Hi, I’m Dr. Chad Larson. It’s time to winterize your immune system. Winter is coming pretty soon and with it, flu season. And this season has the potential to be a “twindemic” of not only influenza and frankly many other viruses that we deal with during the winter, but also the coronavirus that’s still looming. We need to do things to bolster our immune system, because there’s not just one way to create a defense against the viruses that are out there. We really have to take care of what our normal immune system biology is expecting. So I just want to run down the list of a few things you can start doing right away. The majority of them are totally free, don’t cost anything. And then there are some supplements that can be an extra boost to your immune system, if that’s something you want to do.
At the top of the list is sleep. I don’t think there’s anything that’s more of a Swiss army knife for your health, and certainly for your immune system. There’s just no shortcut for it. You have to get the proper amount of sleep. And the proper amount does vary from person to person. On average, it’s said that seven to eight hours is the adequate amount of sleep time for most people. But then there’s also the quality of sleep. Some of the other topics I’ll hit on here influence that. And one of those is the next item on my list, which is stress management.
-Dr. Chad Larson
Stress management is kind of a big term. What does it really mean? How do we actually manage stress? Well, number two is “see number one” which is sleep. If a person goes just three nights with poor sleep, they’re already in an excessive stress mode as far as physiology, regardless of any other things they might be exposed to in their environment that are also causing stress. It just speaks to the importance of sleep. It’s just so vital, not only for stress management but for your immune system and for a long list of other things. So, stress management is key.
Stress management can also roll into the next item which is exercise. Exercise is a great way to manage stress in the system. This is the concept of hormesis, or a hormetic effect. A hormetic effect is when you introduce a little bit of a stressful thing to boost your threshold so that other things aren’t as stressful on the body. In other words you’re raising your resilience. That’s what hormetic practices do. And exercise is a type of hormesis. When we exercise we’re taking the body through a rigorous activity, like going for a run or lifting weights. You’re breaking the system down and making the muscles and the cardiovascular system work a little bit harder than they want to. And in doing so, you raise your threshold. You increase the point beyond which the stress has to go in order to negatively impact your body. You may have heard of hormetic stressors such as cold plunges, which means submerging in a cold bathtub for one to three minutes, sometimes even longer as you get used to it. I think saunas can be another one. But lots of cool physiological effects happen to the body. It’s a kind of controlled stress to the system, and it makes you more resilient and resistant to life stressors that we have to deal with all the time. And this kind of rolls into the next one, which is diet.
Diet can be either very stressful to the system or very nourishing and regenerative. Why can it be stressful to the system? We’re eating foods that are high in sugar, and processed foods. We’ve talked about it many, many times. These foods are stressors in and of themselves. They create a whole cascade of physiology in the system that results in stress. Cortisol goes up and adrenaline goes up because your blood sugar is going up and down. This massively affects the immune system. There’s very clear science which shows that just one serving of a moderate amount of sugar can suppress your neutrophil activity, which is your white blood cells and the main part of your immune system, for up to five hours. The researchers stopped evaluating it at five hours, so it’s at least five hours and could be more. These are really key things.
You want to eat a diet that’s anti-inflammatory. Make sure you’re getting plenty of vegetables, you’re getting greens, you’re getting sulphur-rich foods which is the cruciferous family like broccoli. You’re getting the onion family, getting mushrooms, getting the dark, deep colors as we’re moving into fall. Root vegetables are good, like carrots and beets, these really deep, dark, rich colors. Those are kind of the three categories. Make sure you have a good, healthy source of animal protein.
And what about fats? What kinds of fats should we consume? Well, you don’t want to consume seed based oils. These are very stressful to the system. Things like soybean oil, corn oil, cottonseed oil. They’re highly processed; it takes so much science to extract the oil out of these things. They’re very inflammatory for your system. Not going to boost your immune system at all. But there are other plant-based fats like coconut oil, avocado oil. You can use these in your foods and they’re very healthy. There are some good, healthy, natural animal fats. Obviously you can consume foods that are very rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon and deep water fish.
Diet is a key centerpiece. It’s up there with sleep among things that are within our control for the most part, and could have a massive impact on supporting our immune system going into flu season.
You also want to make sure to get out in nature. Even as it gets colder and it’s a little less inviting to go outside, it’s important to make sure you’re getting out. Maybe it’s not so much for the sunshine, although getting outside when the sun is out is a really good idea. But just getting outside in the fresh air and getting back to nature is essential.
And you want to be sure to hydrate on a regular basis. Whether or not you’re exercising on a particular day, you’ve got to make sure you hydrate. It’s really key for the immune system. Remember, a big part of our immune system is the mucosal immune system, our mucous membranes. What is the mucous membrane mostly filled with? It’s water. We need fluid, we need the building block for the mucous membranes. If we tend to get dehydrated, or if we’re mouth breathers and we sometimes get dry mouth, that’s an inviting pathway for a virus to find its way deeper into your system. All these things really matter, and pretty much everything we’ve talked about so far is totally free. It doesn’t cost you anything to incorporate these things.
You also have to watch your alcohol intake. We’re going into a part of the season where oftentimes people consume more alcohol, and things like sweets and sugars and treats. But this is not the winter for you to do that. I’m just kind of warning you, maybe empowering you now to say, “it’s not a good time to overindulge.” You can kick that down the road for later, but this is not the time that you want to indulge in things that are going to suppress your immune system. During the holidays you may be around a lot of people that you don’t usually see, and could be exposed to many different viruses that will be going around. So try to be extra conscious this year of your sugar intake, and unfortunately the same goes for alcohol. It’ll suppress the immune system and it can definitely influence both your sleep quality and quantity. We know that excessive alcohol use makes us a more susceptible host to opportunistic pathogens. So be conscious of your alcohol use and keep it at a moderate level so it’s not affecting you this way.
All these things so far are on the diet and lifestyle side. There are also some supplements that I’ve seen in my clinical practice to be really helpful. We’re helping people boost these up prophylactically going into the winter flu season and into this whole twindemic possibility.
First, you want to make sure you’re getting a good, high-quality form of vitamin C and of vitamin D. To determine the dose of vitamin D, I always run labs on my patients to find out what their current levels are and that can indicate how much vitamin D they need to take. Regardless, you should at least get some amount of vitamin D. You need to be getting vitamin A. And I’m also really liking NAC right now. That’s n-acetyl cysteine. Not only is cysteine an important building block for glutathione which is a really key anti-inflammatory substance for all of our cells, but NAC itself has kind of an affinity for the lungs, and helps to break up excess mucus there.
You can get vitamin D and vitamin A from food sources. Don’t be afraid of organ meats like chicken liver or something like that. You can cook it a little bit, make it into a slurry in a blender, then pour it in with something else, like grass-fed ground beef. Make some hamburgers out of it, or make taco meat, something like that. You can sort of hide these organ meats like that, and they’re just loaded with vitamin D and vitamin A, and many other nutrients. But of course you can take those in supplement form as well.
You can also take fish oil as a supplement. Let’s say maybe you don’t like fish or it’s not in season where you are. Make sure you get some fish oil; it’s very anti-inflammatory for the system. These are the supplements we’re featuring with most of our patients. Vitamin C, zinc, NAC. Some people need some quercetin, a bioflavonoid that we’re seeing to be particularly effective against certain viruses. So make sure that that’s part of your supplemental regimen.
A note about probiotics. I recommend probiotics as a supplement to some people, but more often than not I recommend just eating probiotic-rich foods, almost medicinally. Even if you’re just getting in a couple bites every day of some kind of legit sauerkraut or legit pickles. Not fake pickles that aren’t really fermented at all, but good, legit probiotic-rich nutrients. In my house we really love kimchi. And there are some yogurts that are pretty good. Most of my patients we find to be reactive to dairy, so standard yogurt’s not good for them. But there are some coconut-based yogurts that actually have some good probiotics in them. And to sort of feed the probiotic, we want to make sure that we’re also getting some good prebiotic-rich foods. I mentioned some of them earlier among the sulphur-based vegetables: onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, jicama. These have nice prebiotic-rich nutrients in them that feed the probiotics. We’ve talked many times about how the immune system is surrounding the gastrointestinal tract. Seventy percent of the immune system is right around the GI tract, so if your gut’s healthy, your immune system’s healthy. And you’re eating all day, every day anyhow. Why not make that food really delicious and also make that food medicine?
So, there are a few tips for you. I think during the winter I’ll keep sprinkling in some of these ideas to keep reminding you, because there just hasn’t been a winter where this kind of information was more important. I want to sound the alarm, make you think about this stuff, bring it into the front of your brain so that you’re making conscious decisions as you go throughout your day. So I will keep reading the studies and bringing you the information. Until then, keep it real.