15 Ways to Strengthen Your Immune System, Or: How to Not Get Sick

Michael SallustioBlog

During this challenging time when we are isolated while the world tries to sort out how to respond to a novel pandemic on a seemingly hourly basis, many of us are feeling helpless and scared.  Our focus is simultaneously overwhelmed with the unknowns of our finances (when our income will return to normal) and our health (whether or not we will get sick), among other things.  So I thought I would share my formula for avoiding illness, which has proven quite successful for me and many of my clients.  These are practical things we can all do that are in addition to the obvious mantra we have heard ad nauseum about social distancing and washing our hands.

These are listed in order of priority so if you don’t want to take them on all at once begin with the first item and once you’ve mastered that go the next one and so on.  So here we go!

  1. Get Your Sleep – Sleep is your body’s chance to rest and recover and your immunity actually has a chance to reboot. If you don’t give your body sufficient rest, it will leave you with no choice but to rest.  I believe that’s what illness is — your body’s way of saying slow down and take care of your health now. The most recent studies have shown that we need 7-8 hours of sleep per night.  It’s that simple. Make it happen!  If you are having difficulty sleeping, I have a whole other blog and resources for that.
  2. Exercise, But Don’t Overtrain – The keys to an effective exercise program are consistency and intensity. This means put it on your schedule and make it count.  Begin with 20 minutes a day and make it a goal to get to 45 minutes a day. And when you are exercising, make sure it is efficient and effective.  Don’t just go through the motions.  Alternate periods of high intensity and low intensity — an interval approach.  One way to quantify this is making your high-intensity periods a 9 on a 10-scale and your low-intensity periods (recovery periods) between a 6 and an 8 on a 10-scale.

One common mistake is to overtrain or do too much and this can be counterproductive when we’re talking immunity.  Studies have shown a decrease in immune response after extended high-intensity bouts of exercise.  One way to monitor this is if you feel exhausted long after exercising you’ve done too much.  People who are addicted to hot yoga or indoor cycling classes fall into this trap.

  1. Daily Stress Management – Poor stress management is a big risk factor for compromised immunity. There is a plenty of science behind this factor. Some experts believe that stress is a common denominator in the large majority of disease conditions.  For me personally, I can absolutely see a correlation between the rare occasion when I do get sick and a preceding period of just doing too much and neglecting my stress management practices.

Practicing conscious breathing is one easily accessible practice.  Taking just 5-10 minutes a day and paying attention to your breath is a good start.  You can slowly dedicate more time to it and turn it into a meditation practice.  For many people the idea of meditation is a daunting one.  We absolutely dread the idea of sitting and doing nothing.  For others (and this includes myself when I first attempted mediation), it seems nearly impossible to clear your mind and even attempting to will actually cause frustration and increase stress.   But this is a common misperception about meditation.  It is not about clearing your mind.  It is about watching your thoughts.  When you are sitting in silence and you have a thought, simply acknowledge the thought and let it pass and move on to the next one.  Focusing on your breath and being an  observer of your thoughts is essentially meditation.

Yoga is essentially meditation with movement.  Again, your begin with following your breath while moving through a series of physical poses.  Yes, there are multiple approaches to yoga, but if you are just starting out, that is essentially it.

Another scientifically proven method of de-stressing is simply getting outdoors. Whether it’s going for a walk, riding your bike or doing yard work, removing yourself from the four walls of your home or office can do wonders for your anxiety and your immune system.  It’s even more effective in the woods.

And finally, just taking brain breaks, no matter the method.  For some, it is reading a good book.  For others, it is watching a movie or your favorite TV show.  For others, it is listening to music.   If you feel happier doing it, you’re on the right track.

4. Avoid Refined Sugar and Limit Overall Sugar Consumption – The science is well established on this one. Sugar depresses your immune system, and rather quickly after consumption.  We are talking primarily about refined sugar that is found in many processed foods, but another lesser-known culprit is fruit juice.  Fruit juices are essentially concentrated fructose so if you are going to eat fruit eat the whole fruit and try and keep it to one serving per day.     When it comes to refined sugar, read your labels and try and keep it under 10 grams per serving.  Sweeten your tea with raw honey, xylitol, monkfruit or stevia.

  1. Vitamin D – Vitamin D plays a crucial role in the immune system as well as in the secretion and regulation of other hormones that are secreted by your endocrine system, which is comprised of 36 different organs. Although the sun is the most efficient source of this essential nutrient, there is not a sufficient amount of those nourishing rays in this hemisphere to give us what we need for most of the year.  The lack of this naturally occurring vitamin D is one reason for an increase in depression in the cooler months.

 The bottom line is you should supplement with vitamin D. If you haven’t been taking it, begin with 10,000 IUs daily for 30 days then reduce to 4,000 IUs daily.  Check your blood every six  months or so to make sure you are getting enough and not over-doing it.  The test is 25 (OH) D and you want levels between 40-60 ng/ml.  Because vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient, take an emulsified liquid form (I like Biotics Research for this one).

  1. Vitamin A – This is another fat-soluble vitamin that is crucial in immune health.  Vitamin A is the parent compound of retinoids and retinoid signaling pathways are important for adult neural function and sleep.  Begin with 8-10,000 IU’s daily in an emulsified formula (like the Vitamin D) for a month then maintain a dose of 4,000 IU’s.  Do NOT substitute beta-carotene for vitamin A as this can cause a host of other problems.
  1. Eat Plenty of Greens – Leafy green and cruciferous vegetables are full of phytonutrients and minerals which alkalize the blood and nourish the liver which is a source of immunocytes. We are talking about your lettuces, kale, swiss chard, broccoli, collards, parsley, etc.  Juicing vegetables is even more potent.  One of my favorite go-to green juice recipes is: 1 bunch fresh parsley, juice from 1 lemon and 1 lime, 1 Tbsp xylitol (as a sugar alcohol sweetener), and 1 green apple skin in a liquid base of brewed green tea.  As an alternative to fresh juice, a good powdered greens formula is Nitrogreens from Biotics Research.
  1. Also Eat the Reds, Blues, Purples, and Blacks (Anthocyanines) –Vegetables and legumes containing darker pigments like red, blue, purple, and black are high in Anthocyanines which are flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects. Anthocyanines are protective against the enzymes viruses use to proliferate in the body.  Examples are black beans, purple carrots, red cabbage, purple kohlrabi, red and black lentils, eggplant, etc. I recommend soaking legumes overnight and rinsing them off before cooking them to neutralize the phytic acid that can leech essential minerals from your body.
  1. Probiotics – You have more immunocytes in your gut than anywhere else in your body. A healthy gut flora is essential to proper gut function.  Yes, there are probiotics in yogurt and apple cider vinegar, but probably not enough to have much of an impact of boosting your immunity.  I recommend taking a daily probiotic containing at least acidophilus and bifidis to colonize the small and large intestine.  Another species of probiotic is Saccharomyces boulardii which is a form of beneficial yeast that can help to keep candida yeast and other fungal components in check.  You can also take 1 Tbsp per day of raw apple cider vinegar to up the ante.
  1. MushroomsMushrooms have been shown to increase white blood cell activity and production, namely macrophage, natural killer cells, and T-cells. In addition to including more whole mushrooms in your diet, you can really supercharge your immune system by taking mushroom extract supplementally in the form of tinctures and capsules, the former being the most potent.  The company I like best for this is Host Defense. The 3 products I like best from Host Defense are:
  • My Community – a broad-spectrum formula to take when you have been exposed to an ill person or are fighting an illness.
  • Myco-Shield – a daily prevention supplement.
  • Turkey Tail  – This directly addresses the gut factor in immune health.
  1. Drink Plenty of Water – There are few things more essential to good health than proper hydration. The only reason it’s not at the top of the list is because I assume most people know this and are already doing it.  For those who aren’t, get on it!  When it comes to immunity, water helps reduce mucous and promotes the elimination of toxins.  A good place to start is ½ ounce per pound of body weight per day.  So if you weigh 150 pounds, you should be taking in at least 75 ounces of water per day.  And that does not include other liquids such as tea, coffee, or flavored beverages that contain water.  They are metabolized differently and in some cases can actually cause you to lose water.  Best to start your day with 12-16 ounces upon awakening and drink most of water between meals so as not to dilute your stomach acids and inhibit digestion.
  1. Fasting – Numerous studies have demonstrated the immune-boosting impact of fasting. And when I say fasting, I mean drinking only water for an extended period of time.  If you haven’t done this before, a 3-day water fast is the best place to start.  I try and do this a few times per year with my goal being four times annually.  Fasting is even more effective if done while you already fighting an illness to help push the pathogens from your body.  There are noteworthy additional benefits promoted by fasting such as reducing inflammation and encouraging the production of growth hormone.  Fair warning on what to expect.  The first day is full of the mental challenge of missing eating as something to do.  The second day tends to be the most challenging as this is when the real physical hunger kicks in.  By the third day, your body and mind begin to adapt to the absence of food/calories and you most people begin to feel more mental and physical energy and better quality of sleep.
  1. Limit your intake of processed foods like flour-based foods and pasteurized milk-based foods (except raw cheese and yogurt) – Foods that are highly processed such as refined, flour-based foods and other packaged foods containing preservatives are generally pro-inflammatory and often high-glycemic, meaning that promote extreme swings in blood glucose levels which sets off a cascading chain of negative metabolic events.

Foods containing gluten and casein specifically come with their own additional negative consequences because they are two of the most common food allergens.  This means your body may be reacting to these foods in an abnormal way leading to inflammation and the production of mucous, and more serious conditions such as leaky gut and irritable bowel syndrome.

Gluten is the protein in many grains such as wheat, barley, rye, oats, and spelt.  These are what most flour-based foods are made from.  These days, there are gluten-free varieties of these grains, but they would be labeled as such.  Casein is one of two types of protein in milk and is also used as a binding agent in many processed foods such as salad dressings and even some brands of canned tuna.  One exception to the casein reaction can be foods made with raw or cultured milk like some varieties of cheese and yogurt because the beneficial bacteria in these foods make it easier for the gut to assimilate. 

  1. Cold Therapy (Cryotherapy) – This involves exposing your body to extremely cold temperatures for short periods of time to stimulate your immune system. Cold exposure causes your lymph vessels to contract, forcing your lymphatic system to pump lymph fluids throughout your body, flushing the waste out of the area. This, in turn, triggers the immune system’s white blood cells to attack and destroy any unwanted substance in the fluid.  Other benefits of cryotherapy are increased energy, reduced inflammation, and better sleep.

The easiest way to go about this (although “easiest” is a relative term here) is to begin with cold showers.  Just spend the last 60-90 seconds of your shower as cold as you can tolerate, which is typically around 55 degrees in the coldest months and about 60-65 degrees in the warmest months.  To prevent hyperventilation, practice deep breathing emphasizing a full, slow exhale.

Another option is a cryo-chamber, which can be found in some salons and stand-alone storefronts.  This is full-body exposure to nitrogen gas which can get down to 250 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of three minutes.  If you’ve already done the cold showers, this is actually less uncomfortable.

For more on the science behind cryotherapy, check out the What Doesn’t Kill Us: How Freezing Water, Extreme Altitude and Environmental Conditioning Will Renew Our Lost Evolutionary Strength, by Scott Carney. 

  1. S-Acetyl Glutathione – This is a very powerful antioxidant and is very beneficial for immunity. Glutathione has long been known for its ability to prevent damage to important cellular components caused by reactive oxygen species such as free radicals, peroxides, lipid peroxides, and heavy metals.  The S-Acetyl form is more stable than other forms and absorbed more efficiently and thus is especially beneficial for the upper respiratory system.  It is being used therapeutically in asthmatics and therefore may be crucial in preventing the exacerbation of SARS type viruses.   Two companies I like for this substance are Designs for Health and Xymogen.