Dr Michelle Watson

How to boost your immune system

For COVID-19 and Influenza Season

By Dr Michelle Watson, Nutritionist

With the Covid-19 pandemic now on our shores it is important to keep yourself as healthy as possible by boosting your immune system.  This may help protect you, your family and the vulnerable people in the community. Short of self-isolating yourself and family, the best way to prevent this infection or, at least minimise its symptoms is by living a healthy lifestyle. For Australia, it is even more important to boost our immunity as we are coming into a flu season as well as confronting the Covid-19 virus. It is certainly an emotional roller coaster for us all as the situation is evolving daily but it is important not to panic and get caught up the in the social media hype and to use common sense.

As a GP and a Nutritionist, I know how important it is to protect yourself, family and  greater community by boosting your immume system through good nutrition and healthy practices. Research says that for 80% of people who contract the virus, symptoms may be mild cold like symptoms or no symptoms at all. Whereas, the other 10-20% of the elderly population, immunosuppressed and those with co-morbidities such as elevated BP, lung disease, diabetes, heart disease , autoimmune disease and cancer can get very ill requiring hospitilisation or even die from Covid-19.  Hence, the importance of controlling the spread of the virus and boosting the immune system.

Here are a few simple guidelines to assist boosting the immune system.

  • It is recommended to get an annual flu immunisation at least two weeks before the season begins.
  • Frequent hand-washing with soap and water for at least 20-30 seconds or use alcohol hand gel  throughout the day.
  • Getting adequate sleep every night to give your body rest and to manage stress levels.  Sleep deprivation and stress can increase cortisol, which if prolonged can suppress the immune system from working efficiently.
  • Avoid smoking as this weakens the basic immune defense and raises the risk of respiratory infections.
  • Drink less alcohol, as excessive consumption may dampen the immune system and increase susceptibility to respiratory infections.
  • Avoid stimulants such as energy drinks, caffeinated drinks as they can lead to depressing the immune system by causing dehydration which may create an inviting environment for viruses.
  • A strong immune system is your best defense against disease and to decrease the exposure of viruses and other pathogens. If coughing, sneezing and feeling generally unwell, stay home from work, school and other communal areas. Call your GP for advice and you will be directed to the most appropriate action.
  • Get regular exercise at least for 30mins at least five times a week and get outside. Remember your social distancing.
  • During cold and flu season and now with Covid-19 infection increasing, it is important we maintain a healthy immune system such as maintaining a healthy weight, muscle mass, good hygiene practices, adequate hydration, healthy balanced diet and regular exercise.
  • Strengthening your immune system with a diet rich in good quality protein, vitamins, minerals and whole unprocessed foods may help you ward off an infection. As we are seeing many people are buying processed foods, these may be inflammatory to the gut and weaken the immune system. You still have plenty of time to prepare and freeze prepared nutritious foods if you are required to go into lockdown. Here’s a look at some immunity-building nutrients and the foods that provide them.
  • Vitamin C

Vitamin C plays an important part in our immune systems. This includes acting on T-lymphocytes, which organises and coordinates the body’s disease fighting cells, and to devour and destroy foreign invaders, such as viruses.

Good sources of Vitamin C include citrus fruits, strawberries, spinach, kale, brussel sprouts, broccoli, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and rock melon (cantaloupes), frozen and fresh berries such as blueberries and raspberries.

  • Vitamin D

Vitamin D helps regulate both the innate and adaptive immune systems and helps quickly identify and destroy pathogens from entering the body.

The best sources of Vitamin D include fatty fish (salmon, herrings, tuna and sardines), shellfish (oysters and shrimp), egg yolks, mushrooms, fortified milk and cereals. Vitamin D is also synthesised with exposure to sun light. Hence, it is important to get adequate Vitamin D through sun exposure, this may include 10-15 minutes a day at least 5 times per week, those with darker skin may need a bit more. It is important to be sun-safe too.

  • Zinc

Zinc acts in the immune system by developing and activating T-lymphocytes.  Zinc helps to prevent cold viruses from binding and replicating in the mucous membranes of the nose, hence, slowing or preventing the pathogens from entering the body.

A good source of zinc includes, cooked oysters, crab and lobster, grass-fed beef and lamb, wheat germ, spinach, cashew, pumpkins, squash, sesame seeds and for the chocolate lovers, dark chocolate.

  • Vitamin B6

Vitamin B6 supports many biochemical reactions in the body that assist your body in fighting infections.
Vitamin B6 can be found in grass-fed beef, turkey and chicken breast, salmon, tuna, pistachio’s, sunflower and sesame seeds, avocadoes and whole grains.

  • Probiotics

Probiotics are required to keep the digestive system functional. They help break down  dangerous pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. A healthy gut helps prevent pathogens from entering the blood stream.

Good sources of probiotics include live and active cultures, sauerkraut, sour pickles, organic natural yoghurt, kefir, dark chocolate and olives (cured in brine).

  • Protein

When protein is consumed it is broken down into amino acids. These amino acids are then dispersed into proteins your body needs to function. These include antibodies and complement proteins that support the immune system.

Protein is found in meats, fish, low-dairy products such as yoghurt, milk and cottage cheese, almond milk, eggs, beans and nuts.

  • Garlic, onions, ginger and tumeric are known to boost the immune system and have anti-inflammatory properties which may help protect the immune system.
  • Hydration

Drinking at least 8 glassess of water a day may help flush toxins from the body and support the health of the immune system. Water is vital in helping the immune system as it assists in carry important nutrients and pathogen-fighting cells to cells in the body to fight off dangerous germs, pathogens that may weaken the immune system. That is, without water, the body’s defenses cannot be mobilised or toxins removed.

So let’s be proactive and prepare ourselves for this up and coming flu season and Covid-19 virus by having the best health we can.  However, be mindful of those who can’t get the shops or afford to ‘stock-up’ and take only what you need. In times like this we need to come together and help each other and assist those in need.