Simple Tricks for Boosting Immune Function

Simple Tricks for Boosting Immune Function

When my wife and I welcomed our beautiful daughter into the world almost 3 years ago, we had no idea that, in addition to an abundance of joy; she would also bring more than her fair share of germs, colds and viruses. While I’m all for exposing our immune system to a decent amount of germs (especially with kids) to bolster immunity, there are some very basic practices that we can all be doing daily to promote a healthy immune functioning. And of course, in addition to helping fight the common cold and flu, having a healthy immune system is also essential for long-term health and wellbeing.

With cold and flu season among us, I’d like to create some awareness on how we can all support and our immune system naturally. My goal for this paper is to address ways to boost long term health and immune function as well as some simple tips to implement during cold and flu season and additional remedies that can help when applied at the first sign of a cold or flu.

Long term Immunity:

Quality sleep is possibly the most undervalued activity that we do on a daily basis and, when it comes to immune function, is perhaps the most important. As this is a topic that is covered extensively in other Paleo articles, I’m just going to keep it simple- sleep deprivation has been linked to increased inflammation and increased susceptibility to catching colds and the flu. (1) Shoot for no less than 7 hours of quality sleep per night and your immune system will thank you!

For every study linking poor sleep to decreased immune function, you’ll find another discussing the many ways that stress affects immunity. Interestingly, the body seems to manage chronic stress (both physical and psychological) in much the same way that it manages sleep deprivation by increasing inflammation and suppressing the immune function. If you aren’t already doing so, I highly recommend making both sleep and stress management a priority.

I can’t talk about immune function without at least touching on diet, however if you’re reading this magazine my hope is that you’re already working to get your diet on track. My ideal Paleo lifestyle includes a plethora of vitamin-rich, colorful vegetables and fruits (preferably berries), plenty of healthy fats, some organic/grass fed meats, organic/farm fresh eggs and nuts and seeds in moderation. Try to include variety, don’t forget the fermented foods and avoid anything processed. In addition, studies show that foods like garlic and onions (and other members of the allium family), green tea, ginger and turmeric are all wonderful for keeping that immune system humming so try to include these in your diet daily.

Now, assuming you’re getting enough rest, managing stress, maintaining a healthy diet, exercising and not smoking or drinking excessively (I didn’t touch on these last two above but do I really need to get into the dangers of smoking?) there are still those inevitable occasions and phases in life where our immune system gets thrown off. For these times, I recommend a few additional tools that can prevent or decrease the duration and intensity of cold or flu.

Vitamin D– In my last column I discussed the importance of Vitamin D supplementation so I won’t get too detailed here. While I recommend supplementing with vitamin D throughout the year, this vitamin is particularly essential during the winter months when we are unable to obtain adequate vitamin D from the sun. In addition to being a key player in gut health, vitamin D deficiency is linked to increased autoimmunity as well as increased susceptibility to infection. (2)

Vitamin C – We can’t have an article discussing immune function without also mentioning Vitamin C. This potent antioxidant has been shown to increase the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and antibodies. Vitamin C also has intrinsic antiviral and antibacterial properties that are beneficial preventing colds and flus as well as assisting with wound healing and infection. In addition, stress has been shown to decrease vitamin C in the body (so either manage stress or increase vitamin C in times of stress) (4). Foods rich in vitamin C include: chili peppers, bell peppers, all citrus fruit, strawberries, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, spinach, kale and broccoli. Aiming for roughly 6-10 servings of these vitamin rich foods per day will get you close to the recommended 1 gram per day of vitamin C, for overall health.

Probiotics– If you aren’t yet supplementing with a quality probiotic; cold and flu season is a great time to start. With about 70% of the immune system residing in the gut, optimal gut function is essential for keeping a strong immune system. Probiotics work in multiple ways including:

  • Aiding with digestion and absorption of certain carbohydrates (those vitamin C rich foods don’t do much good if you can’t digest them!).
  • Producing K and B vitamins and absorbing minerals
  • Assisting with the breakdown and elimination of toxins

In addition to enjoying a diet rich in fermented foods, I’m a huge advocate of supplementing with a high quality probiotic containing lactobacillus and bifidobacterium which work to balance and decrease harmful bacteria in the gut, while supporting vitamin production, digestion and overall immune function.

Infrared Sauna– Sauna therapy works by increasing the body’s core temperature (similar to the fever response), which has been shown to increase production of white blood cells and T-cells, making the body more capable of fighting potential infections. By producing heat from the inside out, infrared sauna therapy has also been shown to greatly increase detoxification (an estimated 5-6 times more than sweating alone) and is a great way to reduce stress while giving the immune system a boost. (5) While sauna use is beneficial year round, this practice is particularly beneficial during cold and flu season.

At the first sign of a cold or flu:

Elderberry– Rich in antioxidants and vitamin C, studies show that the extract from elderberries can lessen severity and length of common cold when taken within 48 hours of onset. 8 Evidence also suggests that chemicals in the elder flower and berries may help reduce swelling in mucous membranes, including the sinuses, and help relieve nasal congestion. Additional studies suggest this powerful berry may also have anti-inflammatory, antiviral, anti-influenza, and anticancer properties. (3)

Elderberries conveniently grow all over the US and can easily be made into a syrup or juice that can be utilized at the first sign of a cold or flu. There are also a number Elderberry supplements (pills, tinctures, lozenges, and syrups) available in most natural health food stores.

Oregano and Tea Tree Oil– Oregano oil contains natural anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-parasite and antiviral compounds (6) while tea tree offers strong antiviral and antimicrobial properties. (7) These oils can be diffused during cold and flu season as a preventative measure and can be taken internally at the first sign of a cold (assuming you have high quality oils). When taking internally, I do recommend doing so only at the first sign of a cold or flu and limiting usage to no more than a week or two at a time. (Caution- do not apply oregano directly to the skin as it can burn you!).

High Dose Vitamin C Plus Zinc– I mentioned including vitamin C rich foods above for maintaining overall health. At the first sign of a cold or flu, I recommend increasing dosage to 4-6 grams, taken over the course of a day (usually via a high quality vitamin C supplement or even via vitamin C infusions if possible) to prevent or lessen symptoms. (8 ) One study found that combining vitamin C with 10mg zinc was even more effective than Vitamin C alone at reducing cold symptoms and duration. (9) I do want to note- there has been some debate in recent years as to whether vitamin C is effective for boosting the immune system. Studies show that while small doses might not do much good, efficacy improves dramatically with higher doses.

Water, Rest, Relax- While I’m a big believer in above-mentioned protocols, I also believe that oftentimes the best treatment is the simplest. At the very first sign of a cold or flu I recommend clearing that schedule (when possible), crawling back into bed and simply taking a day off (yes I know this is easier said than done!). Drink plenty of water, tea and bone broth (I recommend up to a gallon of fluids per day), relax and just let yourself sleep and recover. While it can be difficult for many to check out for a full day, this really is a great way to give your immune system that natural boost that it’s begging for.


Dr. Jason Kremer, DC, CCSP®, CSCS


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