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If nothing else, the recent pandemic has reminded us just how critical our immune system is—and how important it is to keep it in tip-top shape. But how? We’ve got 5 words for you:


Eye of the tiger, baby.


Think of your immune system like a pro boxer: fierce, focused and fearless. A champ trains hard, eats well, hydrates, rests up, and trains yet again. And when it’s time to fight off an opponent (in this case, a pathogenic invader), a champ doesn’t stop until the challenger falls.


While there are some simple measures you can take to safeguard your inner pro boxer (washing your hands regularly and wearing a mask around others, to name two), there are additional habits you can build into your routine to better fend off all kinds of diseases- from common colds and cancer to COVID-19.


Here are the top 4 ways to get your immune system trained and ready for the next bout.


  

1. Eat Right, Drink Well

First off, let’s punch out the myth that your immune system can be supercharged by taking vitamins. Vitamins that claim to support immune health probably won’t hurt you- in fact, studies have shown that some supplements may actually strengthen general immune response, especially if taken as a part of a nutritious diet.


But because the immune system is a complex, interrelated network of proteins, organs, tissues, hormones and cells, there is no one magic pill that will prevent illness.


Instead, seniors should focus on eating a balanced variety of nutrient-rich foods and drinking plenty of water. “Dehydration can increase your susceptibility to illness, so drinking water with every meal is something we strongly encourage,” says Holiday Retirement Culinary Director Sean Danahy. Danahy offers expertise in both nutritional science and culinary arts, and is responsible for developing and certifying Holiday’s menus.


Because nourishment strongly correlates with immune system health, Chef Danahy ensures that his retirement home menus include a wide range of powerhouse ingredients.


For example, Vitamin D-rich foods, such as fresh fish, egg yolks, and mushrooms not only help bolster immunity, but also aid calcium absorption for bone health and may help ward off seasonal depression. 


“Vitamin D is a focal point in our menus, because it helps with so many things,” notes Chef Danahy. “So if you take a vitamin D supplement, and also eat foods that are good sources of vitamin D, you may be able to avoid seasonal affective disorder. But it also helps build bone density, making sure they don't become too brittle.”


All of these benefits ladder up to a more robust immune response to illness, as well as bone injuries such as fractures and breaks.


Cobb Salad


Other micronutrients that are key to supporting overall immunity include:


Vitamin C- Found in citrus fruits, red bell pepper, kiwi, tomatoes and broccoli, Vitamin C stimulates white blood cell activity and aids the absorption of iron. It may help control infections, reduce the duration of cold symptoms and is a powerful antioxidant.


Vitamin B6 - Sources of protein (such as chicken and pork loin, as well as green veggies, bananas and chickpeas) support white blood cell and t-cell production, which are key immune responses to infection.


Vitamin B12 - Vital for the production of red blood cells which oxygenate the blood and strengthen immune response to pathogens. “B12 comes from a lot of animal-based proteins, and 25% of our menu is just beef, because that is something our residents really like,” says Chef Danahy. “Plus, many people take B12 supplements for energy.” Excellent sources of B12 include beef, turkey, venison, shellfish, oily fish, dairy and fortified cereals.


Vitamin A - Plant-based foods such as mangoes, leafy greens, carrots, sweet potatoes, and cantaloupe are rich in provitamin A, and contain an antioxidant called beta-carotene. This  compound protects cells from damage and may reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease.

 

Zinc - Foods such as shellfish, nuts, seeds, legumes, red meat and poultry help the body synthesize proteins, which play an important role in healing wounds, fighting off viruses and decreasing the risk of infection.

 

Probiotics - Finally, a growing body of evidence shows that fermented, probiotic foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, yogurt, and pickled red beets can bolster your gut’s microbiome- which is a bit like having a trillion-member community of helpful microbes living in your intestines.

 

“Naturally, fermented live culture foods are a great addition to any diet, offering both prebiotics and probiotics that provide 60% of immune response,” says Chef Danahy. These beneficial bacteria fight back against viruses that not only infect the gut, but also the lungs, like the flu virus. You’ll frequently find probiotic foods on Holiday senior living meal menus across the country.

 

 Roasted Brussel Sprouts topped with raisins


2. Get Moving

It’s no secret that leading an active lifestyle offers a near-endless list of health benefits. But perhaps less known is that a regular workout routine could be key to improved immune system health. Whether you’re taking a bike ride or doing some work in the garden, moderate levels of exertion increases circulation of oxygen in the blood and even has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.


Now, you don’t have to join a boxing gym or start training for a triathlon in order to reap the immunity benefits. 30 minutes of low impact activity 4 times a week may be all you need, and residents of retirement communities enjoy lots of ways to keep exercise interesting. Tag along with on the next walking club outing, take a yoga class, or join the square dance team. There are lots of ways to work a fun and easy workout into your day!

 

3. Rest & Relax

Research has long shown that sleep and the immune system are inexorably linked.


Sound sleep improves the quality of a type of immunity cell known as T-cells, which play a key role in the body’s immune system. Sleep also is a natural reducer of stress (a topic we’ll get to next), and is the key time the body repairs itself, making it easier to fight off illness. Sleep experts recommend seniors get 8-9 hours of sleep per night.


Reducing your stress levels is another way to give your immune heath a leg up. Stress cranks up your body’s production of the hormone cortisol, which then increases your heart rate and blood pressure. Too much cortisol may lead to a suppressed immune system, putting you at increased risk of illnesses, cancer and autoimmune diseases.


So to sum up: More sleep. Less stress. Sounds like a recipe for success!

4. Get Vaxxed

Unlike watching your diet and getting regular exercise, this immune health booster takes little or no effort at all. Staying current on all your vaccinations is the easiest way to prepare for a surprise attack of the flu, shingles, pneumonia or COVID-19.


Vaccine clinics are routinely held in senior apartments and retirement homes, protecting both individuals and the community at large.


Vaccines are rigorously developed and tested, and are considered a safe and extremely effective way to minimize or eliminate symptoms of illness.


But how often do we need to get these vaccines? It depends on the jab.


For the flu, high dose flu shots are recommended once a year for people over age 65.


The two-part Shingrix shingles vaccination is considered 85% effective after 4 years and requires no booster.


And one single dose of the pneumococcal (pneumonia) shot lasts a lifetime.

 

As for COVID-19, the current vaccines are overwhelmingly supported by doctors and have demonstrated remarkable efficacy. However, experts are still debating how and when to administer boosters to different populations. Make a plan with your doctor on when to schedule your next COVID-19 vaccination.


The Final Knock Out

While it’s not always going to be possible to avoid illnesses, you can still take a proactive approach. By eating well, getting 8+ hours of sleep, exercising regularly and getting your vax card punched, your immune system will be optimized to fight.


But you can take things even further!


Along with the above-mentioned measures, seniors who limit their alcohol intake, quit smoking and avoid excessive sunlight stand the best chance of going toe-to-toe with a virus... and coming out on top!

 

About Holiday Senior Apartments

Holiday Retirement’s senior living communities offer independent living at an affordable monthly rate with no long-term commitments or expensive buy-ins. Live the life you deserve!

Find a Holiday property and schedule a tour today.

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