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In light of the ongoing global health concerns, wellness is top of mind for people around the world. 

While one should never disregard their health, it is now more critical than ever to ensure we take care of ourselves and our loved ones. 

Our bodies are naturally equipped to fight off disease, and while no one is invincible, we can significantly lower our risk of infection by strengthening our immune system. 

At times like these – when our travel is impacted, major events are canceled, and the news fails to offer any glimmer of hope = it can seem like we don’t have any control. But we do.

We can choose what goes into our bodies, and we have the power to protect ourselves in this way. Keep reading to learn how you can take control, strengthen your immune system, and remain strong and healthy through these uncertain times.

How to build a strong immune system

Humans are not defenseless. Our bodies are naturally equipped with a complex and powerful immune system to fend off disease. 

Both to its credit and detriment, our immune system can be compromised depending on one’s lifestyle. Treat your body right, and you can give your cells a fighting chance of fending off infections. Here are five basic steps to strengthen your system:

  1. Eat a varied, plant-based, and dairy-free diet
  2. Don’t smoke
  3. Exercise regularly
  4. Practice stress management
  5. Get enough sleep

We get it – all of these are common sense practices that should be incorporated into any healthy lifestyle, but that’s the key: a healthy lifestyle. 

The immune system is based on the constant creation and death of cells. When we keep these cells in a steady state of health, we can take charge and defend our bodies to the best of our ability.

Those who can should exercise regularly (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Food and immunity

Professors at Harvard School of Public Health have noted that those who are malnourished – even micronutrient malnourished – tend to be more prone to disease.

Those in developing countries and the elderly tend to be most at risk, as these two populations either don’t get enough food or decrease the variety in their diets, but young, affluent, and seemingly healthy people can also experience micronutrient malnourishment. 

To function at full capacity, cells need the essential nutrients – not just carbs, proteins, and fats, but vitamins A-K, magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium, boron, and more.

The Standard American Diet – along with popular diet trends such as Keto and Paleo – relies on foods such as meat and dairy that are severely lacking in these micronutrients. Plant-based foods, on the other hand, tend to be extremely high in these essential nutrients that support healthy cell function. Think of it this way: when one consumes a dairy product, such as cows’ milk, they are likely opting out of a more nutrient-dense option, such as pea milk.

While it’s true dairy does contain some nutrients – mainly calcium, protein, potassium, and fortified vitamin D – it also contains harmful trans and saturated fats, artery-constricting cholesterol, natural bovine hormones that may stimulate unregulated cell growth (increasing the risk for hormone-dependent cancers), and inflammatory properties. When there are ample amounts of foods that offer the same nutrients without the side harmful side effects, there is no reason to consume dairy for the sake of meeting nutrition needs.

Dairy contains harmful trans and saturated fats, artery-constricting cholesterol, natural bovine hormones and inflammatory properties (Photo: Adobe. Do not use without permission)

Foods that support immunity

In addition to micronutrients, antioxidants are key. These compounds are mostly found in plant foods and help fight inflammation—the nexus for disease. In fact, a whole foods, plant-based diet contains 64-times the amount of immunity-boosting antioxidants compared to a diet that includes meat and dairy. Cut out the antioxidant-depleted animal foods and incorporate these nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich plant foods into your diet.

  • Berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, etc)
  • Beets
  • Cherries
  • Raw cacao (in powdered form, mixed into oatmeal or smoothies)
  • Leafy greens (kale, collard greens, bok choy, chard, etc)

Need help transforming these foods into meals? Start with this Chocolate Beet Magic Soup, Anti-Inflammation Recovery Smoothie, or this Mediterranean GoodBowl.

How inflammation hinders immunity

Inflammation is part of our immune system’s toolkit. When we scrape our knee, break down our muscles via exercise, or become infected with a pathogen, the immune system triggers an inflammatory response to help the body heal. 

Cells rush to the injury or infection site and work to destroy the pathogen or heal the wound. Temporary, or acute inflammation, is perfectly natural. You might experience some site-specific swelling, soreness, or redness, but it will go away within a few days. 

Long-term, or chronic inflammation, however, can compromise your immune system.

Essentially, the immune system goes into overdrive, and over time it simply cannot keep up. Because chronic inflammation overtaxes the immune system, researchers have definitively stated that chronic inflammation is malignant and sets the stage for disease.

Certain foods are known to cause inflammation, and when one consumes these foods regularly, they can lead to chronic inflammation. Food should not be a stress to the body – it should be purely supportive and healing.

Dairy – from plain cows’ milk to yogurt – is a highly inflammatory food. Researchers believe a number of its compounds trigger an inflammatory response, including its unbalanced ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s, high levels of trans and saturated fats, the sugar molecule D-galactose, and foreign compounds the human body doesn’t recognize such as Neu5gc (a simple sugar molecule the human body does not make or need – thus mounting an immune response to fight this ‘foreign invader’).

Nuts like walnuts are inflamation-fighting and immunity-boosting

Inflammatory foods to avoid

  • Dairy in all forms (cheese, milk, yogurt, butter, dairy-based baked goods, creamers, etc)
  • Meat
  • Refined sugar
  • Fried foods

Inflammation-fighting and immunity-boosting foods

  • Spices (turmeric, ginger, and black pepper)
  • Dark leafy greens
  • Fruits (berries, cherries, oranges)
  • Nuts (almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts)
  • Tomatoes
  • Beans, all types
  • Mushrooms
  • Bell Peppers
  • Garlic

*This article was updated on March 20. The original headline said ‘boost’.

Switch4Good

Switch4Good is a performance-based organization led by Olympic silver medal-winning cyclist Dotsie Bausch, who was inspired to promote the benefits of living dairy-free after ditching it herself, and feeling - in her own words - 'like a machine'.