Some people have sledding and hot chocolate traditions. Others light a fire in the fireplace and watch a favorite winter movie.
In our family, winter brings with it all sorts of routines to boost our immune systems.
But you better believe we’re keeping up on these natural immune boosters during a viral pandemic!
Rebuttal: “Nothing Can Boost Your Immune System Against COVID-19 / Novel Coronavirus”
I’ve seen it across the Internet this past month, dire warnings that you cannot boost your immune system, no supplements or foods can help, and please stop spreading this dangerous misinformation about the human body! (paraphrased)
One example from the Dietitians of Canada:
“Simply put, you cannot ‘boost’ your immune system through diet and no specific food, supplement or natural health product will prevent you from catching COVID-19.
To date, the Government of Canada has not approved any product to prevent, treat or cure COVID-19.”
To be fair, the dietitians do go on to recommend a healthy diet and lifestyle habits but won’t touch recommending certain foods over others. #nothelpful
Live Science and author Nicoletta Lanese are careful to dispel any “unlikely” claims, “modest” results, and lack of evidence for Vitamin C’s effects against SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It seems like we should wait until a clinical trial in Wuhan is finished in September before acting on any previous studies.1
A CNN article by Lisa Drayer (Mar 27 2020) was bold enough to claim that food CAN help boost the immune system (hooray!) and listed the following nutrients and related foods:
- Beta carotene
- Vitamin C (although ironically the top listed foods are only medium Vitamin C amounts; see a great list from an integrative pediatrician here – see how red pepper is almost 3x higher than an orange?!)
- Vitamin D
- Prebiotics (we recently hosted an expert guest post on the importance of prebiotics to your microbiome!)2
CNBC also goes out on that limb and recommends that actual foods might give your body more ammunition against a virus (gasp!), and they list red peppers first! Makes me glad we are eating a lot of chickpeas, sunflower seeds, and garlic lately.3
In part two of the CNN story, Drayer put weight behind exercise, meditation, sleep and stress management (although I would put the vote in for stress mastery instead, more brain-based and effective!).4
Related: HeartMath Review
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The New York Times author Tara Parker-Pope also was careful to say that there’s no specific food or supplement proven to boost the immune system (really? Not at all?) but goes on to cite great studies about stress, sleep, Vitamin D, a balanced diet, and exercise and cautioning against alcohol and any unproven supplement or home remedy claims.5
The problem I see? There can’t be ANY proven supplements against this novel coronavirus, because it’s just that – novel. No one has had time to do studies, but rather than avoid any possible successes (like the garlic, chicken broth, and elderberry Parker-Pope mentions with disdain), it seems that if there are no possible side effects to say, eating SOUP, one might embrace them in the hopes that their immune system might improve!
So I’ll take the best research there is and wisdom about the human body in general since we humans have been around since before the latest coronavirus and will sustain afterward. Let’s give our amazing systems what we can to support the defenses we were designed with, shall we? (Whether research has fully proven the benefits against COVID-19 specifically or not, as long as there aren’t side effects!)
These are the immune-boosting products and practices my family has relied on for years, and I would also direct you to my friend, Dr. Elisa Song, a holistically-minded MD who has been researching this coronavirus pandemic obsessively. She recently shared her immune support plan for a pandemic, including lifestyle habits, foods and nutrients, and immune-supporting supplements.
Kitchen Stewardship has always been about the balance — between budget and time, your family’s nutrition and the environment, and your general sanity. Let’s seek balance in this too, by using strategies that we can control, that don’t cost too much, and that are safe, and by trying to ignore those media pieces that are just trying to overwhelm us with negativity.
Of course, none of these measures will guarantee you don’t catch coronavirus, but the stronger your immune system is, the better prepared you are to fight any virus.
Fighting Viruses Naturally – What We Use
Xlear Nasal Spray
Xlear is a new one this winter for our family. It’s a nasal saline spray with xylitol and grapefruit seed extract. The xylitol is the most important part.
To use, squirt two to four squirts into one nostril, blow your nose, squirt in the other side and blow your nose again. Note that since this goes in your nose, each family member will need their own bottle.
I can’t tell you how many times this was recommended to our family in the last six months. First, I’ve got kids with dust allergies and this is an important way to clear out their nasal passages for good sleep.
I’ve also seen Dr. Elisa Song say this is one of the best ways to prevent colds and the flu. Partly because viruses have to enter our bodies somewhere and the nose is one of the easiest places for them to get in. It’s the least protected spot. If something gets in your mouth, your digestive system may very well kill that virus before it gets you.
The third place this Xlear was recommended was by my dentist because we’ve got some mouth breathers at night. Mouth breathing is both a cause and effect of nasal congestion so she said it’s really good to clear out your nasal congestion before you sleep so that you can close your mouth.
Over the course of the fall and winter, we ended up with six of these in the house, one for each person. It’s not a hard thing to do, it’s just a little bit uncomfortable, but as far as the daily routine right now, spraying out your nose is a great idea.
There is research that propolis, which is a bee product, is actually a really powerful antiviral substance.6
So we use this throat spray from Beekeepers Naturals – two to four squirts a couple of times a day is fine. My kids love it! It tastes kind of sweet.
Propolis is from beehives. It’s basically bees’ defense mechanism against the rest of the world. For example, if a mouse were to crawl into a beehive the bees could kill it, but they couldn’t remove it, the decaying mouse would kill their whole hive. The bees coat the whole thing in propolis and preserve it. Isn’t that wild!?
RELATED: I did an interview with the owner of Beekeepers Naturals all about bee products. So fascinating!
Vitamins that Boost Immunity
I’ve seen a lot of practitioners say keep up with your V, Vitamin K and Vitamin C.
I don’t actually have Vitamin A in our regimen, other than in our grass-fed butter.
We do take D which is generally inexpensive and they’re usually tiny little pills that even little kids can often swallow. (We normally take Perfect Supplements brand, but they’re currently reformulating and unavailable.)
In a 2017 review of 25 studies in the British Medical Journal, researchers showed that a Vitamin D may offer some protection against colds, flus, and other viruses.7
It’s important to pair Vitamin D with Vitamin K. We take Vitamin K from a company called JustThrive. (Use the code “Katie15” for 15% off.)
My five-year-old can’t quite swallow the Vitamin K so he gets drops from Raise Them Well that has both Vitamins D and K mixed already and they like really don’t taste like much of anything.
This time of year, especially if you live in northern climates like us, your system is starting to run out of any stores of Vitamin D you may have had from last August or September when we last saw the sun. (That’s one theory as to why people get sicker in the winter because we’re running out of Vitamin D.) So to me, Vitamins D and K are really important.
I know a lot of people rely on Vitamin C for immune boosting. Paleovalley has a good food-based source of Vitamin C. It’s a capsule but you could open it to mix it in with smoothies for the kids, or even into applesauce or yogurt. We also have a bottle of powdered Vitamin C from Earthley.
Gut & Microbiome Health for Immunity
I’m always keeping up on our probiotics.
This is not a recommendation specifically for viruses, but a healthy gut microbiome is the foundation of all health so my younger kids are currently taking a liquid probiotic from Mary Ruth’s, and the adults and my oldest son are currently taking JustThrive probiotics. We rotate those probiotics quite regularly, at least for the adults. For the kids we don’t have that many options.
Here are some of the probiotics we rotate through.
Some Quality Probiotics
Some of these I’ve used, some I’m planning to use, and some have been recommended by friends and professionals alike. It’s good to remember a few things about probiotics: 1. People should get different colonies of probiotics, so switching brands/strains every so often (6 weeks?) is good practice. 2. What works great for one person’s needs doesn’t always work for another.
I’ve personally tried:
- Just Thrive Probiotics – this one can be taken during antibiotics and not be rendered ineffective, which almost all other probiotics are! It’s the top recommended probiotic overall by Paleo Mom Sarah Ballantyne. 😮
- RightBioticsRX – the top recommended probiotic of all soil-based options by an expert I’ve been working with. Read more here. Use Subscribe and Save to save more!
- Note: If you’re struggling with digestion, especially constipation, or you feel like you really need to populate your gut with healthy probiotics, I would recommend Saccharomyces Boulardii in addition to any other you choose (except the 2 above which include this strain). Saccharomyces Boulardii is research-proven to get through the digestive tract without being killed, which is rare.
- Seed Daily Synbiotic – the new player in the field but recommended by superstars like Chris Kresser for its unique probiotic/prebiotic synergy. Here’s my full review including a number of surprises for my thinking and a 15% off code!
- Balance One probiotics with a unique time-release formula (use the code KITCHENS15 at either Balance One’s site or even Amazon to save 15% either place! Wow! Use the code at checkout on Amazon btw.)
For Little Ones (we use all of these):
- Mary Ruth’s liquid probiotic is a soil-based, liquid probiotic that doesn’t need to be refrigerated and tastes like…nothing! It’s my new favorite for administering to kids!
- WellBelly by WellFuture (9 strains of probiotics in apple and banana carrier – it’s a powder)
- Buddies in my Belly probiotic powder (2 strains of probiotics + potato starch carrier and prebiotics) or chewable tablets
Recommended by experts I trust:
- Biokult – highly recommended by many, including the GAPS diet
- Klaire Labs Pro-biotic complex V-caps or Ther-Biotic Complete (25 billion CFU)
- Probiophage DF (7 dairy-free strains)
- Transformation Enzymes (5 billion CFUs that may get through digestive tract…)
- Primal Blueprint (6 strains, 10 billion CFUs)
- Pharmax high potency (4 strains + FOS) or long-term HLC maintenance (2 strains)
- Pro-Bio from Enzymedica (8 strains)
- Syntol from Arthur Andrew Medical (13.6 billion CFUs with prebiotic, spore germinating blend, yeast cleanse)
And don’t forget to balance with prebiotics and a variety of plant foods to keep your microbiome healthy! The Human Microbiome Project recommends 25 different plant foods each week (remember that this includes various grains, legumes, and nuts, and then it sounds more doable than if it was just vegetables!).
Diffusing Immune Boosting Essential Oils
I’ve been diffusing immune-boosting essential oils during the day since this whole thing started. We’ve got the Germ Destroyer blend, which is KidSafe from Plant Therapy, as well as thyme. Over the years thyme oil and its constituent thymol have been shown to be antiviral and antibacterial.
RELATED: Thymol is one of the EPA-approved disinfectants against SARS-coV-2, an alternative to bleach!
Again, when pediatrician Dr. Elisa Song dug into the research, she found that sage essential oil (not clary sage but sage) is actually proven to kill coronavirus, so she’s diffusing sage like crazy along with her other anti-germ oils.8 Note: Sage is not recommended for use when pregnant, breastfeeding or around children.
Foods to Boost Immunity
If the food we eat doesn’t affect our health and immunity, what does? A real food, balanced diet that supports general health is also going to support immune function, but there are also some specific foods you can be sure to incorporate as well as some foods to avoid to promote optimal immunity.
DO Eat These Foods
Foods high in antioxidants like berries, cuciferous vegetables, onions, leafy greens, and beets boost immunity. Focus on eating a rainbow of fruits and vegetables as much as possible.9
I know it can be hard to get many colors of fruits and vegetables if you’re unable to get to the grocery store and focusing on vegetables that stay fresh the longest. Although I’ve heard from people in various places around the country that fruits and veggies seem to be well-stocked even when canned soups and white flour are sold out!
Ginger and garlic have both been studied for their effects on the immune system. You can incorporate them in recipes (like this garlic soup) or take them supplementally in higher amounts when you begin to feel something coming on.1011
Take garlic by chopping up a clove and mixing with some honey to make it a bit more palatable. Wash it down with water unless you really love chewing raw garlic (which I don’t recommend!). Ginger can be made into a tea very easily.
AVOID These Foods
If you think about foods that are bad for your gut health, those same foods may depress immunity. If you have any specific food sensitivities, you will definitely want to avoid those foods to maintain good immune function.
Some foods that may create an inflammatory response are:
- Gluten and grains
- Vegetable oils
- Caffeine and alcohol
- Processed foods
- Beans and legumes
Whether or not these foods affect you may be individual. Some people, for example, do better with legumes than others. You may need to do some experimenting to see how you react to these foods, or if you’re trying to maintain optimal immune health you may want to limit these foods if you can.
Lifestyle Factors that Boost Immunity
Don’t Let Your Sleep Slide
I have said it several times lately, as much as you can, maintain sleep routines. It’s crucial that we get enough sleep when trying to keep our immune systems strong. (Check out the benefits around the 3:30 mark here.)
A 2015 study in the Journal of Immunology Research showed that sleep is essential to maintaining homeostasis in the immune system.12
RELATED: 5 tools to help you get better sleep! (They’re all less than $20 or take about 30 seconds of your time!)
Master Your Stress
Stress has a bigger impact on our physical health than many of us realize. Have you ever noticed yourself getting sick more during times of acute stress?
Chronic stress especially leads to the suppression of immune function over time. A meta-analysis of 30 years of studies found links between chronic and acute stress and lowered immunity.13
Prayer, meditation, gratitude, and breathing techniques are all free ways to start managing your stress. I know, easier said than done, especially during times like these!
About a year ago I completed training to be a Stress Mastery Educator. (I learned that I’m stress-sensitive during that course.) I’ve put all my training into a mini-course for you guys on Stress Mastery for Busy Moms. I would love to share these techniques with you!
Depending on where you live, you may not be able to get outside much now. If you are able to, get outside every day.
Frontiers in Psychology published a study which concluded that increased immune function was the most likely reason why time spent in nature reduces your risk of a whole list of diseases and conditions.14
Bonus points if you do some sort of movement while you’re out like taking a walk. This can be a huge help in stress reduction as well as a change of scenery if you have ansty kids at home.
Connect With Community
Believe it or not, some studies have shown that connection to community increases your immunity.
A 2005 study conducted with college freshmen showed a decreased immune response in lonely students.15
Even though you can’t connect in person with your friends there are ways you can maintain connections from your home. Play a game as a family, read together, teach your kids to cook, cuddle your kids, hug your spouse, video chat with friends or extended family, or start a book club.
Connection may take a bit more intentionality while we’re in quarantine. We’re all learning not to take a playdate for granted and will hopefully value in-person connection even more when this is all over.
We Can’t Control Our Immunity
We can’t go through our days thinking that we can control illness, thinking that we can avoid it all or fearing what happens if we get sick. There’s no use worrying about what we can’t control.
Global pandemic, can’t control that. Schools closed for the year, out of my control.
But when things ARE in our control, like what we put in our mouth, what we read, and what we fill our brains and our bodies with, let’s not give up in defeat.
Something is going to go in…We can be smart and wise and do what we can without being overwhelmed by everything else.
- Lanese, N. (2020, March 10). Why vitamin C won’t ‘boost’ your immune system against the coronavirus. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/coronavirus-vitamin-c-myth.html
- Drayer, L. (2020, March 27). How to strengthen your immunity during the coronavirus pandemic. Part 1: Diet. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/25/health/immunity-diet-food-coronavirus-drayer-wellness/index.html
- Anas, B. (2020, April 3). Stock up on these 9 healthy foods to boost your immune system during coronavirus, says doctor and dietitian. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/03/stock-up-on-9-healthy-foods-to-boost-immune-system-during-coronavirus-doctor-dietitian.html
- Drayer, L. (2020, March 27). How to strengthen your immunity during the coronavirus pandemic: Exercise, meditation, sleep and stress management. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/03/26/health/immunity-exercise-sleep-meditation-stress-coronavirus-drayer-wellness/index.html
- Parker-Pope, T. (2020, March 10). Can I Boost My Immune System?. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/10/well/live/can-i-boost-my-immune-system.html
- Gniewosz, M. & Krasniewska, K. & Pobiega, K. (2017, December). Antimicrobial and antiviral properties of different types of propolis. Zeszyty Problemowe Postępów Nauk Rolniczych. 2017, 69-79. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321947294_Antimicrobial_and_antiviral_properties_of_different_types_of_propoliser(s)
- Martineau, A.R. & Jolliffe, D.A. & Hooper R.L & Greenberg L. & Aloia J.F & Bergman P. et al. (2017, February 15) Vitamin D supplementation to prevent acute respiratory tract infections: systematic review and meta-analysis of individual participant data. British Medical Journal, 356(6583) Retrieved from https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6583
- Winska, K. & Maczka, W. & Lyczko, J. & Grabarczyk, M. & Czubaszek, A. & Szumny, A. (2019, June 24). Essential Oils as Antimicrobial Agents-Myth or Real Alternative?. Molecules, 24(11). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3390/molecules24112130
- Puertollano, M.A. & Puertollano, E. & de Cienfuegos, G.A. & de Pablo, M.A. (2011). Dietary antioxidants: immunity and host defense. Curr Top Med Chem. 11(14), 1752-66. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21506934
- Arreola, R. & Quintero-Fabián, S. & López-Roa, R. I. & Flores-Gutiérrez, E. O. & Reyes-Grajeda, J. P. & Carrera-Quintanar, L. & Ortuño-Sahagún, D. (2015). Immunomodulation and anti-inflammatory effects of garlic compounds. Journal of Immunology Research, 2015, 401630. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/401630
- Sultan, M.T. & Butt, M.S. & Qayyum, M.M & Suleria, H.A. (2014). Immunity: plants as effective mediators. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr, 54(10), 1298-308. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24564587
- Ibarra-Coronado E.G. & Pantaleón-Martínez A.M. & Velazquéz-Moctezuma J. & Prospéro-García O. & Méndez-Díaz M. & Pérez-Tapia M. et al. (2015, August 31). The Bidirectional Relationship between Sleep and Immunity against Infections. J Immunol Res, 2015(678164). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26417606
- Segerstrom, S.C. & Miller, G.E. (2004). Psychological stress and the human immune system: a meta-analytic study of 30 years of inquiry. Psychological Bulletin, 130(4), 601–630. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.130.4.601
- Kuo M. (2015). How might contact with nature promote human health? Promising mechanisms and a possible central pathway. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1093. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01093
- Pressman, S.D. & Cohen, S. & Miller, G.E. & Barkin, A. & Rabin, B.S. & Treanor, J.J. (2005). Loneliness, Social Network Size, and Immune Response to Influenza Vaccination in College Freshmen. Health Psychology, 24(3), 297–306. Retrieved from https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0278-6126.96.36.1997