Note from Cassie: I am so excited to hand over the reigns today to my dear friend and incredible healer, Sarah Beth Adel. Sarah Beth is the owner of Sacred Rose Medicinals, a Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic in Southern Indiana. She has over two decades of experience in both Western and Eastern medicine, which I think makes her the perfect person to offer us some practical advice on immune boosting. Take it away, SB!
It seems like everyone is offering some advice on how to boost your immune system naturally these days. With my background in both Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Western medicine, I am fortunate to have wide-ranging experience to draw upon to offer some advice on how to boost immunity holistically.
These tips are the same ones that I have been applying to my life and have been encouraging my patients to apply to theirs. While these are not guaranteed to make your immune system steel-proof, they may give you just the boost your body needs.
Get the right amount of sleep
Sleep is vital for immunity because it allows for our body to rejuvenate. Specifically, it allows our bodies to produce cytokines, which target infection and inflammation. Everyone needs a different amount of sleep to feel their best—I’m definitely an 8-9 hour girl myself. While there are a ton of wonderful resources out there about sleep and sleep hygiene (I really like the resources at the National Sleep Foundation website), here are a few specific things I’ve learned that work for me and my patients.
First, try establishing a good sleep hygiene routine. Things that are likely to help make falling asleep easy:
- Turning off electronics an hour or so before bed
- Avoiding caffeine after noon
- Not eating too late in the evening
- Keeping the house cool during sleeping hours
Other things you may consider to take your sleep routine to the next level: a cup of chamomile tea, a hot bath, or an evening stretch session to relax before you crawl under the sheets. Wholefully has an in-depth article on how to establish a good sleep routine that can help you dive deeper into establishing a sleep routine.
Another thing to keep in mind when it comes to sleep: it doesn’t have to all come in one lump sum. In the past, I’ve struggled with insomnia, and one lesson I learned is that if you’re having a hard time getting the amount you need in one solid snooze session, you can make up for it with naps. The key here for immunity boosting is to make sure your body is resting when it needs rest—no matter what that looks like.
Eating to boost your immune system
Before we talk about what exact foods to eat (spoiler alert: vegetables are good), let’s talk about how you eat your food. When it comes to immunity-boosting, you want to eat warm foods.
In Chinese Medicine, the Spleen is responsible for turning the food and water that we eat and drink into blood and energy. The Spleen also dislikes cold. When we eat cold foods, it makes our body work harder to turn that food into energy. This slows our digestive fire down, making it harder for our body to nourish its immunity reserves. For now, skip the smoothies and the salads and instead head for the soups and stews if you want to keep your immune system nourished.
This also applies to what we drink! I recommend that all my patients switch to drinking room temperature or even warm water. Warm teas are also a great option. Ginger tea, in particular, is a great option for nourishing your Spleen—start the morning with a cup of it. This a great way to stoke that digestive fire and give the Spleen a little wake-up call.
What you should eat to boost immunity
Now let’s talk about what you should be putting on your plate to help boost your immune system. If you’re putting together your grocery list right now, I’d recommend you stock it with:
- Root vegetables (like sweet potatoes, potatoes, beets, and carrots)
- Bone broth
- Brussels sprouts
- Leafy greens (like spinach, kale, Swiss chard, and collards)
- Lemons and limes
Root vegetables are wonderful for our digestive system, which helps keep our immunity high. I often recommend roasting foods like sweet potatoes, potatoes, beets, parsnips, and carrots. I’ll often meal prep this delicious combination, and keep it on hand to eat in the morning for breakfast.
Bone broth is another easy addition, and it’s great for immune health because it is packed with amino acids, collagen, and minerals. More specifically, the gelatin helps decrease inflammation in your gut, which can, in turn, boost your immune system.
If you are concerned about respiratory health, pears are one of my favorite foods to add to my diet when I’m focusing on respiratory health. In TCM, the Lung is responsible for our immunity, and pears nourish the Lung (and they’re delicious, in my opinion). I recently stumbled upon some organic, canned pears at my local grocery store. Normally, I suggest fresh fruits and veggies, but when you’re living in the midst of a pandemic, something is better than nothing. If I’m buying canned pears, I always go for the ones in BPA-free cans, in their own juices (no added sugars).
Eating foods like asparagus, Brussels sprouts, leafy greens, and lemon and/or lime water are simple additions to any menu to help soothe your Liver. The Liver is responsible for a myriad of functions in both a TCM and Western Medicine perspective. Specifically, in TCM, the Liver is responsible for the free flow of Qi throughout the body—Qi is, in the most simple terms, our body’s energy. If our Qi is not flowing correctly, stagnation will lead to lowered immunity and other physical and/or emotional symptoms.
What foods cause strain on your immune system
Before we dig into the foods I personally limit to boost immunity, it’s important for us to talk grace when it comes to diet. My philosophy (and I know that of Wholefully’s as well), is that the most important act of health is to treat yourself with gentle, loving, kindness. This applies to all areas of life, but maybe none more important than what we eat.
It’s important to remember to give yourself grace with the foods you eat. While I feel like it’s important to understand how certain foods interact with your body so you can make informed decisions about when and how to eat them—it doesn’t make these foods “bad.” In fact, I believe it can be more detrimental to your health to beat yourself up over your food choices than it is to pay attention to your body and answer its cravings with love and kindness.
That all being said, for me, when focused on immune-boosting, I remove both dairy and refined sugar from my diet—and I recommend my patients do this as well. These foods can be inflammatory, and this inflammation can interact with your body’s natural immune response. In particular, when dealing with a respiratory issue, dairy—in all forms—can be extremely inflammatory to the mucus linings of our respiratory system. I love good cheese as much as the next gal, but when I’m trying to boost my immune system, cheese stays off my plate.
Try some easy, at-home acupressure
Acupressure is an easy, painless treatment you can do at home that requires no special equipment. Acupressure works by stimulating the body’s response to a specific acupuncture point. When I’m doing acupressure on myself, I will often press/rub a point while envisioning that point filling with light. You don’t need to press hard, just enough for you to feel the point being stimulated.
When it comes to acupressure for immunity boosting, a few of my teachers have said that if you only use one acupuncture point in your practice, it should be Stomach 36 (Zusanli in pinyin). This point is known for its ability to support Qi, boost digestion, calm the spirit, and boost immunity. This point is located on the lateral (outside) side of the leg, a handbreadth below the patella (kneecap) and one finger width from the tibia (shin bone).
To do acupressure at home to boost your immune system:
- Locate the acupuncture point you’re looking to stimulate—oftentimes this point will feel slightly tender when touched.
- Press, rub, or tap this point to stimulate it. You can also use an electric acupressure pen if you prefer—although these do have a slight electric jolt that might be uncomfortable for some.
- Repeat this daily to give yourself a little boost.
Protect your neck!
You’ll almost always see me with a scarf around my neck during the cooler seasons of Spring, Fall, and Winter. Why? In TCM, the neck is an area where wind can bring illnesses (also known as “pathogens” in TCM) into the body—in fact, there is even an acupuncture point in the back of the neck called “Wind Gate.” If you’ve ever “gotten a chill” from a cold wind at the back of your neck, then you’ve experienced the power of the wind on your neck. If you want to be extra careful, cover up your neck while trying to avoid illness, especially when it’s windy out. A simple scarf, turtleneck, or the hood on a sweatshirt should do the trick.
Take an extra dose of vitamin C
In general, I don’t like to make a blanket suggestion for herbs or supplements—my practice focuses on building a relationship with my patients and creating custom treatment protocols on the individual level. However, I do recommend that most people check in with their physicians about taking an added boost of Vitamin C during times of pervasive illness like a pandemic. Vitamin C has been proven to work because it supports various (and numerous) cellular functions that contribute to the health of the immune response.
You can also get added Vitamin C by boosting your intake of vitamin C-heavy foods like strawberries, kiwi, red/yellow/green peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and cantaloupe. Make sure to check in with your health care professional before starting any new supplement regime.
Don’t forget to honor your emotions
We can no longer ignore the mind-body connection—our body and our immune system function well when our mind is peaceful, calm, and centered. TCM considers not honoring our emotions as a cause of disharmony, and disharmony in our body leads to physical symptoms of fatigue, poor digestion, lowered immunity, and an overall feeling of “blah.” Spending time checking in with our emotions is paramount during times of increased worry and stress.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed, angry, sad, worried, fearful, or lost during times of uncertainty. It may serve you well to spend a few minutes each day (or even a few moments spread throughout the day) to touch base with yourself and see where you’re at.
I have a longstanding practice of journaling my gratitude every morning. Recently, I started journaling my grief as well. I am doing my best to check in and honor whatever it is that I am feeling. It can be easy to honor the positive emotions, but we tend to avoid giving space to the negative ones—they need to be felt, too. Using Worry Time is another great way to honor negative emotions.
This pandemic has tested my resolve in many ways, and the emotional roller coaster has been a ride that I can honestly say I’ve never experienced before. My guess is that many of you are in the same boat. Give yourself permission to feel whatever it is that you need to feel. Write about it. Cry about it. Witness it. Find a way to connect to your feelings and move through them, because repressed emotions lead to stuck energy. We need our energy to flow as smoothly as possible to keep our bodies healthy.
Release your stress and nourish your body with gentle activity
While intense physical exercise might be nourishing in certain instances, in general, it can be very taxing when you want to boost your immune system. If you need an intense run to keep your mind right, go ahead, but I tend to recommend focusing on gentle, nourishing physical activity instead. My general recommendation is to move your body a little each day.
In particular, during stressful times our body needs the opportunity to move out of “fight or flight” and into “rest and digest” in order to keep our systems functioning at their best. Consider engaging in a nourishing and restorative physical practice like Qi Gong, restorative yoga, breathwork, or meditation. These practices work by giving your body the chance to reset and begin the resting process. When we stay in “fight or flight” mode for too long, our body creates cortisol. Over long periods of time, this can lead to suppression of our immunity. These practices focus on slowing your body down, allowing it to “rest and digest” and let in normal immune responses.
There are so many amazing resources online for these types of soothing physical practices; you may be able to find something that suits your needs just by checking out YouTube. I personally have a daily Qi Gong practice—Qi Gong is an energy healing practice focused on restoring life energy through movement and sound. You can learn more about this practice by visiting The Chi Center. I also really like the Insight Timer app for meditation.
Try to laugh every day!
I always feel better when I laugh. According to the Mayo clinic, some short term benefits of laughter are stimulating our stress response and soothing tension. Long term benefits include boosting immunity, improving mood, and relieving pain. I usually try to get a giggle in every day, but lately I have been watching a ton of standup comedy for my dose of daily laughs.
Mostly, I ask that you be gentle with yourself. This is uncharted territory for us, and moving through times like these requires that we recognize that we are doing the best we can. On top of dealing with a virus unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime, we are dealing with the stress of finances, homeschool, working from home (or not working at all), and trying to find a new sense of normal. Breathe. We are all just trying to do the best we can, and I ask that you give yourself permission to be imperfect during these times.
Try to find some good in every day. And on the days when that feel like a struggle, know that it is okay. It is okay to fall apart a little (or a lot). It is okay to not know the answers. It is okay to be scared, worried, sad, mad, frustrated, or WHATEVER it is that you’re feeling. We are humans, and we are doing the best we can. I hope you’ve found this information helpful. Be well.