With flu season upon us and COVID numbers rising, immune function is on everyone’s minds right now!

You may be wondering what you can do to stay well this winter, beyond washing your hands, wearing a mask, and maintaining social distancing. 

As a functional medicine practitioner, my goal is to support your body’s natural defenses. Your immune system is already amazingly powerful and smart – it just needs the right ingredients and support to do its job.

This does NOT require any gimmicky products, expensive cleanses, or exotic herbs.

Just the opposite. The best and only proven approach is to go back to the basics and give your body the foundational elements it needs to function optimally.

Here are a few simple strategies you can use to optimize immune function.

1. Support a diverse microbiome.

Hippocrates once said, “All disease begins in the gut.” It turns out, he wasn’t far from the truth. Your gut is home to trillions of bacteria known as your microbiome, which houses 70 to 80% of your immune system. This makes it the front line of defense against infection and disease.

Maintaining a thriving digestive ecosystem that is rich in a variety of beneficial bacteria is the bedrock of a healthy immune response. Many of the tips below will help you do this.

2. Eat a wide range of vegetables, fruits, and fibers

This provides your gut bacteria with the prebiotics, resistant starches, and fermented foods that feed them. Aim for a wide range of colors and try incorporating flax and chia seeds, pickled vegetables, and apple cider vinegar for an extra boost.

Tip: Give these AIP Acorn Squash Bowls with Maple Chicken and Brussel Sprouts a try for a great combo of antioxidants, starches, cruciferous veggies, and apple cider vinegar.

3. Relieve stress

Chronic stress suppresses your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to opportunistic pathogens. This is why people tend to get sick after a stressful event like completing a big project at work or taking exams.

There is also an interesting cyclical connection between stress and your microbiome where stress reduces gut flora diversity and low microbial diversity leads to more stress. 

You can protect your immune function, microbiome, and your mental wellbeing by maintaining a positive mindset and practicing relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing, exercise, prayer, or meditation.

4. Get 7 to 9 hours of sleep.

Your body simply functions better when you get enough sleep. I’m sure you’ve felt this firsthand, and studies have found that adults who sleep 6 hours or less each night are more susceptible to colds. Studies also show a positive correlation between sufficient sleep and a diverse microbiome. 

Spend time in natural light, avoid screen time after dark, and go to bed and wake up at the same time each day to support your natural circadian rhythm.

5. Optimize your vitamin D levels.

Vitamin D is anti-inflammatory, immunoregulatory, and enhances T-cell function. Low levels are known to increase your risk for respiratory illness and COVID-19. Yet an astounding 42% of US adults are estimated to be deficient in it! 

Recent research found people with a vitamin D deficiency are twice as likely to contract COVID-19. Another study found 80% of COVID-19 patients at a hospital in Spain were deficient in vitamin D. 

Because it isn’t naturally found in many foods and we produce less of it in the winter, I recommend taking a vitamin D supplement that is paired with vitamin K for safe absorption.

6. Go outside.

The benefits of spending time in nature are endless – it exposes you to a multitude of bacteria from the plants and soil, encourages you to move, decreases stress levels, increases vitamin D production, and supports your natural sleep cycle. So bundle up and find time to visit a park, hit the trail, or go on a campout!

Most of all, be proactive with wellness, not reactive to disease. The best time to protect yourself is before you’re sick, and the best defense is, and always will be, a healthy immune system.

About the Author: Dr. Seth Osgood is a Doctor of Nursing Practice, Board Certified Family Nurse Practitioner and Institute of Functional Medicine (IFM) Certified Practitioner. Dr. Osgood received his post-graduate training in Functional Medicine through the IFM and from working with Dr. Amy Myers. He has helped people from around the world improve their health utilizing a Functional Medicine approach.

Want to work with Dr. Osgood and the GrassRoots team? Become a patient in our West Lebanon, New Hampshire Functional Medicine clinic, our Burlington, Vermont Functional Medicine clinic, or our Austin, Texas Functional Medicine clinic!