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Immune System Boosters: Tips From the Experts

a purple box of tissues, used tissues, and medicine sit on a table while a man blows his nose and looks at a thermometer in the background

Eating fermented foods and playing in the dirt are just two of the many tips a panel of experts shared during our Immune Health Boosters and Busters event on Wednesday March 23rd, 2016. Participants learned how nutrition, stress, exercise, and gut health can affect our immune system, which protects us from threats such as viruses and bad bacteria.

Here are some of the insights panelists shared:

Practice self-compassion

If you’ve been recently fighting a cold, being too hard on yourself may have something to do with it. According to mindfulness expert Catharine Kelleher, ScD, MPH, MS, RN, excessive self-criticism can cause stress and, as a result, handicap the immune system. She advised extending the same kindness and compassion to yourself as you do to your family and friends. Cultivating the capacity to be with yourself in a kinder way is at the core of mindful self-compassion and can aid in stress reduction.

Exercise time limits

Another great stress-relieving tactic is exercise. People often assume that longer sessions produce healthier results. However, health and wellness veteran Jason Bosley-Smith MS, LDN, CNS, FDN, explained that lengthy exercise sessions can place strain on the immune system. Studies have shown that short high-intensity workouts (30 minutes or less) boost components of the immune system while long moderate-intensity sessions (90-120 minutes) can temporarily weaken immune response.

Jason suggested trying shorter, more intense bouts of interval training with the treadmill for an efficient, immune-enhancing boost.

Balance gut bacteria

What we eat can have a big impact on our immune health. Gut inflammation can result from having too much bad bacteria. Anne Lee EdD, RDN, LD, discussed three roots of excessive bad bacteria: eating too much gluten (even for people who don’t have Celiac disease), consuming processed foods, and inadequate exposure to good bacteria.

Anne offered three tips for enhancing your gut health:

  1. Eat a varied diet with more colorful and whole foods instead of processed foods. The more color in your food.
  2. Don’t be afraid to get dirty and expose yourself to good bacteria. The hygiene hypothesis suggests that kids with older siblings are less likely to get sick than only children, who are less exposed to good bacteria.
  3. Enjoy what you do because the less stressed you are, the less you’ll worry over the food you eat and how you eat it.

Eat fermented foods

According to nutrition expert and epidemiologist Chris D’Adamo, PhD, 50 percent of our immunity is in the gut, and probiotics can play an important role in optimizing our immune system. Probiotics are live microorganisms that confer health benefits

To get a good dose of probiotic bacteria, Chris suggested incorporating fermented foods in your diet, such as yogurt, kefir and kimchi. One of the most common fermented foods in the U.S. is yogurt, which has been found to help prevent and shorten the duration of colds among young adults and children.

Chris says it is important to be careful when choosing yogurt and suggested brands such as Maple Hill Creamery, Seven Stars Farm, and White Mountain. He advised avoiding ones that have high fructose corn syrup or add artificial coloring and flavor to their products.

Healing is facilitated through safety, persistence, and trust.

  • Persistence: “People did not simply progress through this sequence and experience healing. The healing journey was a recursive, back and forth process. They found helpers, used the skills/resources that those helpers provided, found other helpers that provided more resources and used those skills and resources. As this process continued, people experienced a gradual amelioration of their suffering. Although many despaired at times, all demonstrated the quality of persistence—they refused to give up.”
  • Safety & Trust: “To connect to helpers, it was essential for people to feel safe in those relationships and able to trust that the person would be a helper and not a barrier to healing. Persons whose wounds included a violation of trust were especially careful about testing the safety of new relationships.”

Resources support us as we heal. They include reframing, responsibility, and positivity. “Making connections enabled participants to acquire and refine resources and skills that were essential in their healing journey. People also brought their own personal strengths to the journey.”

  • Reframing: “A particularly important skill was the ability to reframe—that is to look at suffering through a different lens.” This does NOT mean minimizing trauma or pain, but rather it often means the opposite: understanding what happened was wrong, unfair, or uncontrollable and that we are not to blame for it.
  • Responsibility: While we don’t have control over what happened to us, we are the only ones who can help ourselves heal. “A third essential resource that people acquired or refined was the ability to take an appropriate amount of responsibility for their healing journeys. They participated actively in the process of healing. Once again, some participants already had developed this skill, and some acquired or refined it from their helpers.”
  • Positivity: “Another resource that people acquired or refined during their healing journey was choose to be positive—that is to have some optimism about their situation.” People have varying predispositions to positivity. In the study, positivity was important in helping people heal. This doesn’t mean a toxic positivity, but rather simply finding some good in life and feeling hopeful about our situations.

“Connection to others was an essential part of all the healing journeys.” Humans are social creatures, and even the most introverted of us need close relationships. Friends and family add meaning and value to life and help support us, in good times and bad. 

When we experience relational trauma, relationships can feel scary, but reestablishing safety and trust in relationships is where the healing happens. (To be clear, we do not mean reestablishing safety and trust with abusers, but rather finding other healing relationships.) 

“When safety and trust had been established, people were able to connect with helpers. The nature of the behaviours of helpers that fostered healing ranged from small acts of kindness to unconditional love.”

  • “Moving from being wounded, through suffering to healing, is possible. It is facilitated by developing safe, trusting relationships and by positive reframing that moves through the weight of responsibility to the ability to respond.”
  • “Relationships with health professionals were among these but were not necessarily any more important to the healing journey than other kinds of helpers, which included family members, friends, spirituality and their God, pets, support groups, administrators, case workers and supervisors.”

Healing probably means different things to different people, but one definition that emerged from the study is: “The re-establishment of a sense of integrity and wholeness.” 

Healing was an emergent property that resulted from each individuals’ complex healing journey, a result of bridged connections between resources and relationships. “…they gradually found relief from suffering and began to exhibit emergent characteristics: a sense of hope, self-acceptance, and a desire to help others—the immediate precursors to healing.”

 In varying degrees, “they were able to transcend their suffering and in some sense to flourish.” 

  • Helping Others: We find meaning in helping others. “Understanding that suffering gives the strength and experience to help others in similar situations.”
  • Hope: We begin to have hope that we will not always feel this bad. A Crohn’s patient said, “I think gradually I realized that I was going to feel better. I did have days when I actually didn’t vomit, when I did feel better. And I think gradually I came to believe that maybe I could have a normal life again.”
  • Self-Acceptance: We see our inherent value and understand that we are not to blame for our suffering. A participant living with HIV said, “I’m really proud of myself. I think that now I still want to live. I don’t want to die, and I really love myself a lot. I have a lot of comfort in myself.”

Suffering is the ongoing pain from wounding. 

There is some debate about whether people always experience suffering on the path to healing.

Wounding happens when we experience physical or emotional harm. It can stem from chronic illness or by physical or psychological trauma for which we do not have the tools to cope, or a combination of those factors. 

“The degree and quality of suffering experienced by each individual is framed by contextual factors that include personal characteristics, timing of their initial or ongoing wounding in the developmental life cycle and prior and current relationships.”

Characteristics: How predisposed someone may be to wounding/how many tools and resources someone may have to deal with trauma/illness.

Lifestages: Developmental timing plays an important role in the impact of trauma — young children often do not have the same resources as older adults.

Relationships: Relationships can provide solace and support for those suffering, while lack of healthy relationships can prolong suffering.