People love to shop for immune-boosting herbs and supplements during cold and flu season, yet the most important ingredients for immune resilience can’t be found in a supplement bottle.
Instead, they’re on your pillow. And in your kitchen.
Two deeply important yet admittedly unsexy factors when it comes to immune resilience are sufficient sleep and protein.
Why sleep is so important for healthy immune function
Research consistently shows that nothing holds a candle to sleep when it comes to superior immunity. Poor sleep signals other disorders that can compromise your immunity.
Clinically, one of the most common causes of poor sleep we see is a blood sugar imbalance.
On one end of the spectrum, we have people battling chronically high blood sugar, which causes inflammation, insulin resistance, and declining brain health, all of which degrade sleep. A fasting blood sugar over 100 mg/dL or an HbA1c over 5.6 percent indicates your blood sugar is too high, which may be the cause of your sleep issues and weakened immunity. One of the most common symptoms of insulin resistance is feeling sleepy after meals.
People with high blood sugar and insulin resistance tend to have trouble falling asleep more often and don’t feel well-rested when they wake up. This is because insulin resistance is often accompanied by elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which impedes good sleep.
High blood sugar and insulin resistance are very common in the US. A lower carbohydrate, whole-foods diet, plenty of fiber, and daily exercise are two of the most important ways to combat insulin resistance and improve sleep.
On the other end of the spectrum are people with chronically low blood sugar, or reactive hypoglycemia. These are most frequently women who undereat and don’t eat frequently enough. When they do eat, it’s something very sweet or starchy, like a fruit smoothie, a sweet yogurt, or toast. They also fall very short of their protein needs. One of the most common symptoms of low blood sugar is feeling energized after meals because food raises blood sugar that has dropped.
These people tend to fall asleep ok, but they bolt awake at 3 or 4 a.m., often worrying about something, and have difficulty falling back asleep. This can be due to their blood sugar dropping too low during the night. As a result, stress hormones kick into action to resupply energy to the brain. Unfortunately, it also causes alertness and anxiety when you should be sleeping. These people may also feel nauseous in the morning or like they can’t possibly eat breakfast. Again, this is due to stress hormones skewing the brain’s appetite centers.
Eating smaller meals more frequently, not skipping meals, and emphasizing sufficient fat, protein, and fiber can improve sleep in these cases. Eating a small amount before bed can also help with sleep during the night, and in some cases, if falling back asleep after waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. proves difficult, a few bites of food may help.
Many people have a mix of high and low blood sugar symptoms, and most Americans have a blood sugar imbalance. This will impact sleep and hence immunity.
Here are some strategies to consider for both situations:
- Avoid concentrated and processed sugars, especially before bed.
- Opt for a breakfast rich in high-quality protein and healthy fats.
- Identify your carbohydrate tolerance based on symptoms and a glucose monitor, as it varies for each individual.
- Never consume sugary or high-carb foods without pairing them with fiber, fat, or protein.
- Emphasize a well-balanced diet consisting mostly of vegetables, quality meats, and ample fiber and fats.
- Identify and eliminate any food intolerances that may be contributing to blood sugar imbalances. The most common are gluten, dairy, corn, and other grains.
The importance of circadian rhythm
The circadian rhythm, or your sleep-wake cycle, plays a role in immune resilience. Following a natural circadian rhythm, which involves going to bed at the same time and waking up at the same time, is crucial for enhancing immune resilience. Waking up naturally, without the need for an alarm, allows the body to complete its sleep cycles and promotes optimal immune function.
The biggest sleep mistake most people make is staying up too late, leading to disrupted sleep patterns and compromised immune function. If you genuinely want to improve your immune resilience, it is crucial to prioritize going to bed early enough to allow for waking up naturally.
Also, wear orange glasses at night to protect yourself from the blue light coming from your screens, which signals the body that it is daytime. Keep lights in your home dim after sunset.
Protein for immune resilience
One thing I frequently see in patients struggling with autoimmunity, chronic inflammation, and other immune-based disorders is they don’t eat enough protein. This is especially true of people on a limited diet because of their autoimmune condition. They may be great about avoiding gluten and eating a whole-food diet devoid of processed foods. But when we analyze their intake, we find they significantly undereat protein.
Protein plays an essential role in various aspects of immune resilience, including the immune response to viruses, regulating inflammation, and the synthesis of various immune cells.
I recommend my patients consume 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight. (One ounce of meat has roughly 7 grams of protein.) Usually, ideal body weight is used if the patient is overweight. Protein from meat is the most bioavailable to the body and a more complete protein than plant protein. Be sure and divide up your protein intake throughout the day as the body cannot absorb an entire day’s worth of protein in one meal.
More tips for immune resilience
Of course, sleep and protein aren’t the only tips for improving immune resilience, but they are two of the more overlooked while people look for the latest exotic supplement. In truth, good immune resilience is a holistic approach that encompasses diet, lifestyle, stress handling, blood sugar, and more.
But here are some other factors to consider:
Address inflammatory triggers
Chronic inflammation weakens the immune system, leaving it less equipped to combat viruses and other pathogens effectively. If you find yourself experiencing constant fatigue and body pain, it may be a sign of inflammation compromising your immune resilience. Understanding and addressing the underlying causes of inflammation is crucial for restoring immune function.
Several factors can contribute to chronic inflammation, including dietary choices, environmental exposures, and undiagnosed chronic viral infections. Some common triggers of chronic inflammation include:
- Inflammatory Diet: Certain foods, particularly those containing gluten and dairy, can trigger inflammation in susceptible individuals. Other potential food triggers include eggs, soy, corn, and various grains.
- Environmental Chemicals and Molds: Exposure to environmental toxins and molds can also contribute to chronic inflammation. Identifying and minimizing exposure to these triggers is essential for reducing inflammation and enhancing immune resilience.
- Undiagnosed chronic infections: In some cases, chronic inflammation may be linked to undiagnosed chronic viral infections, such as hepatitis C or active Epstein-Barr. Identifying and addressing these infections is crucial for reducing inflammation and supporting immune function.
The synergy of vitamin D3 and omega-3s to support immunity
Studies have shed light on the powerful synergy between vitamin D3 and omega-3 fatty acids in supporting immunity and reducing inflammation. When taken together, these two nutrients have a combined anti-inflammatory effect that surpasses their individual benefits. Incorporating vitamin D3 and omega-3 into our daily routine can be safe, affordable, and effective in promoting immune resilience.
Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs) are vital fats that our bodies cannot produce on their own and must be obtained from whole food sources or supplements. Sources such as toxic-free fish and algae oil play a crucial role in maintaining a healthy balance of essential fatty acids, which in turn promote healthy immune cell function. Fish oil supplements, when taken in the proper dosages, can help. As a general guideline, if you consume around 2,000 calories a day, you will need approximately 4-5 grams of omega-3 fish oil daily, equivalent to about 5-6 capsules.
Vitamin D is essential for supporting autoimmune disorders, immune regulation, and overall immune resilience. Adequate levels of vitamin D are necessary for the proper function of T-reg cells and maintaining a balanced immune response. The recommended dosage of vitamin D varies depending on the individual and their specific condition. A baseline of 10,000 IU per day is often suggested, but it is crucial to regularly test your vitamin D levels to ensure optimal supplementation.
The power of glutathione for immune resilience
Glutathione, often referred to as our body’s master antioxidant, plays a vital role in protecting us from autoimmunity, viruses, inflammation, and other attacks on the immune system.
When glutathione levels decline due to aging, stress, poor diet, exposure to toxins, chronic infections, or other factors, we are more susceptible to inflammation and infection.
For some individuals, taking high-quality, absorbable glutathione supplements can have profound effects. Oral liposomal glutathione is one option to consider, as it allows for better absorption. Additionally, glutathione precursors like n-acetyl-cysteine (NAC) can be taken to support the body’s production of glutathione.
Building immune resilience through better mental health habits
The field of psychoneuroimmunology has shed light on how excess stress and unresolved traumas can trigger powerful inflammatory responses, making us more susceptible to autoimmune diseases and chronic inflammatory disorders. To build resilience, it’s essential to adopt strategies that support our mental well-being:
- Cultivate Positivity: Write down five things each day that bring you happiness. Reflecting on these positive aspects of your life can uplift your spirits and promote a more positive mindset, which can have a beneficial impact on your immune system and inflammatory response.
- Practice Mindfulness: Engaging in deep breathing exercises, gratitude practices, prayer, or meditation can help reduce stress levels and promote a sense of calm. Mindfulness techniques have been shown to have a positive influence on immune function and inflammatory markers.
- Regular Exercise: Engaging in regular physical activity not only helps reduce stress but also enhances immune function. However, it’s important to avoid overexercising, as excessive physical strain can have the opposite effect on the immune system.
- Socialize Face-to-Face: Prioritize in-person social interactions whenever possible. Connecting with others face-to-face can provide emotional support, reduce feelings of loneliness, and positively impact mental well-being. Strong social connections have been linked to improved immune function and reduced inflammation.
The detrimental effect of sugar is vast. Processed sugar, found in many processed foods and beverages, can have detrimental effects on our immune system. It triggers inflammation in the body, which can weaken our immune response and make us more susceptible to infections and illnesses. By eliminating or significantly reducing our intake of sugars, including natural sweeteners and fruit juices, we can help support our immune system and improve our overall health.
Diversify plant fiber intake
Diversifying fruit and vegetable intake is crucial for immune resilience. Increasing the intake of low-glycemic fruits and vegetables in our diet not only helps to reduce sugar consumption but also provides essential nutrients, gut-friendly fiber, and beneficial antioxidant flavonoids. These components support our immune system and contribute to a healthy gut microbiome. A diverse gut microbiome is crucial for optimal immune function, as it helps regulate inflammation and promotes overall immune resilience.
If you’d like more tips on a whole-body plan to improve immune resilience, please check out my free Everyday Immune Resilience program.