There is no vaccine for COVID-19, but improving your immune system might increase your chances of avoiding the coronavirus or lessening its impact.
The best way to do that is to eat well and get enough sleep, says Tracy Conder, Old Dominion University’s dietitian.
“Your body may have a better chance of fighting” coronavirus off with an improved immune system,” she said. “I say may have, because we don’t really know everything there is to know about the coronavirus. But a stronger immune system helps fight other diseases.”
Her recommendations include the healthy habits most of us have heard – eat foods high in antioxidants and fiber, take probiotics and get enough sleep.
Yet you may not know that eating enough protein is a big factor in your overall health.
“I often hear from students that they don’t understand why they are still getting the flu and colds even though they are taking vitamins and doing other things they should,” she said. “When I start asking them what they’re eating, they realize they’re not getting enough protein. Protein builds your immune system.”
You also should spread the protein you eat throughout the day, with approximately one-third coming from each meal.
You should eat one-half of a gram of protein per day for every pound you weigh. So if you weigh 150 pounds, you should be eating 75 grams. And that doesn’t mean loading up on steaks, hamburgers and pork chops. Conder recommends dairy products, nuts, beans, legumes, chickpeas and fish.
There are 14 grams of protein in a cup of chickpeas, eight in a cup of milk and 10 with a sandwich that includes a slice of sandwich meat and cheese.
Peanut butter? Not so much. Most peanut butter contains added oil and sugar, she said.
Conder’s recommendations to improve your immune system.
1. Take care of your gut.
Eat 25 to 45 grams of fiber daily, including salads, whole grains, beets, oats, barley, nuts and seeds. You should also eat insoluble fiber, which acts like a personal trainer for your gut by pushing up against the side walls of our intestines and keeping them strong so they can absorb nutrients. Insoluble fiber can be found in unpeeled apples, prunes, peas, cauliflower, potatoes, beans, brown rice, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
A pre- and probiotic will help the gut microbiome stay healthy and help us absorb nutrients. Take a probiotic supplement or eat foods with live cultures, such as yogurt. Prebiotic foods include legumes such as chickpeas, whole grains like brown rice, bananas and asparagus.
2. Drink enough water.
You should drink about half an ounce of water a day for every pound you weigh (a 200-pound person would drink 100 ounces). Staying hydrated helps our body flush out toxins, which harm your immune system.
3. Avoid sugar.
Sugar feeds bad bacteria, disrupting its balance with good bacteria. The American Heart Association recommends less than 25 grams of added sugar a day for women and less than 36 grams for men. For women, that’s about five teaspoons of sugar; For men, it’s about six.
Do not count sugar found naturally in foods but do count sugar added to cereals and other processed food.
4. Eat protein, omega-3 and antioxidants.
Protein helps build antibodies which boost the immune system. Chicken, turkey, fish, beef, eggs, soy and legumes are high in protein, iron and zinc.
Include foods high in omega-3 fatty acids to reduce inflammation -avocados, almonds, walnuts, tuna, salmon, flax, Chia seeds (preferably seeds that have been ground).
Antioxidants help fight against free radicals that can destroy our body’s cells and immune system. Look for foods that contain vitamin A, C, E and polyphenols. Sources of vitamin E include nuts, seeds and spinach. Other foods high in antioxidants are oranges, blueberries, apples, bell peppers, broccoli, sweet potatoes, carrots, asparagus, beets, onions and mushrooms.
Instead of taking various vitamins, take a general multivitamin.
Many vitamins are meant to work together in certain amounts, and most multivitamins are packaged to be balanced and take that into consideration. Take a multivitamin anytime you’re going through a period of stress.
Many people have a vitamin D deficiency. Active vitamin D is sent to your immune cells and turns on key peptides that trigger body responses to fight off infections. Vitamin D is found in fatty fish, egg yolk, milk and fortified foods such as orange juice, tofu and cereals. If deficient, typically a supplement of 2,000-5,000 IU of vitamin D3 is recommended per day under the care of a physician.
6. Get enough sleep.
A lack of sleep changes the hormones in the body, and hormones are responsible for handling stress.
If you don’t get enough sleep, it makes you less satisfied with the food you eat and will make you crave sugar. When you’re craving sugar, you don’t always make the best food choices.
Start with 7½ hours and see how you feel.
A last word from Conder: “You may not be able to incorporate everything I’ve mentioned, so start with one goal and try to get a consistent pattern. It takes 21 days to form a new habit, so don’t get discouraged if you don’t get it right away.”
Harry Minium is senior executive writer for Old Dominion University.