Fitness Facts: Give your immune system a boost

By Liz Cook
Registered Dietitian, Canyon Health and Wellness Clinic

EDITOR'S NOTE: In honor of National Nutrition Month, Fitness Facts will focus on nutrition each week this March -- and will host a healthy eating trivia contest. To enter, email your answer to [email protected] by the end of the day each Friday to be entered to win a healthy prize basket. One winner will be selected each week, as well as one grand prize winner at the end of the month. Good luck!

It’s no secret that avoiding sickness is top of mind for most of us right now.

While avoiding sickness by doing things like stocking up on hand sanitizer and Lysol can be beneficial, it's easy to forget one of our best defenses – our immune system.

Our immune systems are designed to prevent against bacteria, viruses and other potential threats to our health. The foods we eat, supplements we take and lifestyle behaviors we engage in can all strengthen or weaken our immune system. Today I want to talk a little bit about how to strengthen your body’s defense system from the inside out.

If today’s trivia question was, “What is one way to boost your immune system?” I would expect a ton of emails saying vitamin C! We have heard time and time again that vitamin C helps support immunity, and this is valid. It acts as an antioxidant and helps protect against disease.

Citrus fruits are great sources of vitamin C, as are bell peppers, berries, kiwi, broccoli and brussels sprouts. Including these foods in our daily diet is important to boost the immune system. Vitamin C supplements are also common, and while I do believe they can be beneficial, they are often not necessary when you are eating a well-balanced diet that includes the foods listed above.

In general, women should aim to consume about 75 milligrams of vitamin C daily, while men should aim for 90 milligrams per day. To put this into perspective, ½ cup of red bell pepper contains 95 milligrams, 1 medium orange contains 70 milligrams, and ½ cup of cooked broccoli contains 51 mg. It is realistic to get all the vitamin C you need daily from food.

If you do choose to supplement, here are a few tips.

First, more is not always better. Studies show we should not take in more than 2,000 milligrams of vitamin C daily.

To put this into perspective, two packets of Emergen-C contains 2,000 mg of vitamin C. Second, many vitamin C powders, gummies, chews, etc. contain a fair amount of added sugars. When looking for a supplemental form of vitamin C, look for one with little to no added sugars. My favorite supplement is Nuun Immunity, which contains 200 milligrams of vitamin C and only 2 grams of added sugar per tablet. Make sure to stay within the serving suggestion listed on the packaging for the best outcome.

Zinc is another nutrient linked to helping our immune system fight bacteria and viruses. The recommended daily intake of zinc is 8 milligrams per day for women, and 11 milligrams per day for men. Foods such as meat, poultry and seafood are the best sources of zinc, while foods like beans, nuts, whole grains and dairy products contain zinc as well.

As with vitamin C, it is possible for most of us to get enough zinc from the foods we eat. If you were to consume yogurt for breakfast, a handful of nuts as a snack, a salad topped with mushrooms, chickpeas and cheese at lunch, a chicken breast with brown rice and veggies at dinner, and a small piece of dark chocolate as dessert, you would have consumed about 12 milligrams of zinc for the day.

Like vitamin C, more isn’t always better with zinc, and intakes of more than 40 milligrams per day can cause side effects. When taking zinc-containing supplements, be sure to check the amount per serving, and stay within the recommended servings per day. The Nuun Immunity linked above contains 5 milligrams of zinc in addition to the vitamin C for a nice little boost without overdoing it.

Elderberry and echinacea are supplements frequently found in the “immune support” section of the pharmacy, as well.

Elderberry acts as an antioxidant and helps our bodies defend against infections. It is thought to give our immune system a boost and is best taken before getting sick.

Similarly, echinacea works as an antioxidant and is thought to stimulate our immune system. Again – stick to recommended dosages listed on the packaging, and don’t fall into the more-is-better trap! Probiotics are a hot topic in wellness right now and also can help our immune system. Try incorporating probiotic-containing foods, such as yogurt, kefir, tempeh, kimchi and sauerkraut into your diet before running out to grab a probiotic pill or capsule.

Some foods also can play a role in strengthening our immune system and improving overall health. Garlic has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. It is also a prebiotic fiber, meaning it feeds the good bacteria you are putting into your gut when you eat the probiotic foods listed above. Ginger and turmeric both have anti-inflammatory properties and can benefit your overall health and immune system. Nuts are a great source of vitamin E, which also acts as an antioxidant and is important in maintaining optimal immune function.

Staying hydrated is also key for general health and optimal immune function. When we are optimally hydrated, our bodies can function at their best, meaning our immune system can also do its job best. Aim to drink plenty of water and non-caffeinated beverages throughout the day. Green tea specifically has been shown to have antioxidant properties, which makes it a great water alternative when you feel like you just can’t drink any more water.

Additionally, honey exhibits antibacterial properties, so a cup of green tea with honey may give you that little extra lift. Just remember, we want to avoid too much added sugar, which can be inflammatory and counterproductive, so keep the honey to about one teaspoon per cup of tea.

Behaviors, coupled with good nutrition, can have a serious impact on your immune system, which brings us to the last two points to make.

The first point is sleep. Getting seven to nine hours of good, quality sleep gives your body a chance to recharge and your immune system a good opportunity to fight off anything it may need to. If there was ever a time to prioritize sleep – this is it!

And finally, stress. Stress increases our production of a hormone called cortisol, which weakens our immune system and leaves us more susceptible to sickness. Stressing about the potential of catching a virus is only going to weaken your body’s defense. Take a walk, read a book, call a friend, play with your kids, whatever you do to relax. Make a little extra time for it!

Finally, it wouldn’t be fair to leave this one off – wash your hands.

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Here is your trivia question of the week: What are two foods high in vitamin C and two foods high in zinc? Send your answer to [email protected] by the end of the day Friday to be entered to win!

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