15 Ways to Boost Your Immune System In the Time of COVID-19 - with Special Considerations for Autoimmune Folks
By Caylee Clay, RDN CDN ©
Life as we know it is rapidly shifting due to the rampant spread of COVID-19. With the medical community scrambling to find a medicinal cure and vaccine (Godspeed to them!), for now our best option is to lean into alternative healthcare modalities to help ourselves weather the worst of the storm.
There is an incredible amount of things you can do to support your immune system functioning - enough to fill a book or more. In this article, I aim to present strategies that you can do from home that are low cost, safe, and easy. Therefore this is by no means an exhaustive list, and additionally as new information about COVID-19 floods in seemingly by the hour, the below information may later become dated or found to simply be inaccurate. The information presented in this article is reputable to the best of my knowledge at the time of this writing. I have included links to research whenever possible, and aim to explain my reasoning behind each suggestion.
If you, like me, suffer from an autoimmune disease, then this information may be even more important to you. Medications commonly used to treat autoimmune disease, such as steroids and immunosuppressive drugs, place the user at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19 as these drugs suppress the immune system. Those on immunosuppressive drugs may not even exhibit a fever if they get infected (cite). Certain autoimmune diseases in particular are correlated with an increased risk of infection in general, such as psoriasis, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, diabetes type 1, myasthenia gravis, and sarcoidosis (cite).
Those who suffer from lupus are more likely to experience respiratory infections (cite), such as COVID-19. For those on glucocorticoid immunosuppressive drugs for rheumatoid arthritis, there is evidence that these drugs “increase the risk of serious infections up to 4-fold in a dose-dependent manner”. Additionally, for those on TNF-α inhibitors, the risk of serious infection increases up to 2-fold (cite).
Please note: These recommendations are not a substitute for medical advice, and are provided on an informational base only. While it is my hope that the below information will help you to avoid a COVID-19 infection all together or reduce the severity of symptoms if you do contract it, please inform your doctor and seek medical advice as appropriate if you suspect you are infected.
1. Eat Lots of Plants! Particularly Veggies, Fruits, Beans, Nuts, & Seeds
I know this may seem like overly simplistic advice to eat healthy stuff - but IT IS NOT. Many nutrients found particularly in fruits and vegetables are well known to be associated with improved immune function, such as antioxidants vitamins A, vitamin C, and glutathione. For those with autoimmune diseases, beware that nightshade vegetables may be a triggering food - avoid if necessary.
Vitamin C: Vitamin C is a potent antioxidant that supports both the innate and adaptive immune systems (cite). In fact, both China and the US have widely used megadoses of antioxidant vitamin C to hospitalized COVID-19 patients (cite). While in general it’s not necessary or recommended to take megadoses of vitamin C, making sure you’re ingesting it regularly is a great idea. In fact, if you do take a megadose while healthy, you will just pee out what your body doesn’t need.
Vitamin A: Vitamin A is critical in enhancing immune functioning (cite). Not only is vitamin A anti-inflammatory, but it also helps protect the outer layer of your body's surface and lining (called the epithelium) plus helps antibodies respond to toxins and foreign substances (cite, cite). Again, no reason to take large doses of vitamin A via pill/supplement, especially since vitamin A is stored in the body unlike vitamin C and you could experience toxicity.
Glutathione: Glutathione is an antioxidant, which means that it helps prevent your cells from getting damaged. There is research associating a glutathione deficiency with acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which is a potential deadly consequence of a COVID-19 infection (cite). In ARDS, the body is unable to provide enough oxygen to all its organs resulting in multiple organ failure. There is also research demonstrating glutathione can help the body fight off another virus infamous for lung damage - namely, the flu (cite). Replete your levels of this antioxidant by enjoying the below foods.
2. Get More Zinc
Zinc plays a central role and affects several aspects of the immune system. Zinc helps your body gobble up infectious microbes like COVID-19 (by supporting macrophage activity) and also promotes acquired immunity, so if you do contract COVID-19 then you’re less likely to get it again (cite).
3. Vitamin D is Your BFF
Vitamin D is another nutrient that can help us fight off a COVID-19 infection. Vitamin D deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to infection (cite). In fact, vitamin D supplementation for those who are deficient can actually help prevent acute respiratory infections, which COVID-19 can cause (cite). “Studies have shown that people with vitamin D deficiency are 11 times more likely to get a cold or flu, while supplementing with vitamin D can reduce colds and flu by 42%” (cite). If your blood levels of vitamin D are within normal limits, then there is less concern because your body can store vitamin D - however winer is a common time for vitamin D levels to fall below ideal. Additionally, while ideally our vitamin D levels “should be above 30 ng/ml, however, optimal levels are probably closer to 50ng/ml for most” (cite). Without access to recent blood work, you’re left to guess if you’re in need or vitamin D or not.
If you are concerned about or question your vitamin D levels, one way to increase your levels is to spend time in sunshine, as your skin can make its own vitamin D. For more information, explore this link. It is also possible to increase your levels via food - see the bottom of this section for food sources of vitamin D. You can also consider a vitamin D supplement, available at pharmacies and many groceries stores which are still open. If you haven’t had your vitamin D levels checked recently, you might consider starting with a low dose (personally I’m taking 400-800 IUs per day, when I remember or feel unwell) (cite).
4. Get to Know Your Antiviral Herbs & Spices
Several herbs contain antiviral properties, like:
5. Eat More Fermented Probiotic Foods
One of the major benefits of probiotics is increasing immune functioning. Probiotics not only help regulate the functioning of immune cells, but also contain specific genes and produce certain compounds that are also associated with immune system regulation (cite). Research on probiotics is in its infancy, so instead of recommending probiotics in pill form, I suggest that you consume your probiotics the way humans have for thousands of years - through food. Below are food sources of probiotics:
6. Hold Off on the Drinking
Liquor stores are still open in cities with stay at home orders, however now is not the time to be a good customer. There has been a long observed association between increased alcohol intake and decreased immune-related health problems. In regards to COVID-19, alcohol consumption is correlated both with increased rates acute respiratory stress syndrome (ARDS) and pneumonia - both of which are often deadly consequences of a COVID-19 infection. Alcohol appears to disrupt immune pathways, impairing the body’s ability to fight infections, contribute to organ damage, and also demote tissue recovery - all of which may contribute to or exacerbate a COVID-19 infection (cite).
7. Stay Hydrated!
Another diet-related suggestion from the CDC and infectious disease medical doctors is to stay hydrated (cite, cite). Instead of focusing on the amount of fluids you’re drinking, I often suggest to my clients that they watch their urine color. Light yellow is optimal. Dark yellow means it’s time to ingest more fluids, and clear urine means you can lay off for a bit. To increase your fluid intake: Carry a bottle of water if you leave the house, make soup, drink broth, drink non-caffeinated tea, consume raw fruits and veggies, limit caffeine. Avoid juice and sweetened beverages. Get my free Immune Boosting Grocery List here!
8. Enjoy a Small Spoonful of Raw Honey
Honey contains clinical demonstrated antiviral properties (cite, cite). While more research needs to be done comparing the medicinal benefits of raw to pasteurized honey, it is generally accepted in the alternative healthcare space that raw honey contains superior medical qualities and therefore is recommended at this time. Enjoying a small spoonful of raw honey from time to time may help support your body’s viral defenses.
9. Reduce Your Sugar Intake - While Still Healthy
It may be tempting and easy to hit the unhealthy snacks while on stay at home orders, however studies have shown that refined sugars can suppress your immune system for hours after ingesting them (cite). If you feel reasonably certain that you are not currently infected with COVID-19, then it is wise to reduce and limit your intake of sugars.
However, it’s worth noting that there is additional research demonstrating that encouraging sugar (particularly glucose) intake actually improved survival rates in mice infected with the flu virus (cite). If you do contract COVID-19, it's possible that consuming more glucose may be beneficial.
Lung, Throat, Sinus, & Mouth Hygiene
10. KEEP THE AREA CLEAN!
We all should know by now that it’s a good idea to wash your hands and not touch your face - but there’s even more we can do to be practicing good hygiene. Sometimes, for some reason, it’s easy for us to forget that the body is connected to itself. COVID-19 likes to infect our lungs - which are connected to our throats, which are connected to our mouths and noses. Therefore, cleaning all of those areas regularly can help demote a COVID-19 infection. Washing your hands regularly and frequently is a start - but there's more cleaning in the area that be done.
Clean Your Mouth - Brush Twice Daily! A COVID-19 infection, at its worst, will land its victim on a ventilator. Before COVID-19, pneumonia was already a common infection for those on ventilators (cite) as well as those in hospital setting. COVID-19 places a patient at an even higher risk for pneumonia (cite). A study done in 2016 demonstrated that by simply brushing the teeth twice a day of 168 patients on ventilators significantly decreased their risk of pneumonia (cite). Similar results were also found in a 2011 study (cite). A VA medical center found a 90% reduction in hospital-acquired pneumonia for those not on a ventilator (cite). The theory is that regular brushing removes potentially pathogenic microorganisms from your mouth and may help reduce respiratory infections (cite) like COVID-19.
Clean Your Sinuses & Throat. If you are like me and suffer from psoriasis, you may have already noticed that you are more likely to get throat infections (cite). Having endured many a throat, sinus, and lung infection myself, below are the strategies that I have found helpful in preventing such infections in my own life, replete with study citations.
COVID-19 causes respiratory tract infections, which can affect your upper respiratory tract (sinuses, nose, and throat) or lower respiratory tract (windpipe and lungs) (cite). What may start as an upper respiratory tract infection of COVID-19 (such as having a cough) may progress into a lower respiratory tract infection (like pneumonia) (cite).
Keeping the upper respiratory tract as clean as possible may help reduce the likelihood of developing pneumonia or more serious COVID-19 complications. Take care of your upper respiratory tract by:
Get my free Immune Boosting Grocery List here!
11. Take Those Allergy Meds (Especially on Bad Days)
Spring is in the air, which means allergens are increasingly in the air as well. While having occasional mild allergies may be tolerable, if you experience more severe allergies for days on end, it may be best to take an allergy medication to reduce your allergic response. If moderate to severe allergies persist, then “a chronic state of nasal inflammation and obstruction develops, frequently leading to more serious complications in both the upper and the lower airways” (cite, cite). It’s possible that untreated chronic allergies may contribute to an increased risk of contracting COVID-19, so use allergy medications to help reduce your risk.
12. Exercise! But Not Too Much
While regular, moderate exercise improves immune system regulation, now is not the time to be training for a physical competition or to be excessively over exercising. In fact, there is research demonstrating that the increase of white blood cell levels seen in Boston marathon runners parallel certain disease states (cite). Excessive exercise is hard on the immune system, as your body cannot both exercise and actively use its immune system at the same time. As a rule of thumb, check out the American Heart Association guidelines which recommend, per week, 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity OR 1.25 hours of vigorous aerobic activity (cite). I have seen over exercising in several of my autoimmune clients - so this is of particular concern for those with autoimmune diseases.
13. Sleep In! Take Naps!
Adequate sleep is another key factor of an optimally functioning immune system. In fact, research demonstrates that lack of sleep can make you more susceptible to viruses. While we sleep, our immune systems are busy creating a set of proteins called cytokines, which help us fight off infections. Inadequate sleep lowers the amount of cytokines our body can produce, lowering our overall immune strength (cite).
14. Work on Reducing Your Stress & Anxiety Levels
It is well known that chronic stress can - and will - negatively affect your immune functioning (cite). Learning to recognize, address, and ultimately minimize your stress levels over time is a difficult journey, but absolutely worthwhile. If you already have practices in place to help you manage stress, now is the time to lean into them. This is a common topic of discussion during one-on-one sessions with my autoimmune clients. If you are new to working with stress, here are some suggestions:
Explore meditating. If you are new to the practice, I highly recommend the Buddhify app. Buddhify has many pre-recorded guided meditations that are easily categorized to pair with your current mindset (stress, anxiety, fear, etc) or activity (waking up, going to sleep, trouble going to sleep, walking, on a work break, etc). This inexpensive app will be your best friend for years to come.
Practice yoga, or another mindful movement. There are increasing online yoga classes and resources during this time, such as this excellent anti-anxiety home yoga routine, by yoga and meditation instructor Chris Johnson. If you are in need of relaxation over a “work out”, then search for a yin yoga offering.
Try adaptogen herbs. These are herbs that help the body handle stress (cite, cite). There are several adaptogenic herbs. I often steer my clients towards ashwagandha - which has been shown to significantly reduce stress levels (cite) - as it is affordable and easily purchased in pill or tincture form. Another great adaptogen is reishi - known for its immune stimulating properties (cite). I like mixing the mushroom powders from Four Sigmatic with reishi into my morning coffee.
Consume More Magnesium. Magnesium has anxiety-reducing properties (cite), and is considered a common deficiency in Westernized societies (cite). Work on increasing your intake of foods high in magnesium (below). For more information on magnesium supplements, explore this article.
15. Obviously… Quit Smoking or Vaping Now!
Has there ever been a better time to quit? It is now being theorized that vaping may increase your risk of becoming infected with COVID-19 and/or experiencing more severe symptoms (cite). The same is considered true at this point in time for cigarette, tobacco, and cannabis smokers (cite).
eat yer veggies
Caylee Clay is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist & yoga teacher specializing in psoriasis & food sustainability. By following her own health path with a goal of naturally putting her psoriasis into remission, she is a top resource for other psoriasis sufferers. Also, she believes that healthy living & sustainability go hand-in-hand — every bite you take has the power to improve both the world and your health!