Ways to Support Your Immune System: Fact or Fiction

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Ways to Support Your Immune System: Fact or Fiction

We have so many things on our minds right now: social distancing, when work/school will re-open, making sure we have a face covering available, and wondering what our world will be like in the months and years ahead. A lot of us are wondering, as well, if and when a vaccine for coronavirus will be available.

In the meantime, we have to do our best to stay safe and healthy, which can sometimes be a challenge, especially if we have an underlying condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure or asthma.

In times like this, it’s natural to seek out ways to protect ourselves. Turning to supplements or lifestyle practices, for example, can empower us, give us a sense that we’re doing something and — just maybe — help ward off the villain (in this case, COVID-19). But who or what do you believe? Everyone is touting a way to “boost” immunity. But what does this mean? And is it even possible — or desirable — to do this, especially if you have diabetes? Let’s separate fact from fiction when it comes to giving your immune system a “boost.”

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Immune system fact or fiction

Everyone’s immune system can use a boost right about now, especially in the midst of a pandemic.

Answer: Fiction

Your immune system is an intricate network of proteins, cells, bone marrow and organs whose main function is to defend against pathogens, such as bacteria and viruses, that can cause disease and even death. If your immune system isn’t working as it should (called immunosuppression) due to, say, chemotherapy, radiation, malnutrition, taking corticosteroids, or having an organ transplant, your immune system is weakened. That means you’re at risk for infection.

So boosting your immune system seems like a good idea, then, right? Not exactly. When your immune system is triggered (boosted), it kicks off the immune response that can make you feel sick (think runny nose and fever). Too much of a good thing can also cause inflammation and possibly an autoimmune disorder. Basically, you want your immune system to do its job when it’s required. But you don’t want it to constantly be in overdrive. As Jennifer Okemah, RD, CDE, and owner of Salute Nutrition in Kirkland, WA, puts it, “To boost your immune system would be to charge it up, and that’s what the bad guys do.”

OK, if you shouldn’t “boost” your immune system, then you should strengthen it.

Answer: Fact

We don’t need our immune system to necessarily turn into superheroes, but we DO need it to a) work when it’s needed and b) work well. This means supporting and, in some cases, strengthening the immune system. There is no magic pill or potion to suddenly strengthen your immune system, but there are definitely steps that you can take to get you on your way.

Eating fruits and vegetables will support the immune system.

Answer: Fact

You probably saw this coming, but eating fruits and vegetables can definitely keep your immune system in top form. If you’re lacking in important nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, you’re more susceptible to infections. And we know that, in general, Americans tend to fall short in getting enough fruits and veggies in their eating plan. If you have diabetes, you might be concerned or confused about eating fruit and some vegetables due to their carbohydrate content and their impact on blood glucose. Don’t be afraid to eat these! Sonia Angel, MS, RDN, CDCES, from Weston, FL, emphasizes that, “Many people with diabetes avoid fruits because of their sugar content but forget that they are rich in antioxidants, vitamin C and minerals.” Vegetables tend to be lower in carbohydrate and calories than fruit; Angel recommends spinach, kale, broccoli, bell peppers and tomatoes. When it comes to fruit, limit fruit juices and dried fruits. Go for fruits with a lower glycemic index, which have less of an impact on your blood sugar compared to other fruits. These include berries and grapefruit. Be sure to keep an eye on portions, too.

Loading up on vitamin C is a good way to fight off infection.

Answer: Fiction

Many people reach for orange juice or vitamin C supplements at the first sign of a cold. Somehow, this seems like the right thing to do. But a 2013 Cochrane review of 29 studies involving the use of vitamin C supplements to reduce the incidence of the common cold concluded that “trials of high doses of vitamin C administered therapeutically, starting after the onset of symptoms, showed no consistent effect on the duration or severity of common cold symptoms.” There’s also no good evidence to suggest that vitamin C supplements will prevent COVID-19. (A trial is underway, however, looking at high doses of IV vitamin C infusions in people with COVID-19, expected to be completed in September). Among its many functions in the body, vitamin C is an antioxidant that neutralizes free radicals that can damage cells and tissues, leading to inflammation. It also protects organs from attacks from pathogens, including viruses. So, yes, vitamin C plays a keep role in keeping the immune system in top form.

The RDA (Recommended Dietary Allowance) for vitamin C is 90 milligrams daily for men and 75 milligrams daily for women. It’s pretty easy to meet your daily vitamin C quota: 1/2 cup red pepper contains 95 milligrams and a medium kiwi contains 64 milligrams. For more info on foods rich in vitamin C, visit MedlinePlus.

And while it’s tempting to pop a vitamin C supplement, any extra above and beyond what the body needs is excreted in the urine as the body only absorbs a few hundred milligrams of vitamin C at any one time.

Not getting enough sleep can weaken your immune system.

Answer: Fact

The importance of getting enough sleep can’t be overstated. Skimping on sleep has been shown to lead to a number of adverse effects, such as an increased risk of high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attack, stroke and obesity. If you have diabetes, too little shut eye can raise blood glucose levels and make it hard to manage diabetes, too.

When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re more susceptible to getting sick, say, with a cold or the flu. That’s because during sleep, the immune system release chemicals called cytokines that help promote sleep. They also help fight infection and inflammation. This is why sleep is so important in your ability to fight off infection. In general, aiming for 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night is a good goal; you may need more sleep if you’re ill to help you recover.

It’s a good idea to take immune-boosting supplements — they can’t hurt, right?

Answer: Fiction

No, it’s not necessarily a good idea to take immune-boosting supplements, and yes, they might “hurt.” You’ve probably been seeing a lot of ads on social media and the internet about various supplements and how they can support your immune system. Supplements in this category include zinc, echinacea, elderberry, astragalus and medicinal mushrooms. It’s possible that certain supplements could offer some immune benefits, but they haven’t been well-tested in human studies. Zinc supplementation “can be counterproductive in the presence of bacterial infections,” says Jennifer Okemah, RD, CDE. She adds, “Just because something is ‘natural’ does not mean it is beneficial. Cyanide and arsenic are ‘all natural.’”

If you wish to take a supplement, run it by your doctor or diabetes educator first. And stay away from supplements with “too good to be true” claims, as there are a lot of companies touting fraudulent products that promise to prevent or cure diseases, including COVID-19.

Getting regular physical activity contributes to a healthy immune system.

Answer: Fact

Being physically active not only helps with diabetes management and heart disease prevention, it can help you fight off infections, too. Researchers aren’t exactly sure how exercise supports immunity but theories center on the following:

· Exercise slows the release of stress hormones, such as cortisol. Stress can increase the risk of illness.

· The rise in body temperature during and after exercise may prevent bacteria from growing (similar to when you have a fever).

· Physical activity can flush bacteria out of the lungs and airways.

· Exercise promotes circulation, which allows cells and proteins that are part of the immune system to move throughout the body and do their job effectively.

· Exercise can slow changes in the immune system that happen with aging.

You may not be able to go to the gym or participate in a race right now, but there are still plenty of ways to remain active during this time of quarantine and social distancing, including going for walks, jogs or bike rides, working out to exercise videos, and doing activities of daily living, such as yard work, sweeping and vacuuming.

In summary, strategies to keep your immune system supported include:

1. Eating healthfully (and that includes fruits and vegetables).

2. Limiting alcohol intake.

3. Not smoking.

4. Getting enough sleep.

5. Minimizing or at least managing stress.

6. Keeping up with regular vaccinations.

7. Minimizing the risk of infection by washing your hands often, social distancing, coughing and sneezing into a tissue or the inside of your elbow, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces daily, and storing and cooking foods properly.

Want to learn more about coronavirus and diabetes? Read “Coronavirus and Diabetes: What You Need to Know,” “Healthy Eating During Hard Times” and “Avoiding Coronavirus With Diabetes: Stock Up and Stay Home, CDC Says.”

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES

Amy Campbell, MS, RD, LDN, CDCES on social media

A Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator at Good Measures, LLC, where she is a CDE manager for a virtual diabetes program. Campbell is the author of Staying Healthy with Diabetes: Nutrition & Meal Planning, a co-author of 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet, and has written for  publications including Diabetes Self-Management, Diabetes Spectrum, Clinical Diabetes, the Diabetes Research & Wellness Foundation’s newsletter, DiabeticConnect.com, and CDiabetes.com

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