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Looking for the best way to protect yourself and your family from getting sick this year? Be wary of promises to “boost your immune system,” a phrase increasingly being used amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

“Science tells us the only proven way to protect you from the flu is to get a flu vaccine,” says Laura Haynes, immunology professor at the UConn Center on Aging at UConn Health. “Even though they don’t protect you 100 percent, they protect you more than not having one, especially people in high-risk groups.” Whether you’re young, middle-aged or older, unless it’s contraindicated, she advises everyone to get a flu shot between Oct. 1 and Dec. 1 for protection throughout the flu season.

That’s not to say the flu shot is the only defense against the flu and colds. While the scientific studies don’t use double-blind clinical trials with large groups of participants, there is research behind what your mom told you — eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, get adequate sleep, lower stress, don’t smoke, and limit alcohol consumption. “Boosting” your immune system is a misnomer, according to medical experts. Strive for a healthy, balanced immune system that will effectively recognize and identify an infection and, when necessary, trigger an immune response.

Unfortunately, the coronavirus is so new that there’s limited evidence-based research on how best to prevent infection beyond handwashing, mask-wearing, travel restrictions and physical distancing. “We don’t have anything available to people that you can take that will protect you from getting COVID,” Haynes says. However, she adds, while there is no evidence that a “healthier” immune system will help fight off a COVID infection, “logic would drive us to surmise that a more robust immune system would be better at fighting infection. … Having a healthy immune system will enable you to respond well to any kind of viral infection. Also, being healthy in general will help greatly with improving the way your body responds to a COVID infection. This includes not being overweight, eating a healthy diet and getting exercise.” A paper published in Nature Medicine in late August linked systemic inflammation to worse outcomes with COVID, “so anything you can do to reduce inflammation, such as losing weight and not smoking, would be beneficial.”

Experts advise people to be careful of taking supplements without their doctor’s advice and a blood test telling them they’re deficient. Most of the time, the kidneys filter out excess vitamins and “you end up with expensive urine,” says Dr. Yogen Dave, an allergist/immunologist with Advanced Specialty Care in Danbury, Ridgefield and New Milford. That’s not to say there’s no place for supplements. Many Connecticut residents lack sufficient Vitamin D during the colder months, and a Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to an increased risk of developing respiratory infections, says Dave, who is affiliated with Nuvance Health’s Danbury and New Milford hospitals. If you can’t get outside to absorb your 15- to 30-minute daily dose of sun, talk to your health care provider about a supplement, he says.

Zinc deficiency has been linked to an insufficient immune system response to infection, so if you’re not eating foods that contain zinc, consider having a blood test to check your levels.

Rather than taking supplements, experts like Chris Barrett, a registered dietician-nutritionist at the Hartford HealthCare’s Center for Musculoskeletal Health at the Bone & Joint Institute, recommend getting anti-inflammatory benefits from foods such as garlic, oregano, ginger, turmeric and rosemary. Some plant-based foods containing phytochemicals give off a smell, which plants emit as a defense mechanism. Foods with phytochemicals, such as garlic, have nutritional benefits, and there’s some inconclusive research that they have antibacterial properties and prevent colds, Barrett says. He advises his patients to eat a variety of vegetables and fruits, fiber, whole grains and beans. Essential oregano oil has also been shown in studies to have antibacterial properties, Dave says. “I don’t know whether it’s effective. But I’ve had my children take oregano oil because there’s some science behind it,” he says.

Out of all the lifestyle practices touted to promote immune system health, probably the best data is on the efficacy of regular exercise, Dave says. A long-term study involving 1,000 people, some who were told not to exercise and some who exercised for 20 minutes five days a week, found that those who exercised had 43 percent fewer days with respiratory infection symptoms, he says. However, Barrett adds, elite athletes who exercise with significant intensity (such as 6½-minute miles) for a long time (several hours) show a reduction in their immune-system health.

Exercise helps lower stress levels, which also has health benefits, Haynes says. When people are under chronic stress or anxiety, their body produces cortisol, a stress hormone that suppresses the immune system. Research shows that people who are stressed are more prone to getting a cold. A recent UConn study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine reported people’s stress levels had increased at least 80 percent since COVID-19.

Haynes and Dave recommend incorporating meditation into your day, even if it’s just for a few minutes. Meditation apps have helped his family, Dave says, and he recommends them to his patients. Choose whatever works to help you relax and reduce your stress level, except smoking and heavy drinking, which have been shown to increase the risk of getting colds and flu, they say. Haynes also suggests getting outside for a walk to blow off steam.

All the precautions recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect against COVID-19 will also help avert the flu, Haynes says. To help prevent hospitals from overcrowding this winter with flu and COVID patients, healthy young people who get the flu vaccine can help keep it from spreading, since it’s more effective on younger people than on older people, whose immune systems weaken as they age. She urges older people and those with pre-existing conditions to get vaccinated so that, even if they get the flu, it will be milder and won’t require hospitalization.

Think Zinc

Insufficient zinc levels impact the immune system’s response to infection. Here are some food sources that are high in zinc. Note: it’s always a good idea to get a blood test to determine any vitamin or mineral deficiencies. (Sources: National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements)

Food Milligrams per serving % daily value
Oysters (cooked, breaded and fried), 3 ounces 74 673
Beef chuck roast (braised), 3 ounces 7 64
Crab, Alaskan king (cooked), 3 ounces 6.5 59
Beef patty (broiled), 3 ounces 5.3 48
Lobster (cooked), 3 ounces 3.4 31
Pork chop, loin (cooked), 3 ounces 2.9 26
Baked beans (canned), ½ cup 2.9 26
Pumpkin seeds (dried), 1 ounce 2.2 20

This article appears in the October 2020 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.