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Ways to Fuel Your Immune System — Not Just to Fight Off the Coronavirus

It won’t be long before the flu and the common cold meet to parlay with COVID-19. While health appears to be the main topic of conversation, it is easy to let the concerns about our country’s recovery overshadow the simple things we can do to boost our own immune systems.

Two experts share ways to put your own health first without a whole lot of effort.


“Nutrient shortfalls which affect a person’s health can be found with Vitamin D, magnesium, omega-3 and L-theanine,” says food and nutrition expert Nancy Graves, Ed.D., RDN, LD, associate professor at the University of Houston Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

“Vitamin D is important to regulate immunity, control inflammation, supports muscle health, promotes bone health, regulates insulin secretion and is important for lung health,” she says. 

There are easy ways to add more of this to your diet, Graves says. Research indicates that adults should consume 1,500 to 2,000 IU, or international units, each day. 

Some examples of nutrient-rich foods:

  • 3 ounces of trout, which has 645 IU, 
  • 3 ounces of salmon which has 570 IU, 
  • 1/2 cup of mushrooms that have been exposed to ultraviolet light contain 366 IU 
  • 1 cup of fortified milk can have 120 IU.

“The most important thing is to eat a well-balanced diet to provide your immune system with the proper tools (nutrients) for an optimum, properly regulated response,” says Dr. Christopher Jolly, associate professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Jolly adds that fortified cereals are another good source of vitamin D. And nut lovers, keep eating them.

“Nuts (almonds, peanuts, cashews) and meats in general are good for zinc, and dairy products are fortified in vitamin D,” explains Dr. Jolly. 

To regulate the nervous system, build bone and teeth, drive metabolism, Graves says you need magnesium. It regulates the heartbeat and is being studied for the impact or brain health. 

Graves offers some examples of magnesium sources:

  • 1 ounce of almonds, which is 23 almonds, for 80 mg of magnesium
  • 1/2 cup cooked spinach for 78 mg, 
  • 2 shredded wheat biscuits for 61 mg, 
  • 1/2 cup of black beans for 60 mg,
  • 2 tablespoons of peanut butter for 49 mg.

Also, omega-3 fatty acids promote brain health, eye health, heart health, and help maintain healthy blood pressure. Graves says there are two specific omega-3 fatty acids, EPA, Eicosapentaenoic Acid, and DHA, Docoshexaenoic Acid, which can be found on product labels. 


Being aware of your water intake has health advantages. 

“Hydration is always important with water being the number one source. Sixty percent of the human body is water, so a 150-pound individual carries 90 pounds of water,” he said. “Hydration is important because every function of the body happens in an aqueous (water) environment. In fact, water is considered one of the essential nutrients (most people do not realize this).”

“The pandemic is a reminder that we should all strive to maintain optimum health through proper nutrition and mental health in order for us to have the best chance to successfully deal with whatever life may bring our way regardless of age,” says Dr. Jolly.


Graves also suggests protein to fight illness.

“The body uses protein to make antibodies. Antibodies form in response to the presence of antigens which are foreign proteins or other large molecules that invade the body,” Graves says.

“The foreign protein may be part of a bacterium, a virus or a toxin, or it may be something present in food that causes a reaction, which is called an allergy. The body, after recognizing that it has been invaded, manufactures antibodies that deactivate the foreign substance. Without sufficient protein to make antibodies, the body cannot maintain its resistance to disease,” Graves says. 

Each antibody is uniquely designed to destroy a specific foreign substance. The body then develops immunity to the specific virus strain, Graves explains.


A healthy diet is better than relying heavily on supplements, Dr. Jolly says. 

“Another important point is that many people say, ‘I can get these things through supplements.’ However, foods contain potentially many as yet unidentified bioactive compounds with health benefits. So if you don’t get your proper nutrition through diet, you are missing out.”

Throughout your day, keep fruit and veggies in mind. They are antioxidant-rich foods that make a difference toward immune system health. 

“Two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables,” Graves says. “One being deep orange and one being dark green; with three servings of whole grains; reduce solid or saturated fat; reduce sodium to less than 2,000 mg; calcium can be included through fortified dairy or plant-based beverages and probiotic food.” All can contribute to the overall health of individuals, Graves explains.

“Omega-3 fatty acid-enriched foods include flaxseed oil, canola oil, English walnuts and cold water marine fish (Atlantic salmon, herring, sardines),” Dr. Jolly says.


A healthy balanced diet contributes to one’s overall wellbeing, but this is only one aspect of taking care of oneself and one’s immune system.

“Exercise, meditation and adequate sleep also contribute to a person’s health. Sleep disorders and chronic inflammation can negatively affect the immune system. Disrupted sleep increases fatigue, and an inability to cope with stressors disrupts sleep.” Graves says, “There are recommendations of the length of time to sleep by age categories. Adults should sleep between 7 to 9 hours every day. Deep sleep is necessary for 1 to 2 hours each night.”

Graves says L-theanine, found in tea leaves, may support the immune system and allow the body a higher quality of sleep, reduce stress, help relax the body and improve mental focus. 

“It is recommended for adults to consume 200 mg each day. One cup of green or black tea contributes from 25 to 60 mg.”

Melatonin is not a nutrient but is important to the body, says Graves. It might be a surprise to some that light regulates melatonin production. The New York Times has a guide on how to use melatonin safely as a sleep aid and to help regulate timing sleep.

That’s Not All

Looking to plan a menu and reduce your trips to the grocery store? Graves recommends, which is provided by the United States Department of Agriculture. She says it is a handy resource for keeping yourself and your family healthy.

So the next time you prepare dinner, keep your immune system in mind. 

RA Staff
RA Staff
Written by RA News staff.


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