It’s been said that there’s nothing like a pandemic to make you focus on your immunity – to which I’d add, the time to start boosting it is now. This winter will be a tough one, bringing with it the triple whammy of COVID-19, cold, and flu viruses. But it is possible to push back, hard, by giving your body the support it needs to fight off infection.

First, keep your risk low by following the latest recommendations from the Centers for Disease control (CDC), and strictly adhering to the now-standard protocols for social distancing, mask-wearing, and hand-washing.

Next, think about immunity-boosting behaviors at every turn, with the goal of fortifying your body from head to toe, to make it an inhospitable environment for viruses to set up shop (and make you sick). Know that just about every move you make this winter — from when and how you eat, to how much you sleep, to what type of exercise you get — will either build immune resilience or erode it. There’s no magic pill for health and immunity, but there is a lifestyle that makes your immune system—and all the other systems in the body—stronger. It’s up to you to kick it into high gear, starting here – and now:  

1) Tap into autophagy to start boosting immunity.

When you take good care of yourself, the immune system’s self-cleaning mechanism, known as autophagy, ramps up. The definition of autophagy (accent on the second syllable—au-TAHF-a-gee) is the digestion of cellular waste by enzymes of the same cell. In other words, it’s your cells cleaning up their own debris. When autophagy is tuned up, your body recovers faster and better – the cellular detox process is critical to strong immunity.

To trigger autophagy, add a 16-hour overnight fast to your routine a couple of times a week. Also known as intermittent fasting, and/or time-restricted eating, studies show that it takes about 16 hours of fasting for autophagy to do its job optimally, but feel free to do 18 or 20 hours if you like. Or, if a 16-hour fast is too challenging for you at first, start with 10 or 12 hours fasts and work your way up over time. Here’s the basic plan:

  • Have dinner on the early side – and finished by 7 or 8 p.m.
  • Sleep for seven or eight hours and, in the morning, get up and have a big glass of water.
  • At about 11 am or noon, break the fast with a nutritious meal.
  • Have your next meal (aka, break your fast) the next day a little later, leaving a good 16 hours in between.

2) Get your gut in order.

Our gut wall is the primary barrier between your body and the outside world (home to potentially toxic food, bacteria and other threats). Protecting that barrier—which determines what’s allowed into your system and what’s not — is the key to strong immunity. Feeding the microbiome what it needs to thrive will help to maintain a strong, protective gut wall, preventing your less beneficial bacteria from running amok, overwhelming the good and leaving you with a porous, permeable, ‘leaky gut’ that’s all-too-susceptible to viral invaders. A healthy microbiome works hand-in-glove with your gut immune cells – which make up about 70% of the body’s immune system – to keep you healthy!

To cultivate a healthy microbiome, focus on the following:

  • Eat fresh, organic, unprocessed foods
  • Make clean, organic and/or farmers’ market veggies the largest part of your plate
  • Eat the fibrous stalks on your veggies – don’t throw them out – your gut loves them!
  • Eat prebiotics (garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus) every day
  • Fill up with a side of probiotic (fermented) foods every day, or with a probiotic supplement
  • Sip on healing, collagen-rich, organic bone broth
  • Drink organic tea (black or green) – it’s rich in polyphenols, which help activate cell repair and primes the immune system
  • Hydrate generously – with well-filtered water as chlorinated H20 kills beneficial gut bacteria

And let go of the following as soon as possible, saying ‘no’ to gut-busters like:

  • Antibiotic-treated and hormone-riddled animal products
  • Conventionally farmed meat, poultry, dairy products, and eggs
  • Produce that’s been sprayed with toxic herbicides like glyphosate (certified organic growers don’t use the stuff).
  • Pass on sugary, starchy, and processed foods
  • Gluten, and “gluten-free” junk food
  • Frequent antibiotic use (keep it to an absolute minimum)
  • Proton Pump Inhibitors (PPIs)

3) Think plant-based foods with medicinal – and anti-viral – properties.

Food is more than just about filling your belly, it’s about giving your gut and your body a daily infusion of nutrients as well as phytochemicals, many of which were shown to be helpful in the fight against SARS (a viral cousin of COVD-19) by reducing the virus’s ability to penetrate cells and replicate inside them. Though they may be just one piece of the protective puzzle, phytochemicals are one more excellent reason to make sure you eat the veggie rainbow and go heavy on those with anti-inflammatory and anti-viral properties. Here’s a few easy-to-incorporate immunity-boosters to load up on:

Extra Virgin Coconut Oil – Just a daily teaspoon will deliver an antibacterial, antiviral and antimicrobial boost – all big plusses for immunity. Add to smoothies, hot drinks, or cook with it, up to a moderate heat.

Garlic – Raw or cooked, crushed or choppedgarlic, onions, scallions, chives, leeks and shallots have been used for thousands of years, not only for their flavor and gut-supportive fiber, but also for their powerful anti-viral, antibacterial and antifungal effects. To get the most out of garlic’s healthy chemical compounds, crush a few cloves and let them sit for 10 to 15 minutes before using.

Greens – Load up your plate with phytonutrient-and-fiber-packed greens. They’ll feed your good gut bacteria, and the better fed they are, the stronger your immunity will be. Slip a bed of greens under mealtime proteins; drop handfuls into your smoothies; and sip on powdered green drinks between meals.

Medicinal Mushrooms — My four favorite medicinal mushrooms for immune support are turkey tail, reishi, cordyceps and chaga. When possible, mix several types together, as they can have a synergistic effect when combined.

Fermented Foods – They’re like medicine in a jar. A scoop or two of fermented veggies will feed your gut the probiotics it needs to function optimally. Ferment your own veggies, or buy fermented items like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso or kefir to get your dose. Another way to deliver more probiotics to your gut is with a splash or two of organic apple cider vinegar on veggies and salads.

Healthy Hot Toddies – Hold the alcohol and boost immunity with healthy hot toddies. Brew up caffeine-free teas and stir in herbs like andrographis, echinacea, elderberry, and astragalus. Try mixing hot water with apple cider vinegar, lemon juice and stevia, or for a more savory brew, drink bone broth made from healthy, grass-fed animals to get a dose of amino acids like arginine, glutamine and glycine — all of which are excellent immunity reinforcements.

Antiviral Spices – Tasty must-have essentials for your food-as-medicine pantry: ginger, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, thyme and cayenne pepper. They all pack a powerful anti-inflammatory, antifungal and antiviral punch – which is, particularly this year, just what the doctor ordered.

4) Ramp up self-care to strengthen immunity.

Pre-pandemic, a relaxing weekend getaway, a spa day, or a sauna session at the gym were simple, everyday ways to slip a few peaceful self-care moments into the normal chaos of our over-scheduled lives. Now, virtually all our self-care options have been redirected to the home. The upside is that many more of us have the time (and the proximity) to focus on self-care basics that support our physical and mental health, and ultimately, our immunity. This winter, use the time to boost yours by:

Making sleep a priority – It’s essential for strong immunity, so shoot for 7 – 8 hours (max) a night. The body does much of its cellular maintenance and repair work during sleep and not sleeping enough can torpedo immunity, so put good, restorative sleep at the top of the self-care list.

Sneak in a catnap – Working from home has advantages, like catnaps. Recharge between all those Zoom calls with a mid-morning or early afternoon power-nap, but keep them under 30 minutes, and before 4 pm to prevent interfering with your nighttime sleep routine.

Meditate for your immunity A steady diet of stress does a number on immunity, so up your unwind time with few minutes of meditation or yoga at the start or end of your day for an added round of relaxation and immunity boosting.

Move often, instead of going to extremes – Movement is a great immunity-builder but over-doing it will actually weaken your defenses, so now is not the time to go overboard. Move frequently throughout the day and keep working out at your normal pace for now.

Do some infrared sauna sessions – They support immunity by helping to reduce stress, tame inflammation and raise the body’s core temperature slightly, which revs up production of disease-fighting white blood cells. While most public facilities are on pause, consider renting or buying an infrared sauna chamber, or opt for more affordable, portable, wrap-style infrared blanket or mat.

Get in the tub and soak — As with sauna sessions, a good tub soak will also encourage relaxation while raising your body temperature, and stimulating the immune system – so add a nightly soak to your self-care routine.

Have an orgasm or two (or more) – Orgasms are, among other things, great stress-relievers. At climax, you release oxytocin, the feel-good hormone that’s a natural antidote to stress hormones. And orgasm-induced endorphins will also help boost your levels of immunoglobulin A, which helps strengthen immunity.

Get sunlight – or something close to it – every day – A 20-to-30 minute morning dose of sunshine or, in a pinch, light-box exposure, is an easy way to help elevate mood, help regulate your sleep/wake cycle, stimulate vitamin D production and boost immunity – so get out there!

5) Supplement immunity all winter long.

I often recommend supplements as extra support for the immune system and this winter, everyone’s immune system can use a little extra TLC. When shopping for supplements, get the best-quality versions you can—without sugar, lactose, or artificial colors – and consider these immunity-boosting all-stars:

Antiviral Herbs – Get support from antiviral and antibacterial herbs like andrographis, olive leaf extract, grapefruit seed extract, oil of oregano, licorice root, isatis tinctoria and elderberry extract. 

Vitamin C – To protect against infection, take 1 – 2 grams of Vitamin C every day.

Vitamin D3 – Mounting evidence suggests that vitamin D can help protect against COVID-19, with studies revealing that people low on the ‘sunshine vitamin’ were more likely to become seriously ill if they became infected. Ideally, your D levels should be in the 50 to 70mg/ml range, so have your doctor check yours so you can determine how much is needed to close the gap. If your level is under 30, take 10,000 IU a day; if it’s between 30 and 50 (or if you don’t know your level), take 5,000 IU a day. For the 50 to 70mg/ml range, a maintenance dose of 2,000 IU a day should do the trick. But recheck D levels after three months to make sure you’re not overdoing it, which can be dangerous.

Fish oil – 1-3 grams of high-quality fish oil daily will help keep immunity defenses strong, and help lower inflammation and the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis to boot. Buy ones that have been tested for mercury, and make sure yours contains omega-3 fatty acids, EPA, DHA and no fillers.

Quercetin – in addition to (or because of) it’s potent anti-oxidant properties, it can prevent infections, is anti-inflammatory, relieves allergy symptoms and protects against age related diseases. Take 500–1,000 mg per day.

NAC (N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine) – A precursor to the powerful immunity-booster glutathione, NAC also supports respiratory health by acting as an antioxidant and expectorant, helping to thin out and loosen mucus in the air passageways.

Probiotics – Support your gut with a probiotic, preferably one with at least 20 billion viable organisms, and several types of good bacteria, like lactobacillus and bifidobacteria, two of the most highly regarded strains.

Zinc – Add 25 mg of zinc per day on a short-term basis for an additional immune boost, and, if you feel a cold coming on, to help shorten its duration.

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