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How to Boost Your Immune System: Part 1, Nutrition

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I want to talk about a slightly different take on being healthy than we normally do. It’s always in there, but I want to bring it up to the surface for a minute (even if we just tuck it away after that) because it’s really important. Being fit and healthy is obviously good for things like being able to have a good time, have lots of energy, be strong, feel good, and do the things you want to do. Basically taking on life and winning.

But one of the best reasons to stay healthy is to protect against getting sick. And if you do get sick, to make sure you have the best chance of not getting really sick and of recovering as fast as possible.

There are a lot of ways that you can do this every day. Paying attention to what you eat, exercising, staying hydrated, sleeping well, even well-being practices, are important factors in staying strong and defending yourself against potential sickness and disease. I’m going to post a couple blogs, starting with this one about nutrtition, that talk about how important these things are for your immune system and how to use them in the best way to avoid illness.

There’s an old saying “Let food be thy medicine.” Basically, something you do multiple times a day—eat—is your first defense and one of the most potent things that you can do to “medicate” yourself for health and, for good measure, prevent getting sick.

Just steering clear of junk—processed foods and sugar—is a good start (remember: the Twinkie defense only works in court). And if you’re doing that, you’re already doing a lot. But there is more you should do to make sure your immune system is as strong as possible.

1. Up your protein intake

The number one thing to focus on is getting enough protein.

You are what you eat and you are a big mass of protein-scaffolded tissues that need supplies for rebuilding and repairing. You also need protein for creating the antibodies you need to fight off getting sick. Not getting enough can lead to feeling weak and tired, dealing with slow-healing injuries, and getting or staying sick more often.

Your immune cells rely on protein for their very existence, so getting enough of it is critical.

That doesn’t mean you need to go full carnivore just to survive—you can get protein from nuts, seeds, yogurt, grains like quinoa, and legumes. But just know that eating a lot of grains and legumes can end up blocking the absorption of some important nutrients. This also isn’t a call to go out and eat the fattiest BBQ brisket you can find. Watch out for saturated fats as well as processed meat. Bacon-wrapped hot dogs are not at the core of a strategy for increased protein.

How much protein? Getting at least 10 or 15% of your daily calories from protein is enough for a baseline, but depending on your own situation—for example, a lot of strength training or your age (as you get older your body processes protein less efficiently and you may need more)—you might need to get up to 25 or 30% of your calories from protein. Getting 0.36 grams per pound of body weight (36 grams for every 100 pounds of bodyweight) or 0.8 grams per kilogram of body weight (8 grams for every 10 kg of bodyweight) is a good target.

2. Avoid allergens

Another important step you can take to strengthen your immune system is to avoid things that you are potentially allergic to.

It seems almost crazy to have to say that, but let’s be honest, allergens can often be tasty or fun. My wife is terribly allergic to dogs and just can’t keep her hands off of a new puppy. We’re not always the best at doing what’s best for us. Allergens and food sensitivities can cause unwanted inflammation (which is just another job for your immune system to handle).

Just knowing what foods make you feel bad is a good place to start (allergy and sensitivity testing is another way if you think you have a serious issue). These can be anything from grains and dairy to eggs and even some vegetables. I even have a friend who just told me he just found out he’s allergic to all fruit. All fruit! So it’s not always obvious.

Even some of the most popular health foods, like kale, spinach, and beans, have compounds (like oxalates and isothiocyanates—say that 3 times fast) that can cause problems for some people. But before you just dump your leafy greens from your diet, keep in mind those same compounds can be harmless to some or even potentially beneficial. It’s a matter of starting to pay close attention to what makes you feel less than good when you eat it.

3. Get the right nutrients

Another great buffer against getting sick is cleaning up any nutrient deficiencies.

This can be done by eating a varied diet or with a high-quality supplement. There are some nutrients that do a lot of heavy lifting for your immune system that you should get on a daily basis—like vitamins D, A, & E, glutathione, and zinc.

  • Vitamin D plays a big part in immune function (as well as in muscle, bone, sleep, and mood). You can get it from fatty fish (like tuna, salmon, mackerel, and sardines) and pastured eggs, or you can take a D3 supplement. 20 minutes of daily sun is good for some people but most of us in the United States and Europe live too far north to get good sun and don’t get enough to escape the need to supplement. 5000 IU per day
  • Vitamin A is also important. It helps mediate your immune response and can be used even in the treatment of infectious diseases. Retinal palmitate is the form you want. 900 mcg per day
  • Vitamin E is important for immune cells and has antioxidant properties, and is important to supplement if it’s deficient in your diet. You can get it from foods like eggs, spinach, and nuts. 15 mg per day
  • Glutathione strengthens your body against toxins and stress, helps control inflammation response, and combats toxins and free radicals. 500 mg per day
  • Zinc deficiency can cause severe immune suppression—leading to getting repeatedly sick and slow healing. It’s important for T cells, and it has anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. 15 mg per day

4. Maintain a healthy weight

Lastly, maintaining a healthy weight is very important for proper immune function.

While the exact reasons being overweight affects immunity aren’t well known, we know enough to say that it depresses immune function and can have a noticeable impact on immune-related health.

In summary…

Good nutrition in the form of quality protein, a variety of nutrients, and a diet low in sugar and processed ingredients is at the foundation of a healthy immune system. With a daily habit of avoiding most junk and eating protein, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and fruit, you’ll have the energy, fiber, and nutrients you need to make sure you have the strongest immune system you can.

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Michael Stanwyck
Michael Stanwyck is the co-founder of The Whole Life Challenge, an idea that developed during his seven years as a coach and gym manager at CrossFit Los Angeles.

He graduated from UCLA with a BA in philosophy as well as a degree from the Southern California School of Culinary Arts, and feels food is one of the most important parts of a life - it can nourish, heal, and bring people together.

Michael believes health and well-being are as much a state of mind as they are a state of the body, and when it comes to fitness, food, and life in general, he thinks slow is much better than fast (most of the time). Stopping regularly to examine things is the surest way to put down roots and grow.

He knows he will never be done with his own work, and believes the best thing you can do for your well-being starts with loving and working from what you’ve got right now.