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Can you eat your way to a better immune system?

NBC News’ health editor Madelyn Fernstrom lays out four ways to boost your immune system during this stressful time.
NBC News Health editor Madelyn Fernstrom, left, talks to Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, right.
NBC News Health editor Madelyn Fernstrom, left, talks to Know Your Value founder and "Morning Joe" co-host Mika Brzezinski, right.Miller Hawkins

While there are no magic bullets to turbo-charge your immune system during the coronavirus pandemic, there are actions you can take — that when combined together — have been shown to support and sustain a healthy immune system.

Watch out for the many scams out there advertising foods, supplements and other products claiming to instantly boost your immune system to fight off COVID-19. If it sounds too good to be true, it is and can be health damaging.

Here are some sure-fire ways to boost your immune system!

Eat smart

While there is no convincing evidence that a particular food or diet can boost your immune response, there are multiple nutrients that DO play a role in supporting a healthy immune system. These include vitamins A, B6, B12, C, D, and E as well as folic acid, iron, selenium and zinc. The best way to meet those needs is through foods, by consuming a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Fresh or frozen, the nutrients are the same.

Take a look at some key nutrient to support immune function, and where to find them in foods:

-Vitamin A: yellow/orange foods (carrots, sweet potatoes, squash, and oranges)

-Vitamin C: strawberries, citrus fruits

-Vitamin D: fatty fish (salmon, tuna) and fortified dairy products

-Vitamin E: almonds, avocado, broccoli, spinach

-Iron: lean beef, poultry, fish; tofu, beans spinach

-Zinc – lean meat and shellfish, chickpeas

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Remember that supplements only support – but do not replace – what you’re eating. If you don’t have a lot of variety in your diet, you might consider a daily multivitamin-mineral supplement, with 100 percent of the daily requirements. But when it comes to supplements, more doesn’t mean better; too much of certain nutrients (like Vitamin D or zinc) can make you sick.

And while it’s natural – and tempting – to throw healthy eating out the window at times of stress, make a commitment to your own health by focusing on healthy eating, with regularly scheduled treats.

Maintain your sleep schedule

A good night’s sleep is an important part of sustaining a healthy immune system. But restorative sleep can be more challenging during stressful times. It’s most important to schedule a regular bedtime and wake-up time. While it might be skewed a little later or earlier than usual, aim for seven to eight hours of sleep. And your eating and activity patterns matter when it comes to sleep. Regular exercise can help (allowing at least three hours between exercise and bedtime) as well as cutting out caffeine after 3 p.m. (noon if you are caffeine sensitive).

Your sleep environment, can make a big difference too. Be sure to:

-Keep your room cool and dark (or use eye shades)

-Keep it quiet (or use white noise)

-Avoid TV, video, or phone use at least an hour before bedtime.

Keep moving

Physical activity of all kinds support your immune system. With the gyms closed, and most of us mainly homebound, there are still many ways to be physically active, whether you’re a beginner or already committed. Remember:

-Daily activity at home goes a long way towards keeping you fit. Household chores – like cleaning, vacuuming, disinfecting, and laundry –all keep you moving.

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-Get outside when you can. Take a daily walk –with social distancing and a face cover – and look for greenery when you can. Do some yard work, or have outdoor “recess” by yourself or with your kids.

-Get extra movement in your day. Stand on one foot while brushing your teeth, put on some music and dance while your cook, or do some jumping jacks or stretches during commercials.

- Make a daily schedule for a home workout, whether it’s cardio, strength training, or flexibility activities. Create your own routine, or go on-line and look for your favorites. Some national chains and many smaller gyms are offering personalized classes to members.

Change your response to stress

While you can’t change the stress of coronavirus, you can change your response. Stress is a physical hardship on the body, with the release of stress hormones. By adjusting your response, you can block this cascade, and support a healthier immune system. When stress starts to creep up (and it will come and go), pick an activity that helps distract and relax you, so the physical response never comes. Here are some idea to get you started:

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-Take a break, and go for a walk, call a friend, clean out a closet, or practice deep breathing.

-Keep yourself “present” and block out thoughts of “what was” or “what will be.” Here’s an activity that can help, called the 5-4-3-2-1. Pick five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.

-Focus on the factors you CAN control, like taking recommended health precautions and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. A focus on healthy cooking and eating, daily activity, and a good night’s sleep serve “double duty” to both reduce stress and support a healthy immune system.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D. is NBC News’ health editor. Follow her on Twitter @drfernstrom.