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How to build a strong and healthy immune system for patients in 7 steps

7 ways to build defenses against illness and disease when patients ask how to build a strong and healthy immune system

The immune system has a difficult job. Its primary focus is to protect and keep you healthy from foreign invaders. It’s always walking a tightrope between being hypervigilant and not being vigilant enough. By supporting it — with proper nutrition, healthy lifestyle choices and nutritional supplements — you allow your immune system to rejuvenate and maintain its delicate balance. But how to build a strong and healthy immune system, and why does it matter?

A weakened immune system can leave patients vulnerable to infectious diseases, autoimmunity and chronic illnesses. And they don’t have a backup immune system if they choose to neglect the one they have.

Thankfully, there are many safe, effective avenues when patients ask how to build a strong and healthy immune system.



Here’s what I recommend.

1. Eat better for a stronger immune system

Stronger immunity starts with a better diet and good gut health. Begin by saying no to gluten, processed foods, sugar, dairy and artificial sweeteners. Likewise, avoid deep-fried foods and foods cooked in pro-inflammatory vegetable oils.

Avoiding these foods is the basis of an anti-inflammatory diet. Removing them from the diet reduces cellular stressors, inhibits inflammatory signals from the immune system and promotes healthy gut microbiota. A diet high in sugar, for example, can damage your immune system; more specifically, sugar can damage the immune cells in the gut.

The healthiest diets focus on nutrient-rich whole foods, lots of plants and limited processed foods. The Mediterranean and plant-forward diets are anti-inflammatory in addition to their other benefits. Research has found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet leads to a healthier gut microbiome with more beneficial bacteria, along with lower inflammation and better blood sugar control. A healthy gut microbiome is also associated with a lower risk of illness, including COVID-19.

Detect and avoid food sensitivities

Detecting and avoiding food sensitivities can be a game changer for patients when it comes to immune health. Food sensitivity is an immune-based reaction to food that elevates inflammation. Undetected food sensitivities can lead to chronic inflammation, possible autoimmunity and a compromised immune system. Treating and avoiding food sensitivities can make a dramatic improvement in immune system function.

Environmental toxins such as lead, acrylamide, BPA and many others can enter the body and interact with the immune system, causing detrimental immune activation or suppression. A semi-annual quality detoxification program will help rid the body of toxins. At the same time, patients should work to reduce exposure to environmental toxins.

Focus on hydration

Staying well-hydrated aids in maintaining a properly functioning immune system. A good rule of thumb is to drink three-quarters of your body weight in ounces, spread throughout the day. Drinking water improves overall immunity and helps the body eliminate some pathogens naturally. Avoid fruit juices, alcoholic beverages, soda and other sweetened beverages. Stick to plenty of filtered water, organic coffee, black tea, green tea and mild herbal teas.

Manage blood sugar

When asking how to build a strong and healthy immune system, controlling patients’ blood sugar is essential for peak immunity. The glycemic index diet is one of the best dietary approaches for controlling blood sugar. It focuses on foods that have a low impact on your blood sugar.

For example, the glycemic index is a way to rank carbohydrates by their effect on blood glucose levels. Low GI (1 to 55) foods are mostly whole, unprocessed carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. High GI (above 70) foods, which can send your blood sugar soaring, are mostly sugary foods and processed carbohydrates such as white bread and pasta. A low GI diet helps keep your blood sugar at a healthy level and enables you to maintain good metabolic health, including good insulin sensitivity.

When metabolic health is good, the immune system functions optimally.

Consider intermittent fasting

Intermittent fasting, or time-restricted eating with a 14- to 16-hour fasting period, allows patients’ immune systems to rejuvenate through autophagy and mitophagy. The rejuvenation process reprograms the immune system, leading to improved immune balance and better immune resilience. Autophagy also plays a crucial role in gut health. It maintains intestinal homeostasis and allows for the interaction between the gut microbiota and the innate and adaptive immune systems.

In addition, intermittent fasting helps maintain intestinal barrier integrity, which improves overall immunity. Some evidence suggests that people who follow a time-restricted eating pattern experience fewer complications from COVID-19.

Make clean eating a priority

It’s been said that eating organic isn’t a trend; it’s a return to tradition. The many chemicals we’re exposed to through our food can damage our immunity. Make clean eating a priority by choosing organically grown produce, grass-fed meat and pasture-raised poultry and eggs whenever possible. Organic bone broth is a great way to get vital minerals such as calcium into the diet.

The immune system needs to get plenty of omega-3 fatty acids to function well. Choose wild-caught SMASH fish: salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines and herring. Avoid processed vegetable oils; use extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil and macadamia nut oil for cooking instead.

I strongly recommend a plant-forward diet for patients that is high in organically-grown fruits/vegetables, raw nuts/seeds and quality clean proteins. This diet is high in the fiber needed to support gut health. In addition, a plant-forward diet is high in polyphenols and plant compounds such as quercetin and resveratrol, which are powerful antioxidants. Polyphenols improve gut health and activate the immune system. Foods high in polyphenols include vegetables, berries, herbs and spices, dark chocolate, nuts, olives, coffee, and green and black tea.

In a recent study of almost 3,000 health care workers worldwide, those who followed a plant-forward diet had a 73% lower chance of becoming ill with moderate-to-severe COVID-19 than their colleagues who didn’t follow these diets. If they followed a plant-based or pescatarian diet (eating fish/seafood but no other animal foods), their chances of moderate-to-severe COVID-19 were 59% decreased compared to those who didn’t follow these diets.

2. Manage stress

Ongoing stress can sharply reduce immunity by raising cortisol levels and causing inflammation. Recognizing that stress affects patient health is the first step to reducing it. Once one acknowledges their stressors, various techniques are available to help cope. Some of my patients find meditation, mindfulness and yoga very helpful; others prefer to work out or spend time on a relaxing hobby. No one approach is better than any other; the key is to find a stress reduction technique (or more than one) that works and to use it regularly.

I often see a real improvement in immune systems when my patients take stress reduction seriously. They get sick less often, reduce their joint and muscle pain, and have less systemic inflammation.

Chronic stress often occurs with chronic sleep loss. The two feed on each other, causing inflammation, hormonal imbalances, digestive problems and decreased immunity. More on the importance of sleep is below.

3. Patients need to get sufficient sleep

Sleep is the silent superpower. It enables immune systems to function efficiently and effectively. While patients sleep, the body repairs itself and removes toxins and waste. At the same time, their levels of immune cells rise naturally. A growing body of research shows that getting 7-8 hours of quality sleep daily is essential for the immune system to reboot.

4. Exercise regularly

Regular exercise is one of the key pillars when patients ask how to build a strong and healthy immune system . One of the easiest ways to improve immunity is by getting regular, moderate exercise for 30-60 minutes a day. Exercise reduces inflammation and stimulates immunity by improving the circulation of immune cells and antibodies in the body, which makes it easier for the immune system to detect and respond to potential threats.

As with sleep, make daily exercise a top priority for patients, especially if they have a job or lifestyle that means they spend more than a few hours a day sitting. As I tell my patients, sitting is the new smoking.

Numerous studies show that almost all forms of regular exercise give you the same fitness and immunity benefits. When we exercise, antibodies and white blood cells circulate throughout the body faster, making it easier for the immune system to detect and respond to potential threats. Running or jogging, walking at a good pace, exercising along with a video, practicing yoga and performing resistance exercises are all excellent choices. The key is to do some form of exercise regularly for at least 30 minutes per day, 5-6 days per week.

A single 30-minute session of weight resistance training, for example, will boost a patient’s lymphocyte count. They will see the payoff in stronger muscles, better body composition and better overall fitness. Sufficient muscle mass allows for a better immune response in most people. Patients probably won’t get sick as often with minor illnesses like colds — and research shows exercise can reduce inflammation and cut the risk of autoimmunity and chronic disease.

A 2021 study of nearly 50,000 COVID-19 patients found that consistently inactive patients were more than twice as likely to need hospitalization or die compared to those who consistently met physical activity guidelines. Compared to patients who only did some physical activity, those who were consistently inactive were 20% more likely to need hospitalization and 30% more likely to die.

5. Improve patient body composition

Excess body fat creates systemic inflammation and reduced immunity; metabolic disorders increase inflammation and further reduce immunity.

A key finding from the pandemic is that being overweight and obese are significant risk factors for severe infection. People of any age who are overweight or obese are much more likely to get infected with COVID-19. If they do get sick, they are more likely to get severely ill and need a lengthy recovery period. Overweight or obese people with metabolic disorders such as metabolic syndrome or Type 2 diabetes are even more likely to get seriously ill.

The pandemic has been a wake-up call for many of my patients to work on losing weight and improving their diets. They now realize how being severely overweight or obese can affect their immunity and understand how significant weight loss and a better diet are to enhancing their immune systems.

6. Pair with chiropractic care

As we are well aware, chiropractic care can improve the body’s function in a multitude of ways. Include advanced nutrition and physical modalities training in your practice armamentarium, paired with your vast knowledge of the body and synergistic treatments that can also allow the central nervous system to perform optimally and improve immune system function.

Low-level laser therapy

I believe that low-level laser therapy (LLLT), also referred to as non-thermal laser therapy, is the most versatile health care modality of the current century. Research has shown it provides beneficial effects for a wide array of health conditions, such as musculoskeletal injuries, vagus nerve stimulation, gut restoration/health and improved immune function.

LLLT can stimulate and balance the immune system and reduce inflammation. Laser therapy enhances microcirculation of the blood and lymph, which can aid immunological adaptation and strengthen the immune system.

7. Boost patient immune health with supplements

Eating a well-balanced, plant-forward diet low in sugar and processed foods is key to strong immune health. However, eating well may not always be accessible for patients in today’s fast-paced, fast-food society. They sometimes need more of a vitamin, mineral or nutrient than they can realistically get from their diet.

Depleted cells in the body may not be repleted sufficiently by food alone. That’s why I often recommend specific dietary supplements as an addition to a healthy diet. Supplements can provide good nutrient status and nutrient stores. This status provides balanced immune system function, which will provide a strong defense against pathogens.

Vitamin D, for example, is necessary for strong immunity. Vitamin D mostly comes from exposure to sunshine, but we spend 90% of our lives indoors. A daily supplement is the best way to ensure you get enough of this vitamin.

Top five supplements for immunity

My top five daily supplements synergistically stimulate, balance and support both the innate and the adaptive immune responses:

  • Daily multivitamins with minerals: Vitamins A, C, D and the mineral zinc are needed to build the many enzymes for immune cells to produce cytokines and antibodies efficiently.

  • Omega-3 fatty acids: Omega-3 fatty acids help lymphocytes produce cytokines and chemokines that direct the immune response.

  • Vitamin D3 with vitamin K2: Taking vitamin D3 with vitamin K2 helps ensure the calcium transported by the vitamin D is absorbed by bones where it’s needed most.

  • Pro-resolving mediators (PRMs): PRMs help limit acute inflammation and promote resolution after an immune response.

  • Prebiotics and probiotics: Prebiotics support the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, while probiotics aid in modulating the immune system by providing beneficial bacteria to the gut’s ecosystem.

Today more than ever, building a strong immune system is essential for vibrant health. We now have many effective modalities for helping patients strengthen their immunity. As our understanding of the gut microbiome and other aspects of immunity expands, we can successfully target our treatments to meet individual needs.

If history is to repeat itself, there will be other health pandemics. But we can learn something from the past: The first and most controllable line of defense against illness is our own immune system. When considering how to build a strong and healthy immune system, instead of only reacting to sickness, a proactive approach to immunity can help reduce the risk of illness — and possibly even prevent it.

ROBERT G. SILVERMAN, DC, DACBN, DCBCN, MS, CCN, CNS, CSCS, CIISN, CKTP, CES, HKC, FAKTR, is a chiropractic doctor, clinical nutritionist, national/international speaker, author of Amazon’s #1 bestseller “Inside-Out Health,” and founder and CEO of Westchester Integrative Health Center. He graduated magna cum laude from the University of Bridgeport College of Chiropractic and has a Master of Science degree in human nutrition. The ACA Sports Council named him “Sports Chiropractor of the Year” in 2015. He is on the advisory board for Functional Medicine University and is a seasoned health and wellness expert on the speaking circuits and in the media. A frequently published author in peer-reviewed journals and other mainstream publications, he is a thought leader in his field and practice. His new book, “Immune Reboot: Your Guide to Maximizing Immunity, Restoring Gut Health, and Optimizing Vitality,” was published in November 2022. He can be reached at drrobertsilverman.com.

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