How to Stay Healthy During COVID-19

Northwestern Medicine
Gastroenterology April 07, 2020

Attribute to: Bethany Doerfler, MS, RD, Clinical Dietitian at Northwestern Memorial Hospital

What can I do to improve my immune system and protect myself against COVID-19?

The best way to protect yourself against the spread of COVID-19 is to follow shelter in place guidelines and to continue to wash or sanitize your hands after touching something new. Increasing how your immune system reacts to viruses does not decrease the spread of this novel strain of coronavirus. However now is a great time to begin or maintain lifestyle behaviors which promote good immunity. Good immune function includes getting adequate sleep, doing light exercise daily, eating healthy foods and practicing stress management.

What are the best foods that I can eat to keep myself healthy at present time?

Plants! Plant-based foods offer an important matrix of fiber and phytonutrients which our cells use to clean and protect the body and its DNA daily. In addition to vitamins and minerals found in plant based foods (think fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds), the unique colors and smells which make plant-based foods distinctive offer unique benefits. One goal is trying to integrate plant-based foods at each meal while a second goal includes varying the colors of foods offered. Healthy eaters should look to include fruits and vegetables in an array of colors consuming red/purple, yellow/orange and green foods on most days of the week.

Other core elements of a healthy diet include two fish meals each week to keep blood vessels healthy and optimize omega-3 fatty acid intake. Finally, healthy fats and Vitamin D play a key role in healthy immunity as the majority of immune cells hold Vitamin D receptors. Foods rich in these key nutrients include: yogurt, plant based fortified milks, tofu, salmon, avocados and walnuts.

How do exercise and stress management work to keep my immune system working properly?

There are numerous benefits from maintaining a regular schedule of daily exercise and practicing other stress management techniques.

Stress activates the body's nervous system, which interacts with a range of other body systems (gastrointestinal, cardiovascular and musculoskeletal) and the immune system. In response to stress, the body releases certain hormones (glucocorticoids, e.g. cortisol), which are protective and help the body by providing additional resources and energy when the body needs these to defend against injury and other bodily harm in the face of a physical threat. These same hormones are also responsible for regulating immune functioning and inflammation.

However, during periods of prolonged stress, when the threat isn't something we need to defend against in an immediate way (like the uncertain and prolonged threat of COVID-19), an overactive stress response can interfere with proper immune functioning and cause wear and tear on the body from the over activation of other bodily systems (like muscle tension, increased heart rate and disrupted gastrointestinal functioning).

This is why stress management techniques are so important. They give the body a break from its heightened stress response, allow our muscles to relax, our heartbeat to slow, promote digestion and turn down the stress hormones circulating throughout our body.

In addition to the numerous physical benefits of exercise, exercise is mood boosting and stress relieving. It helps to down regulate a heightened stress response, as it allows our body to release or burn off the energy triggered by stress, and can promote a sense of calm. There is also research demonstrating that a single bout of exercise can have an immediate impact on immune and inflammatory responses.

Are there supplements that I should be taking right now?

There are more nutrients in healthy foods beyond just vitamins and minerals such as fiber, antioxidants and dietary prebiotics, which promote healthy immunity within the gut. However in the current pandemic, not everyone has access to healthy foods or enough foods. Zinc and Vitamin D are especially helpful for maintaining normal immune function and can be difficult to obtain from foods alone. A broad spectrum complete multivitamin and multimineral supplement offering 100 percent of the DRI for key nutrients such as zinc, B Vitamins and Vitamin D rounds out your dietary pattern.

Are there supplements that I should not be taking and are dangerous?

There are no supplements which have been shown to fight coronavirus. Be leery of "anti-viral" supplements claiming to stimulate your immune system. Supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), vary widely in potency and safety and are not well studied.

Megadoses of antioxidants, colloidal silver and master mineral solution should be avoided and are dangerous. Several companies have been charged with fraud by the Federal Trade Commission and the FDA for trying to scam consumers into buying dangerous supplements.

Our current shelter in place orders can allow us to practice healthy lifestyle changes which promote wellness for years to come. Focusing on core wellness behaviors such as diet, sleep, exercise and relaxation promote immunity and help us structure our day.

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