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Strengthening your ­immune defenses is one of the top strategies for prevent­ing, fighting, and mitigating the severity of viral ­infections like COVID-19, accord­ing to a ­recent paper from the Institute for Functional Medi­cine’s ­COVID-19 Task Force.

A systems-oriented, science-based approach, functional medicine considers a patient’s biochemistry, physiology, genetics, and environmental ­exposures in seeking the causes of medical conditions, rather than merely treating symptoms.

The task force offers several recommendations for warding off many chronic diseases. “Lifestyle is a factor in many chronic diseases, so several of these modalities could be used across different symptoms and conditions,” explains coauthor Deanna Minich, PhD.

These are the lifestyle factors they address, plus key actions they recommend:

1. Food and Nutrition

Food and nutrition are key to your health and well-being. Food-derived nutrients can ­reduce viral infection and severity by balancing inflammatory pathways, reducing oxidative stress, increasing antioxidant levels, and harmonizing the gut microbiome.

  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruits. Aim for nine to 13 servings daily of a variety of produce for an array of phytonutrients to enhance the microbiome. To combat COVID-19 in particular, Minich recommends vitamin C, zinc, and quercetin — a flavonoid found in onions, green tea, apples, and berries. (For more on pandemic nutritional support, see “Nutritional Support for Your Immune System”.)
  • Increase your dietary fiber intake. Aim to consume a minimum of 28 to 35 grams daily, preferably from whole foods.
  • Reduce or avoid added ­sugars, salt, high-glycemic foods (such as processed carbs), and excessive saturated fat, which inhibits immune function.
  • Choose fermented vegetables and other probiotic foods to maintain gut health. “We know that the majority of the immune system is in the gastrointestinal tract,” Minich explains, “so tending to the health of the gut establishes a more favorable terrain for systemic-wide effects.”

2. Stress Management

Stress management can help regulate your immunity, making you less susceptible to illness.

  • Calm yourself with techniques like yoga, meditation, mindfulness, tai chi, qigong, relaxation response, breath regulation, and gardening.
  • Monitor stress levels through heart-rate variability (HRV) and other markers to help you determine when to implement stress-management strategies. (For more on HRV, see “What Is Heart-Rate Variability?”.)

3. Sleep

Sleep is when our bodies ­repair themselves, so it’s essential for immune function and maintenance, overcoming inflammation, and aiding recovery from illness.

  • Get seven to eight hours of quality sleep each night.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene and maintain consistent sleep hours by turning off screens; ensuring the room is cool, quiet, and dark; and retiring each evening at a consistent hour.

4. Exercise

Exercise supports immunity by raising levels of infection-­fighting white blood cells, increasing circulation, and lowering stress hormones. Physical activity provides the movement the body needs to circulate blood and nutrients, and eliminate cellular waste. And blood vessels play a key role in aiding the lymphatic system’s transport of immune factors.

  • Make moderate exercise a daily routine. Mix it up with strength, cardio, and mobility work. Consult with a personal trainer to help you get started, or learn how you can create your own workout program (get ideas at “Build Your Own Workout Plan”). And get out in nature regularly to enjoy its calming effects.

5. Social Connection

Social connection is a significant determinant of immune health: Isolation, loneliness, bereavement, or conflict can lead to inflammation and reduced immune functionality.

  • Reduce negative interactions while emphasizing and encouraging time with others who are positive or affirming.
  • Seek out regular social connection, especially if you’re feeling lonely or isolated.

For the full IFM report, see “The Functional Medicine Approach to COVID-19: Nutrition and Lifestyle Practices for Strengthening Host Defense”.

This originally appeared as “Boosting Immunity” in the December 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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