Holistic/Integrative Nutrition

8 Ways to Boost Immunity

During this trying time of concern over COVID-19, commonly referred to as coronavirus, recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other state and federal organizations have centered around washing hands, avoiding touching your face, and staying home.

However, not much press has been given to a key concept that dietitians know plenty about when it comes to staying well: tapping into the power of diet (and supplements) to fortify the body’s immune function. RDs have an incredible opportunity to leverage their knowledge and experience and potentially play a vital role in helping to reduce the spread and severity of COVID-19.

As dietitians know, there are numerous dietary and supplemental strategies that can offer support for a more resilient immune system. No matter your place of work, you can offer the following helpful advice to clients.

1. Consume immune-protective herbs and spices. Ginger, garlic, onions, oregano, rosemary, and thyme all have properties that help fight off viruses and harmful bacteria and give the body’s defenses a natural boost. Suggest clients whip up garlicky hummus, sip raw ginger tea, and throw oregano and rosemary into salads and roasted vegetable dishes or even a chickpea/tuna salad. Or go for an all-in-one elixir with my flu buster.

2. Munch on more orange foods. Carrots, sweet potatoes, and winter squashes all are rich in beta-carotene, which has been shown to protect lung function and act as a strong defender against less favorable bugs. Beta-carotene also gets converted to vitamin A, which is critical for immune function. Bright-colored fruits and veggies in general offer all kinds of antioxidant protection and bolster the body’s infection-fighting mechanisms.

3. Eat vitamin C–rich foods. Citrus, red peppers, broccoli, and kiwi all are great sources of vitamin C. Suggest clients start their day with a grapefruit or an orange or throw sliced peppers on their sandwich. Studies show that consuming vitamin C can help prevent illness. For extra insurance, I suggest a supplement of 500 mg/day. Recommend clients read supplement labels to look for accompanying flavonoids, which help improve absorption and utilization of this important nutrient.

4. Zap it with zinc. Zinc is key for immune function, and it tends to be lower in those who are older, who take antacids, and in some vegetarians and vegans. Clients can find high amounts of zinc in meat and seafood and in moderate amounts in sunflower and pumpkin seeds. A low-dose supplement of 15-25 mg/day (taken with food) can offer clients an additional immune-system boost. Remind clients that supplement quality matters, and suggest they look for zinc supplements in the form of zinc picolinate, which has been shown to be best absorbed.

5. Pop a fortifying supplement. I swear by elderberry syrup or tinctures. Research shows elderberry can protect against flu and fortify the immune system as well as be an effective treatment for upper respiratory infections. This supplement can be found in natural food stores and even in some drugstores. Trusted brands clients can look for include Sambucol, Gaia, or Garden of Life.

6. Get your vitamin D. At this time of year and for those living in more northern locations, serum levels of this critical vitamin can decline. Vitamin D is essential for optimal immune function and has been shown to help address respiratory infections. Supplementing is an easy way to get 1,000 IU/day, a safe amount for most people and one shown to raise low serum vitamin D levels (ie, those below 30 ng/mL). Vitamin D also can be found in mushrooms, fatty fish, and eggs.

7. Give the magic of mushrooms a try. These fungal gems can offer an excellent boost to the immune system and provide some food (in the form of beta glucans) for beneficial gut bacteria, which help fend off infection. Suggest clients toss them into salads, stir-frys, and soups or, if mushroom ain’t their thang, there’s a supplement for that. My personal fave: MyCommunity, a collection of different mushrooms for immune support in a simple capsule.

8. Minimize alcohol, sugar, and processed foods. Not only can the consumption of these foods increase the risk of suppressing the immune system, but eating them often means that healthful and supportive nutrients are displaced. Getting clients and patients to focus on a whole foods diet instead of heavily processed foods and try a seltzer with a splash of juice or a few drops of bitters instead of a cocktail can be helpful advice.

Think dietitians can’t also be superheroes in the COVID-19 outbreak? Just watch us!

— Mary Purdy, MS, RDN, serves as adjunct faculty at Bastyr University where she earned her master’s degree. She has provided clinical nutrition counseling for the past 12 years, hosts the podcast Mary’s Nutrition Show, and speaks regularly at a variety of conferences.

5 Comment

  1. So glad to see elderberry and the compelling evidence for its use in the discussion here! Thanks for the thoughtful article with specific examples, great to share.

  2. I’m sorry, this doesn’t belong on this site. Elderberry syrup is not evidence based. RDs need to be evidence based. Please remove this

    1. Thanks for your comment, Annie. Actually, good news! A 2019 meta analysis came out that states ” Supplementation with elderberry was found to substantially reduce upper respiratory symptoms.” and concludes “These findings present an alternative to antibiotic misuse for upper respiratory symptoms due to viral infections, and a potentially safer alternative to prescription drugs for routine cases of the common cold and influenza.” You can find that study here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30670267

      Additionally, there was an RCT in 2016 that showed a reduced duration of colds in travelers. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4848651/

      Elderberries are also rich in anthocyanin, a flavonoid that was featured in this TD article in 2014. https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/030314p20.shtml More research has continued to emerge on this protective phytochemical over the past 5 years as well. https://lpi.oregonstate.edu/mic/dietary-factors/phytochemicals/flavonoids.

      In any case, there certainly isn’t harm in adding this option in as a way to potentially offer additional support. As dietitians we can use the best evidence available combined with years of clinical practice and experience around strategies that we have found to be effective. (See the Academy’s 2019 statement on Evidenced Based Practice) Thanks!

      The Academy 2019 definition of Evidence-Based Dietetics Practice is:

      Evidence-based practice is an approach to health care wherein credentialed nutrition and dietetics practitioners use the best available evidence, to make decisions for patients/clients, customers, individuals, groups, or populations.

      1. Thanks for your article & response, Mary Purdy!! Am listening to your lecture/teaching through IFNA – Track 4, module 3 this week!!

        1. Thanks, Cindra! Appreciate your positive response and hope the IFNA module is helpful. Here’s to continuing to learn from one another.

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