Open any newspaper and you’ll see good news for the U.S. when it comes to COVID-19. Cases are going down, restrictions are easing, and many of us are looking forward to a fun-filled summer with friends and family — loved ones that we may not have seen in over a year!
I want you to get the absolute most out of the coming months, so let’s talk about strategies to get gut fit, body fit, and immune fit so that you can embrace life fully, without dealing with constant colds or allergies that threaten to hold you back.
If you’re a HAPPY GUT® reader, you won’t be surprised that the secret to having your best summer ever lies in your digestive tract.
THE GUT: At the Center of it All
Take a close look at the gut, where 70% of your immune system lies, and it’s pretty clear that it’s the gateway to your immune system. These two systems might seem far away, but really, they’re closely connected. In recent years, scientific research has validated this connection beyond any doubt:
- There are cells in the lining of the GI tract that exist mainly to secrete antibodies into the gut.
- Your gut bacteria and intestinal lining play a major role in immune regulation, including something called “immune tolerance” which is the body’s ability to distinguish outside invaders from your body’s own tissues. A loss of immune tolerance is one of the key characteristics of autoimmune disease.
- Studies have shown that there is a measurable shift in the gut bacteria in those that develop digestive issues like colitis, especially in one bacteria in particular, called Lactobacillus johnsonii, which accounts for as much as 30 percent of the gut bacteria in those with colitis.
- Studies suggest that one of the best ways to diagnose tuberculosis might be in the gut; because even though this disease affects the lungs, it causes noticeable shifts in the gut microbiome.
- It’s possible that the loss in gut bacterial diversity experienced as we age may contribute to why older people are at an increased risk for severe COVID-19 disease.
And even though it feels like the threat of COVID-19 is slowly slipping away, there are endless reasons to continue investing in your long-term immune health. The last year may have been a particularly extreme example, but the truth is that we’ll always be facing superbugs, including bacteria, viruses, and other immune threats throughout our lives.
5 Foods that Boost Immunity
1. Mushrooms (shiitake)
Mushrooms will always be my number one food group for immune health. Research has shown that mushrooms can modulate the immune system and affect all types of immune cells, including lymphocytes, T cells, and natural killer cells. This is thanks to the presence of polysaccharides called beta glucans, which are predominantly found in the fungal cell wall. In many studies, beta-glucans have demonstrated an ability to stimulate the immune response in a way that helps fight off bacterial, viral, fungal, or parasitic infections. They also have potent anti-tumor properties, which have made them a major area of study for cancer prevention and treatment. One of my favorite mushrooms is the shiitake mushroom; you can easily add them to your favorite recipes for a dose of immune support. I like them sauteed or added to bone broth, miso or vegetable soup.
Ginger root is chock full of antioxidants and beneficial compounds for the immune system. For example, studies have shown that ginger has powerful antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties and that it can enhance the immune response. Fresh ginger tea — which you can make by bringing fresh ginger root in a pot of water on the stove to a boil, then simmering for 10-15 minutes — is a great option to lean on at the first sign of a cough or cold.
As a general rule, the brighter and more vibrant a food, the better it is for your immune system. And what’s brighter and more vibrant than pomegranate! Pomegranate is chock full of immune-boosting vitamins and minerals like vitamin C, vitamin E, folate, potassium, and vitamin K. Low levels of vitamin C can make you vulnerable to infections, so a daily dose of pomegranate is a great way to increase your intake. Pomegranates are also very high in antioxidants known as polyphenols, specifically ellagic acid and punicalagins. These polyphenols are not absorbed, but instead, metabolized by the gut flora, producing anti-inflammatory secondary metabolites known as urolithins. Polyphenols also link together to improve and increase the protective mucus layer of the intestinal lining, creating a favorable ecosystem for gut bacteria to adhere to and live in. I recommend adding frozen pomegranate to a smoothie or sprinkling fresh pomegranate arils over yogurt or a homemade salad.
4. Bone Broth
As we learned above, the health of the intestinal lining helps determine immune health. In comes bone broth to the rescue! The main components in bone broth can help address leaky gut and other gut-related issues. Glutamine, one of the main amino acids in bone broth, can improve gut permeability by providing the energy needed by the intestinal cells to tighten the gaps in the tight junctions of a leaky gut, leading to improvements in chronic irritable bowel diseases and other inflammatory disease states. Here’s my favorite recipe for making grass-fed beef bone broth at home.
5. Wild Salmon
When we want to boost immunity, it’s easy to get lost in the never ending supplement trap. We start popping capsules of vitamin D, vitamin C, antioxidants, and omega-3s — without considering the fact that there are foods that contain all these nutrients in droves! One of these is wild salmon, which contains high levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3s, vitamin D, and antioxidants to support immune health. I recommend eating at least two, 3-ounce filets of wild salmon to get your weekly supply of omega-3s.
Scientifically Proven Ways to Boost Immunity
The foods you consume and gut health are clearly important to immunity — but they’re not the only way we can support our ability to fight off germs and infections! There’s a long list of scientifically proven ways to boost immunity, many of which won’t cost you a penny.
Exercise is one of the most beneficial activities you can do for your overall health. It not only keeps you strong, energized, and fit, it helps boost your body’s ability to fend off viruses. Studies have shown that walking for just 30 minutes can lead to an increase in beneficial immune cells that play a major role in preventing disease and decreasing chronic inflammation. Recent studies have also shown that exercise can help improve recovery from COVID-19 infection.
2. Weight Loss
As we learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, being overweight or obese can sabotage your immune health and prevent your ability to quickly and efficienctly fight off an infection. Not surprisingly, this phenomenon is linked to changes in gut bacteria that occur with obesity. By shedding some excess pounds, you will naturally strengthen your immune system. If you’ve ever had trouble losing weight, here’s how to break through a weight loss plateau without starving yourself.
3. Gut Lining Support
We learned earlier that the gut is the key to healthy immunity. And this isn’t just the beneficial bacteria, but also the state of our gut lining. If our gut lining is damaged, it can lead to leaky gut, where bacteria and toxins can slip through into our bloodstream and contribute to immune dysregulation and chronic inflammation. The good news is that by reducing your intake of things that damage the gut lining — like alcohol, pesticides, processed foods, and medications — you can restore its health, and your immune system will return to a more balanced state. Ultimately, it’s the state of your gut lining that strongly dictates your overall immune health.
4. Rest / Sleep
Skimping on sleep, having an irregular sleep schedule, or not getting high-quality sleep is a huge factor driving inflammation and can contribute to chronic metabolic diseases like diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and stroke, as well as a decreased ability to fend off infections. For example, one study showed that restricting sleep to 4 hours per night for a week — followed by sleep for 12 hours per night for another week — resulted in a greater than 50% decrease in the production of antibodies to influenza vaccination compared to those who got regular sleep hours each night for two weeks. Pretty interesting, isn’t it? We’re learning more and more that healthy sleep is more about consistency than the number of hours you sleep overall. In other words, getting through the week sleep-deprived, then making up for it during the weekend, doesn’t quite cut it.
5. Gut Microbiome Support
We saw earlier just how important the gut bacteria are to healthy immunity. One great way to support your gut microbiome is through fermented foods, which you can make at home (Here’s how to get started!). You can also buy them at your local health food stores or farmer’s market. Many people still need to take a comprehensive probiotic supplement, though, to reach their goals. If you opt for this route, make sure you’re choosing a probiotic supplement that actually works.
I want you to have your best summer yet — and the truth is to live in our current reality that requires investing in your immune health! Follow the steps above to get gut fit, immune fit, and body fit just in time for the beach.