While rapid and important work is being done to develop immunotherapy and a Covid-19 vaccine, we don’t have them yet. Meanwhile, we are getting somber reports daily on the number of cases and deaths. While we wait for proven treatments, I recommend that we focus on how to strengthen immunity as the best way to protect yourself and your family against Covid-19. The immune system is the first line of defense against any infectious virus. Given the severe situation we now find ourselves in, there is no better time to boost your immune resilience. We have a long battle ahead.
While experts debate how to suppress episodic outbreaks as we move past containment, we need more extensive testing and alert systems to identify clusters rapidly and intervene swiftly in order to prevent even more widespread harm. In the meantime, the basics of physical distancing, hand washing, and sheltering at home prevail.
What else can you do? When you take steps to strengthen your immune system, not only are you taking care of yourself, you are actually taking care of all of us, and that’s a great service to the country and the world. A balanced response by your immune system to infections like Covid-19, or any other infectious bacteria or virus, means you are less likely to require medical assistance from our already overwhelmed healthcare system.
How to Strengthen Your Immune System
As a physician, I am repeatedly asked what I am doing to boost my immune health. Here are my tips and recommendations. Keep in mind that as of yet, there is no cure for Covid-19. Much of the data that we have on lifestyle and nutraceutical approaches are from other viruses besides SARS-CoV-2, or they are anecdotal reports from regions hit earlier than ours, such as China or Europe. “Immune” is a verb–it’s not a stuck state, and the pandemic is calling us to improve immune intelligence.
- Reduce alcohol intake. Alcohol is shown to suppress the immune system, shrink the brain in women over 40, and it also disrupts your sleep.
- Sleep more. Sleep improves immune intelligence. I’m particularly focused on improving deep sleep, which naturally reduces anxiety and toxins. Deep sleep is my Xanax and I track sleep with my Oura ring. I take magnesium before bed. Magnesium can counter the stress response, help your muscle release and may even enhance your sleep.
- Take steps to manage your stress and anxiety. Meditation has so many health benefits, including increasing stress resilience. I’m meditating more these days, morning and before bed. I especially recommend that you develop a nighttime ritual designed to help you wind down from a busy day, including the outstanding guided sessions by Tara Brach, Kristin McGee and Ross Rayburn. Meditation has also been shown to reduce blood pressure. According to current studies coming out of the countries which were dealing with Covid-19 months before the US, people with underlying chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and heart disease were at a higher risk of dying from coronavirus.1 Meditation, along with yoga and exercise will help to reduce blood pressure.2
- Be more active. Exercise regularly but don’t overexercise. Prolonged, excessive exercise can compromise immune function and increase risk of infection—so I limit my exercise to about 45 minutes or less per day that includes either cardio or resistance training.
- Food is your medicine. I have a food first philosophy. About 4 in 10 Americans are low in vitamin A, C, and zinc. I’m getting vitamin A from cod liver oil, carrots, spinach, broccoli, and grass-fed beef liver. As best I can, I’m getting vitamin C from citrus, kiwi, cauliflower, tomatoes, and green leafy vegetables (I keep green leafies in the freezer, and replenish when I can). Eat more foods that are rich in zinc like oysters, seafood, animal protein, nuts, seeds, and legumes. If your access to fresh vegetables is limited right now, you can fill in micronutrient gaps with nutraceuticals (see full list below).
- Nourish your gut. Did you know that 70 percent of your immune system is directly below a single layer of cells in your small intestine (that’s the connector between your stomach and large intestine)? That single layer of cells protecting us from the outside world makes us quite vulnerable. Gut health is too complex a subject to cover in this article but here you can read more on the gut-brain axis, how gluten affects the gut and how the microbiome is essential for hormonal balance.
- Watch your sugar intake. Sugar cravings are probably at an all time high right now as panic and anxiety over coronavirus escalate. While a pint of ice cream may appear to reduce your stress temporarily, it is important to know that sugar is not your friend. We know that sugar suppresses immune function. We also know that people who contract coronavirus, who present with underlying chronic conditions like diabetes, are at a higher risk of developing severe symptoms and dying from the disease. NOW is the time to act and change the things we do have control over like our diet and our weight: two factors that can dramatically impact how our body responds to coronavirus. I know from my own experience that giving up sugar is incredibly difficult to do, which is why I designed THE HORMONE RESET DIET. It is a 21-day program designed to reset the seven major metabolic hormones, including insulin, the hormone that manages how your body uses sugar.
Other Ways to Be More Immune System Resilient
Practice deep breathing. I’ve read a lot about Wim Hoff breathing and cold therapy to improve immunity and started doing this. I’m doing better with the breathing than the ice baths—I have a gene (Tyrosine Hydroxylase) that makes me go berserk when exposed to ice water.
Enjoy the sun, if that is an option for you depending on the shelter-in-place restrictions in your location. I’m gardening in the sun for 30 minutes or more each day to get my vitamin D and to ground in soil.
Vitamins and Supplements That May Help Immunity
Allow me to repeat that there is no cure for Covid-19, including medications, vitamins, supplements, or herbal therapies. There are no products that are proven to prevent or treat Covid-19. That said, many people have asked what I’m doing, i.e., what am I doing differently due to the pandemic.
I am careful to “pulse” supplements. By that I mean I don’t take them for long periods, but as a pulse for 6-8 weeks to boost immunity. And I don’t want to take too many pills.
My baseline vitamin regimen includes A, C, D, curcumin, licorice and omega-3s (fish oil).
I have added zinc (be careful not to take so much zinc that it gets out of balance with copper), Specialized Pro-Resolving Mediators (SPMs) for their anti-inflammatory abilities, and melatonin to improve sleep.
I am drinking nettle tea as stinging nettle or Urticae dioicae may reduce cytokines, those chemical messengers that are behind “cytokine storm” in Covid-19 mortality.3
I may add quercetin4, elderberry5, and andrographis6 as these have shown to exert an antiviral effect.
Astragalus is another herb that has been shown to have antiviral properties.7 Astragalus has a long history of helping boost the immune system. It is a very common herb in Traditional Chinese Medicine formulas that treat upper respiratory disorders. A recent study out of China looked at clinical evidence of Chinese Medicine on the prevention of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and H1N1 influenza, and Chinese Medicine prevention programs issued by health authorities in China since the COVID-19 outbreak. This study showed that several herbs, including astragalus and licorice, could offer prevention against Covid-198.
Finally, stay connected. In BRAIN BODY DIET I explain how women have a biological imperative to “tend and befriend,” meaning that under stress, we perform better when we connect with other like-minded people (our herd) and leverage oxytocin, the hormone of love and connection. This is a key factor in lowering stress levels. Even though we are physically distancing, thanks to the amazing technologies we have available, we can stay connected. Take time to connect with your friends and extended family online. I am doing group mediations with them as well as yin yoga to help manage “corona stress.”
Stay current via reliable sources, including the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Centers for Disease Control. As we shelter in place and wait for the uncertain future to unfold, we can draw strength by focusing on the things that we can change.
1. Yang J., et al, Prevalence of comorbidities in the novel Wuhan coronavirus (COVID-19) infection: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Int J Infect Dis. 2020 Mar 12. pii: S1201-9712(20)30136-3.
2. Houston M. The role of nutrition and nutraceutical supplements in the treatment of hypertension. World J Cardiol. 2014;6(2):38–66. doi:10.4330/wjc.v6.i2.38
3. Francišković, M., et al. Chemical Composition and Immuno-Modulatory Effects of Urtica dioica L. (Stinging Nettle) Extracts. Phytother Res. 2017 Aug;31(8):1183-1191.
4. Wenjiao, W., et al. Quercetin as an Antiviral Agent Inhibits Influenza A Virus (IAV) Entry. Viruses. 2016 Jan; 8(1): 6.
5. Krawitz C, Mraheil MA, Stein M, et al. Inhibitory activity of a standardized elderberry liquid extract against clinically-relevant human respiratory bacterial pathogens and influenza A and B viruses. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011;11:16.
6. Gupta S., et al. Broad-spectrum antiviral properties of andrographolide. Arch Virol. 2017 Mar;162(3):611-623.
7. Khan H., et al, Antiviral, embryo toxic and cytotoxic activities of Astragalus membranaceus root extracts. Pak J Pharm Sci. 2019 Jan;32(1):137-142.
8. Luo H., et al, Can Chinese Medicine Be Used for Prevention of Corona Virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19)? A Review of Historical Classics, Research Evidence and Current Prevention Programs. Chin J Integr Med. 2020 Apr;26(4):243-250.