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10 Steps to Boosting Your Immune System

Concerned about the coronavirus and tired of getting sick during cold and flu season? Follow these guidelines to strengthen your immune system for better protection and health.

10 Steps to Boosting Immune System

We’re currently in the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has changed the lives of virtually all of us in some way or another. (For official information, visit the CDC’s website, specifically its COVID-19 section.)

Whether the coronavirus has had a serious affect on you or your family's health or not, now is a good time to make sure you’re doing everything possible to strengthen your immune system, as this is the functioning system in your body that protects you from disease. So, in this article, I’m going to offer 10 specific steps you can take to boost your body’s immunity to stay healthy.

As you may notice, some of these steps are the same ones I recommend for being fit, muscular, lean, and maximizing performance in the gym—it all goes hand-in-hand. Yet each of these 10 guidelines has been proven to enhance immune function in some manner, whether it’s through nutrition, warding off germs, or reducing stress on the body.

What Is the Immune System?

The immune system is one of the human body’s main systems (others being the nervous system, muscular system, skeletal system, digestive system, reproductive system, and so on). Along with the lymphatic system, the immune system defends against pathogens (like viruses) that can harm the body and cause illness or even death.

There are two major subsystems of the immune system: the innate and adaptive systems.

The innate system includes basic barriers that prevent pathogens from crossing them and doing damage in the body—barriers like skin, hair, mucous membranes, the linings in the mouth and nostrils, even the wax in our ears. These barriers are the body’s first line of defense, so to speak, against pathogens. We’re born with these innate immune system mechanisms, hence the name “innate.”

The adaptive (or acquired) immune system, on the other hand, is specific to particular pathogens. Vaccinations, for example, fall under this system, where you’re given a shot that will protect you from a certain disease. Unlike innate, you’re not born with adaptive immunity; you have to acquire it. This is why I’ll be focusing mainly on the adaptive system in this article—because it’s the one you can improve with certain practices and lifestyle choices, which I’ll cover in the 10 steps.

How Does Exercise Affect the Immune System?

You can’t discuss the immune system without talking about stress. Chronic stress will wreak havoc on the immune system, and that stress can come from any number of sources—work, relationships, finances, severe heat or cold, and, yes, exercise.

Training is a double-edged sword. Moderate-intensity exercise improves the adaptive immune system by way of how it responds to and fights pathogens. Intense exercise, however, can compromise the immune system. Exercise is like a lot of things: Too little is bad, but so is too much. 

You may be wondering: If intense exercise compromises the immune system, why do you purposely design JimStoppani.com workout programs to be intense?

The answer is simple. Yes, intense training compromises the immune system, but only acutely—meaning in the hours following a hard workout. (This is why I wouldn’t recommend going to a germ-ridden public place like the mall or the airport right after training.) But if you take measures to properly recover from your workouts, your immune system will bounce back and become stronger because of it.

It’s when you don’t recover that your immune system remains in a compromised state and you find yourself sick all the time, running low on energy, and losing strength and muscle mass.

As for what measures you should take to fully recover from hard workouts and build a stronger immune system, let’s get into my 10 steps now.

10 Steps to Boosting Your Immune System

The hour or so you spend in the gym training intensely will deliver a blow to your immune system. Here’s what to do the other 23 hours to build your adaptive immunity back up:

1) Wash your hands frequently

First of all, make sure you wash your hands as often as possible. That’s the simplest, most effective thing you can do to keep those pathogens out, prevent the spreading of germs, and avoid getting sick. Touching your mouth and nose constantly will make you sick, but because that’s inevitable (people do it without even thinking about it), wash your hands throughout the day.

Any time you get home after going somewhere, wash your hands. When you’re in public, wash your hands every chance you get. After the gym, wash your hands. After interacting and/or touching another person, wash your hands. Make sure your kids (if you have any) are washing their hands frequently. When in doubt, wash your hands with warm and soap for at least 20 seconds.

2) Follow the 30/60 Rule

Remember when I said earlier that moderate-intensity exercise enhances immune function? Well, that’s right in line with my 30/60 Rule, which I’ve been touting for years.

The 30/60 Rule states this: For every 30 minutes you spend sitting, get up and do at least 60 seconds of physical activity. This can be anything you want: walking, jogging, jumping jacks, calisthenics like push-ups or sit-ups, stretching, etc. If the activity is only moderately intense, that’s fine; from an immunity standpoint, that’s actually preferable.

Doing these intermittent bouts of exercise throughout the day will help keep your immune system strong and fend off infection and disease.

3) Get plenty of sleep

Getting adequate sleep every night is critical for getting a full recovery when doing an intense program, like any of mine on JimStoppani.com. Sleep is also absolutely critical for an optimally functioning immune system. We know that when people are sleep-deprived, their immune systems take a hit. The potential threat of the coronavirus (or any other contagious disease or virus that may be floating around, including the flu) makes sleep that much more important.

The general recommendation for sleep is to get around 8 hours a night. This is a very loose suggestion—some people need more than 8 hours, while others can get by with 5-7 hours and be fine. I can’t give you an exact number here, but 7-9 hours is a good place to start. Make the best decision for yourself as to how much sleep you need every night.

Another factor for many people is sleep apnea, which can be a very serious condition, particularly regarding immune system function. Sleep apnea isn’t just common among obese people; those who are heavy due to high levels of muscle mass (i.e., bodybuilders) can also be prone to sleep apnea, even if they’re lean. If you think you’re experiencing this condition, consult your physician about getting tested for sleep apnea.

4) Practice meditation and mindfulness

Meditation is well-known for helping reduce stress, which is exactly why it’s beneficial for the immune system—because chronic stress will compromise immunity in a big way. Many studies have shown that meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction is great for a variety of populations, male and female.

Try and find time every day for some form of mindfulness practice. That can be traditional meditation, either with a meditation app on your phone or with nothing but silence in your home, yoga, or just carving out a few minutes during your day for quiet time. This can be tough with work and family, and all the electronics in our lives makes it tough to relax as well. Do what you have to do. Even just take two minutes in the parking lot before work or the gym to close your eyes, breathe deeply, and get into a mindful state before getting after it.

These slivers of time throughout the day can be very important. Meditation and mindfulness are going to enhance your workout, reduce your stress, and lead to better immune function.

5) Utilize Intermittent Fasting

Now we’re getting into nutritional strategies you can use to boost immunity. But before we talk about what to eat, let’s talk about what not to eat. What I’m talking about is Intermittent Fasting (IF), where you go an extended period of time with no food and no calories—basically just water and certain zero-calorie beverages like coffee and tea.

Common IF strategies include 24-hour fasts once or twice a week; a 48-hour fast less frequently (every month or so); and a 16 to18-hour fast, followed by a 6 to 8-hour feeding window (16-8 or 18-6), on a daily basis. The latter method is the one with which I have the most personal experience.

Research has shown that IF can benefit health in a number of ways, including immunity. One study looked at a Ramadan-style fast of 14 hours a day and found that, after 30 days, subjects’ bodies better metabolized glucose, stored less fat, burned more fat, and improved insulin sensitivity. The scientists also found that subjects’ immune systems were enhanced.

A lot of people are still under the impression that IF is some sort of fad diet that you can only do for a certain period of time. That’s not true at all. We all fast to some extent—it’s called sleeping. (Unless you’re hooked up to an IV, which I’m guessing you probably aren’t.) Regular fasting can be done for life!

The whole point of IF is extending the fasting window beyond the typical 8-hour period when you’re sleeping. It has a lot to do with the body’s circadian rhythm; the intermittent cycles of eating low calorie (fasting), then high calorie (feeding window), then low calorie (fasting), and so on, better mimics the cycles of our cells. Because of this, everything tends to run better in the body, including the immune system.

If you want to give your immune system a boost during the cold and flu season (or in this case, during the coronavirus pandemic), consider incorporating IF. Personally, I’ve always found that I almost never get sick when I’m fasting. You may find you like the 16-8 (or 18-6) method so much that you want to stick to it long-term.

6) Eat ample protein

Now we’re getting into your macronutrient needs for boosting immunity, and it all starts with protein. When we talk about protein intake, we usually think of muscle. But the immune system is literally a system of proteins. Most of them are functional proteins like hemoglobin, which carries oxygen. It’s because of these functional proteins in the immune system that we need ample protein in our diets.

Protein intake is especially important for those train with weights, because the immune system needs those amino acids to rebuild itself, and so do the muscles. For somebody who's training, you want to get at least 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day.  Personally, I typically get 1.5 grams per pound, because, like I said, you want to make sure you have enough aminos to build muscle, but also to make sure the immune system is functioning properly.

My go-to whole food protein sources are beef, chicken, fish, turkey, eggs, and dairy, and then I also use my protein blend Pro JYM on a daily basis (especially before and after workouts) to make sure I’m hitting that 1.5-gram total and to maximize muscle protein synthesis.

7) Consume fast carbs post-workout

I’ve always recommended consuming fast-digesting carbohydrates (namely, dextrose) after training. There are many reasons for this. First of all, you want to replenish muscle glycogen after workouts, since glycogen pulls water into the muscles. This creates a bigger pump to stretch the muscle cells and increase muscle protein synthesis

Where the immune system is concerned, post-workout carbs also decrease immunosuppression that comes from hard training. We’re mainly talking about cortisol here. Cortisol is a major stress hormone. When you train intensely, you stress the body, which makes cortisol rise and immune function go down.

The goal after training is to get cortisol to drop back down to normal levels, and that’s where fast-digesting carbs come into play. Research has found that when fast carbs are consumed either during or immediately after training, muscle glycogen is restored, cortisol levels decrease, immune function improves, and, as I mentioned above, more water enters the muscles.

Post-workout carbs also improve insulin response. And what does that do? It drives things like creatine and carnitine into the muscles, which is critical for recovery. This is why I have two different Post JYM (post-workout) products: Post JYM BCAAs+ Recovery Matrix, which contains nutrients like creatine, l-carnitine, BCAAs, beta-alanine, and betaine; and Post JYM Fast Carbs (dextrose), to make sure those Recovery Matrix ingredients get into the muscles to do their work.

I recommend a slow-digesting carb before workouts, like an apple or other low-glycemic carb source. After training, get in somewhere between 30-60 grams of fast-digesting carbs—either via Post JYM Fast Carbs or dextrose-containing candy like gummy bears or Pixy Stix. And, of course, don’t forget the Post JYM Recovery Matrix.

8) Get your omega-3 fats

If you want to boost your immunity, get your healthy fats. Specifically, omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, a potent "immunonutrient" that’s known to have positive effects on the immune system. (Another immunonutrient is the amino acid glutamine, which I’ll cover in step #10.)

For overall fat consumption, I recommend getting an equal ratio (1:1:1) of polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, and saturated fats. Where the beneficial polyunsaturated omega-3s are concerned, salmon and other fatty fishes are great sources to include in your diet. But you’d have to eat an awful lot of fish to get in the desired amounts of omega-3s you need for optimal health. That’s why I created my Omega JYM fish oil, which provides ideal daily amounts of omega-3 fats—1,500 mg each of DHA and EPA, and 300 mg of DPA—in just four capsules.

You won’t find a more potent fish oil on the market than Omega JYM. It’s not only important for overall health, fat loss, and enhancing the immune system, but those omega-3 fats have now been shown in research to help maximize muscle protein synthesis to improve muscle growth. Omega-3s become even more important as you get older, when your immune system is generally more susceptible to infections and viruses (including coronavirus).

9) Mind your micronutrients

With macronutrients (protein, carbs, fat) covered, let’s talk about micronutrients. There are a number of specific vitamins and minerals critical for immune system health, including vitamin A, vitamins B6 and B12, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, folic acid (folate), copper, iron, selenium, and zinc. Your immune system can take a hit with even a marginal deficiency in any of these micronutrients.

Zinc and selenium, for example, tend to be quite low in athletes and others who train intensely. If you’re not getting adequate amounts in your diet, and then you’re losing these two minerals due to training, there’s a good chance your immune system will be compromised. This is why I created both Vita JYM (my multivitamin/multimineral supplement) and ZMA JYM (zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B6 in precise amounts)—to erase deficiencies like these in hard-training individuals and help keep you strong and healthy.

The thing with multivitamin supplements is this: You can’t just throw all the critical vitamins and minerals the body needs into one product and think that will cover everything. On paper, it will. But in the body, certain micronutrients interfere with the absorption of others, essentially “canceling” them out. Also, super-high levels of certain micronutrients can work against you.

Here are some major examples of what I’m referring to, which will shed some light on why I formulated Vita JYM as I did and why I included ZMA JYM in my product line:

  • Zinc can interfere with both copper and iron absorption, so these minerals should not be taken at the same time. This is why zinc is not in Vita JYM (while copper and iron are), but rather in ZMA JYM.
  • Calcium is not present in Vita JYM because it interferes with numerous micronutrients, namely iron and manganese. Calcium, of course, is in Pro JYM in adequate amounts.
  • Magnesium is not in Vita JYM, either, because it interferes with manganese and calcium absorption. Magnesium can be found in ZMA JYM.
  • Vitamin C issue #1: Vita JYM contains only 250mg of vitamin C. Generally speaking, you don’t want too much vitamin C, because very high doses of antioxidants can impair recovery from exercise and compromise results (including muscle growth, strength, and endurance).
  • Vitamin C issue #2: Previous tip notwithstanding, during cold and flu season (as well as in the current coronavirus climate), you may want to try taking 1-2 grams of vitamin C daily, as this has been shown to boost immune function.
  • Vitamin C issue #3: Don’t take vitamin C around workouts. Make sure you take it at a separate time, at least 4-6 hours before or after training.
  • Vitamin D is not included in Vita JYM, for good reason. First of all, you want to get vitamin D when you’re taking your calcium. But as I just said, calcium is absent from Vita JYM and shouldn’t be taken with it via Pro JYM or dairy products. Also, the best source of vitamin D is sunlight. If you can’t get enough sun, I recommend getting a sun lamp and/or taking a vitamin D supplement. If you do the latter, go with a 2,000-5,000 IU dose. You don’t want to go super high with vitamin D. 

10) Go with glutamine

The essential amino acid glutamine is another immunonutrient (like omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, referenced in step #8). It’s also a fairly polarizing supplement, mainly because most people don’t understand what glutamine is and what it does in the body. So, let me clear up the confusion.

Glutamine is one of the highest-level amino acids in the body, and it’s a critical energy component of the immune system. As I said earlier, the stress of intense training delivers a blow to the immune system. When this happens, the immune system looks for more glutamine, and where will it go looking? The muscles—the pecs or the quads or the biceps, for instance. The immune system is happy to pull glutamine from your muscles. Problem is, when this happens, muscle endurance drops. Muscle protein synthesis (MPS) is also comprised when glutamine levels are low, which is the last thing you want after a workout.

These reasons are exactly why you want to supplement glutamine after your workout—to replenish what the immune system “stole” from your muscles so you can maximize MPS for greater strength gains and muscle growth.

You want to get in the range of 3-5 grams of glutamine post-workout, which is why Post JYM BCAAs+ Recovery Matrix contains 3 grams of glutamine.

Now, during the cold and flu season (and yes, coronavirus season), you may want to consider additional 3-5-gram doses of glutamine—up to four doses per day. Good times to take glutamine, other than post-workout, including first thing in the morning and before bedtime.

 





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