clear excess mucous. Whether you like to crunch on some raw garlic or take a supplement, its nutrients and fiber are great resources for your body.
Okay so you’ve stocked up on echinacea tea (Traditional Medicinals makes one that is available at most grocery stores in Columbia), you’re eating plenty of nutrient-dense foods and you’re getting enough sleep, but you’re still sick. Here are a few other things you can do to make yourself feel better and recover more quickly.
Use a nasal rinse, such as a Neti Pot. “If you can keep nasal membranes clear, you can decrease inflammation and heal faster,” Link says. You can also use a humidifier next to your bed when you are sick to support and speed the healing of your upper respiratory tract.
What about drinking plenty of juice, such as orange or pomegranate, you may be asking? While juice does have some nutrients, the sugar content is actually equivalent to soda, ounce for ounce. This doesn’t mean you absolutely can’t have a glass of orange juice once or twice a week, Link says, but make sure it’s a small one. “These days we know there is a tremendous obesity problem in the U.S.,” he says. “Drinking lots of sugary beverages such as juice and soda contribute in a very significant way to America’s obesity epidemic. You want to stay hydrated, so drink plenty of water, tea and chicken soup, but sugary beverages aren’t needed and probably aren’t helpful either.
“People having the most trouble with COVID-19 are those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and obesity, and this lends them to a greater susceptibility of infection.”
Link says he enjoys a 4-ounce glass of pomegranate juice a couple times a week, with a meal to avoid a spike in blood sugar. “I’ve had a diabetic patient that took too much insulin come in and if I put one tablespoon of orange juice into their mouth, within 60 seconds they go from stuperous to being awake,” he says. “You’re better off eating the actual fruit or vegetable than you are drinking the juice most of the time because you have the benefit of the fiber slowing the breakdown of sugar, therefore decreasing dangerous blood sugar spikes.”
Dr. Chris Link received his doctorate in medicine from St. Louis University School of Medicine in 1987, and practiced emergency and trauma medicine for 18 years before completing a 2-year integrative medicine fellowship at the University of Arizona. He opened Integrative Medicine – Natural Healing Alternatives and Medical Acupuncture in 2009 and continues serving the Jeff City, Columbia and surrounding areas, leveraging nutrition and lifestyle interventions to optimize health and limit the dependence on medications.