In many parts of the country, COVID-19 cases have slowed as vaccinations have risen, and now you’re starting to socialize more often and wear masks less often. But even if you’ve been fully vaccinated, your immune system is probably feeling a little rusty.
“Not getting out in the sunshine plus social isolation and straying from healthy exercise and eating habits may have left our immune systems in a more vulnerable state than when we started [the pandemic],” says dietitian Marie Ruggles, R.D., C.N., C.D.E., author of Optimize Your Immune System: Create Health & Resilience with a Kitchen Pharmacy. In fact, both failing to get ample vitamin D (often as a result of being inside) and poor lifestyle habits have both been shown to negatively impact immunity.
That said, your immune system hasn’t gone back to square one. “By adulthood, the immune system has been exposed to dozens of bacteria and viruses, creating antibodies which can recognize those pathogens in the future to fight them off,” says dietitian Amanda Izquierdo, M.P.H., R.D., L.D.N.
With a few key lifestyle tweaks, like the ones below, your body and mind will be totally prepped for your long-awaited emergence into regularlish-ish life. Use these expert-backed tips to support your immunity with restrictions in flux.
1. Limit processed foods and sugars
One way the pandemic indirectly affected our immunity is through the loneliness epidemic it created. “One study found that a majority of people experienced heightened depression, anxiety, hypochondria, emotional exhaustion, irritability, and insomnia,” notes Rachel McBryan, R.D., a member of the Dietitians of Canada. As a result, research participants reported turning to comfort foods in an effort to quell these feelings. “In fact, 86 percent of participants reported being unable to control their diet during isolation, partly due to lack of stimuli, boredom, and change in routine,” he continues.
In addition to contributing to weight gain, diets high in processed fats and sugars weaken the immune system by causing an increase in blood sugar and oxidative damage, McBryan explains. This evokes a state of chronic metabolic inflammation, which “results in a weakening of our immune system, making us more vulnerable to infections and associated complications,” adds Ruggles.
As many of us reenter the world of in-person work, social events, and more, it’s an ideal time to take the reins back on our eating patterns. After all, Ruggles identifies processed foods as “the largest culprit in creating a state of inflammation.” What to minimize? The full list:
- foods high in sugar (donuts, cookies, cocktails)
- sweetened beverages soda, coffees flavored with syrup)
- processed meats (frankfurters, sausage, bologna)
- Fried foods (including chips)
- Oils high in omega-6s (safflower, canola, corn, soy, sunflower, “vegetable”)
- Refined carbs (bagels, white bread)
2. Balance your plate
Once you’ve given the processed stuff the boot, swap in nutrient-dense alternatives in order to boost your immunity. A few things to focus on, in particular: protein, omega-3s, fiber, and anti-inflammatory foods.
“Eating adequate protein is crucial for antibody production, while many omega-3 fatty acids like those in fish and seafood have been shown to be beneficial for immune health,” says Izquierdo. Fiber, meanwhile, helps promote optimal gut health, which is closely linked to immune health. (In fact, just adding five extra grams of fiber to your diet per day can make a difference.)
Plus, “an anti-inflammatory diet can work to improve the immune system by combating oxidative stress,” McBryan says. A few anti-inflammatory foods to incorporate: fruits (especially berries), vegetables (bonus points for broccoli), nuts like walnuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Extra-virgin olive oil is another winner.
3. Give the late-night Netflix binges a break
They may have mentally gotten you through seemingly endless pandemic weeks, but late-night dates with your remote control won’t do your immunity any favors now that you’re resuming many aspects of normal life.
“Getting adequate sleep is an important component of immune health,” says Izquierdo. “Sleep helps to regulate the immune system, and research shows that decreased sleep can cause increases in several inflammatory cytokines that can lead to infection and disease.”
While there’s no “magic” number for sleep that applies to all adults, experts say that the average healthy adult needs seven to nine hours of shuteye a night. Here’s more on how to determine your own ideal sleep schedule, including whether you need more sleep than most people.
4. Get back on the workout bandwagon
Exercising regularly is not only important for your general health, but for your immunity as well. “Research has reviewed the impact of moderate-intensity exercise on immune systems, and those who were physically active were less likely to have inflammation and had improved immune markers and reduced cases of viral infection,” highlights Dr. Chris Airey, M.D., medical director of Optimale, a telehealth clinic for men with low testosterone. “Research shows that regular exercise can boost your immune system, improving defense activity and metabolic health, to reduce risk of illness,” he adds.
The America Heart Association advises adults to get moving for at least 150 minutes per week, which breaks down to five 30-minute sessions. Airey recommends moderate exercise—such as brisk walking, dancing, yard work, or sports such as tennis or basketball—for those looking for an immune-boosting routine.
5. Reduce stress
“Studies have shown that stress management is a critical factor in preventing respiratory and other infections, and many of us are still struggling with various forms and levels of emotional strife,” says Ruggles. Working with a therapist, balancing your diet, and exercising regularly can all help you get back to a healthier state of mind (and ultimately support your immunity).
Right now, it’s also important to prioritize self-care time throughout your schedule and to not overcommit yourself. “At first, you may also want to choose events that are likely to feel more manageable, whether due to the setting, the number of people, or the time commitment,” Elizabeth Brokamp, L.P.C., a private practitioner in the D.C. area, previously told What’s Good. (Check out our guide to dealing with post-pandemic anxiety for more expert-backed insight.)
6. Get your vitamin D levels up
“COVID-19 caused many of us to isolate ourselves within our homes, which means that we have not had as much exposure to sunlight and UVB rays, which can lead to a drop in the production of vitamin D and, in turn, negatively impact our immune systems,” McBryan says. “Vitamin D plays a significant role in immune health and healthy levels boost your immune system by enhancing the function of your immune cells.”
First, consider having your vitamin D levels tested by your doctor, McBryan recommends. The elderly, the obese, adolescents, and those with chronic illness all have a higher risk of deficiency.
Read More: 7 Signs You Have A Vitamin D Deficiency
Otherwise, make a concerted effort to get more sunlight, says McBryan. Aim for 10 to 30 minutes of sunshine per day (with sunscreen on), and note that if you have a darker skin tone, you may need longer exposure to reap the benefits. You can also boost your levels by adding a vitamin D supplement to your routine.
7. Emphasize a few key nutrients
In addition to ticking off your protein, omega-3, vitamin D, and anti-inflammatory food boxes, focusing on a few other key nutrients can also help you support your immunity. Ruggles recommends honing in on five must-haves:
You likely get ample vitamin A through leafy greens and orange vegetables, and can score the selenium you need by simply eating one large Brazil nut a day. And though we’d ideally get our fill of vitamin C, magnesium, and zinc from food, too, supplements are especially helpful for meeting those needs.
When it comes to vitamin C (which is famous for its ability to support your immunity), “I recommend adults take 250 milligrams with each meal to achieve a daily intake of 750 milligrams, in addition to eating high vitamin C foods, such as fresh peppers, kiwi, and strawberries,” Ruggles says.
For magnesium: “Adults can choose a multivitamin with at least 50 milligrams of magnesium,” and incorporate nuts and seeds (walnuts and pumpkin seeds offer high amounts), as well as spinach and black beans.
And for zinc? “Oysters are really the only good source of zinc, making it a hard-to-get mineral,” Ruggles says. “Adults can take a 25-milligram zinc supplement to start building up stores.”