Every sports fan knows that the best defense is a good offense. Thankfully, this same strategy also applies to your hardworking immune system — a network of cells, tissues and organs working together to defend your body against disease. The stronger your immune system, the more protection you have from conditions ranging from the common cold to cancer.
“Without a strong immune system, you are an easy target for microbial invasion and your physical injuries would never heal,” says Barry Sears, Ph.D., a leading authority in anti-inflammatory nutrition, author of the Zone book series, and president of the nonprofit Inflammation Research Foundation. If your immune system fails to protect you, inflammation steps in to try to repair the damage. While inflammation typically disappears as soon as the perceived threat is alleviated, it can sometimes linger. And this is when problems arise.
“If you don’t turn off that inflammation, the body begins to attack itself,” Sears says. “So you need a balanced immune response to help prevent the development of or manage existing chronic disease, lose excess body fat, and live a longer and healthier life.”
So how can you give your immune system a boost and keep it supercharged at all times? Sears offers his “80-15-5 rule” when it comes to controlling the immune system: Eighty percent will come from a balanced diet, 15 percent will come from consistent exercise and 5 percent will come from stress reduction. Let’s explore each of these:
Nutrition (80%): According to Sears, you can optimize your immune system through the following dietary requirements:
Eat 10 servings of vegetables and fruits: Choose berries, spinach, mushrooms, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower to ensure adequate levels of polyphenols (plant-based micronutrients) and fermentable fiber (delivers healthy bacteria to your gut) while providing the lowest glycemic load (thus preventing an oversecretion of insulin).
Include about 25 grams of protein per meal.
Consume monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, nuts and avocado.
Consistent Exercise (15%): Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine recently published a study in Brain, Behavior and Immunity that found one 20-minute session of moderate exercise stimulates the immune system, producing an anti-inflammatory cellular response. Sears says to strive for 20 to 45 minutes of high-intensity interval training, focusing on strength and speed training, every other day.
Stress Reduction (5%): The stress hormone cortisol helps regulate your immune system. When your stress is high, so are your cortisol levels, creating a “fight or flight” response in your body. Your body then suppresses your immune system while it focuses on whatever threat you’re undergoing — even if it’s just a deadline at work and not a lion chasing you — and leaves you vulnerable to disease. Look for ways to reduce your daily stress, such as working out, meditation, taking a few laps around the office between meetings, and getting enough sleep each night.
“Elite athletes live in a world of inflammation by choice,” says Sears, explaining that their performance is dictated by how rapidly they can reduce excess exercise-induced inflammation. “If they are unable to reduce this exercise-induced inflammation by diet, the body will revert to plan B, which is the increased secretion of the hormone cortisol. This is the underlying cause of ‘overtraining syndrome.’”
If you are struggling to get the proper nutrients into your diet on a regular basis or are constantly battling symptoms of a weakened immune system — fatigue, weight gain, chronic colds and digestive issues — Barry Sears, Ph.D., recommends adding the following supplements to help reduce pesky inflammation:
EPA and DHA (5 to 7.5 grams per day): When the immune system is triggered, fatty acids are released from the cell membranes and converted into molecules as part of the body’s natural healing response. EPA and DHA, which are omega-3 essential fatty acids found in fish oil, support the body’s natural anti-inflammatory response, regulate the immune response, and support the internal repair systems that operate in response to inflammation.
Performance Pick: Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega
Polyphenol extracts (1 to 1.5 grams per day): Polyphenols are phytochemicals with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, found abundantly in such natural plant food sources as coffee, tea, cocoa, red wine, olive oil, fruits and vegetables. In fact, researchers found that long-distance runners who took 40 grams of polyphenol-enriched protein powder daily for 17 days showed significant anti-viral protection.
Performance Pick: The Vitamin Shoppe Grape Seed Extract
Vitamin D (6,000 IU per day): Vitamin D’s greatest impact is in maintaining a healthy gut, which prevents microbial fragments from entering into the blood and causing additional inflammation. Vitamin D has been shown to modulate immune responses, while its deficiency is associated with an increased susceptibility to infection.
Performance Pick: Garden of Life Vitamin Code Raw D3