Healthy Choices with Liza Baker: How’s your immune system faring?

As I write this, 26 states have enacted some form of shelter-in-place order, the US and Italy have surged past China in total number of Covid-19 cases despite having significantly smaller populations, and—as a friend of mine would say—“Just you wait: it’s only Tuesday!”

Despite the proliferation of “eat-this-not-that and do-this-not-that” lists on the internet, there doesn’t actually appear to be consensus on whether it is actually possible to boost our immune systems.

I agree that the immune system is complex—it’s not a simple immune organ after all—and I still like many of and much about the lists … as long as they are not prescriptive, one-size-fits-all in nature.

My particular favorites are the ones that are composed of food choices and lifestyle practices that will at a minimum not be harmful, especially if we don’t operate on the principle that if a little is good for us, then a lot is even better.

Mom was right (again)

Turns out Mom was right all along. The top CDC recommendations for preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus that is causing Covid-19 are:

  • Wash your hands—a lot.
  • Cover your coughs and sneezes—with your arm or elbow, not your hand.
  • Distance yourself socially from others when possible—particularly when you’re sick.
  • Clean everything—yes, even the light switches.

And I’m sure Mom would add:

  • Eat your vegetables—especially the dark green leafies.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Don’t pick your nose.
  • For the love of all that’s holy, don’t put that in your mouth!

My take on immunity

My own take on supporting immunity? Those who make better food and lifestyle choices over time are more likely to have a better immune system. The key is to make better choices daily, not just when you’re sick or there’s a pandemic going on around you.

The good news? Even if you’ve been living on processed food and making other poor choices, there’s no time like the present to start changing that.

Perhaps the pandemic is the Universe’s way of teaching us to change our ways, to slow down, disconnect from the outside world, and reconnect with what our inner voices are really asking for—what we know in our gut is healthy.

Let’s face it—you probably already know what’s good for you, you just need that little (?) shove to start doing it. Your body’s been asking you to be kind to it for a long time through those little messages you have perhaps been ignoring: aches, pains, fatigue…. You’ve been ignoring her, so Mother Nature is now hitting you with a 2×4.


Just in case you haven’t had it up to here with how to survive the pandemic lists, I offer my own. And before we begin, I recommend you read them with this in mind:

  • We are all bio-individual—what works for one may not work for another. Take from the list those practices that elicit a “full-body yes” in you; leave the rest for now.
  • This is important: don’t feel like you have to do everything at once—every little action is a step in the right direction!

Food choices

  • Stick with whole foods cooked from scratch at home and avoid highly processed foods—no need to megadose on anything, especially not on foods that make health claims.
  • Focus on nutrient density: for every calorie you get from macronutrients (protein, fat, carbohydrates), make sure you’re getting a whopping dose of micronutrients (vitamins, minerals). Get lots of fiber and don’t forget to hydrate!
  • My personal pick of whole foods that are nutrient-dense and considered to help with strengthening your immune system:
    • Hey, America—I know you love your iced drinks, and right now is not the time for them! Instead, try something hot or warm:
      • Hot or warm water with a little honey, a squeeze of lemon, and a few slices of fresh ginger in it
      • Hot tea—regular or herbal
      • Homemade chicken soup
    • Garlic and onions—raw if you can handle them!
    • Dark green leafy vegetables (that’s right—I push kale for a reason, and you can choose between a lot of different greens if kale’s not your thing): try to eat at least 1 portion per day, more if you can (1 portion raw = the same volume as your two fists; 1 portion cooked = the same volume as 1 fist
    • Sweet potatoes: again, aim for 1 portion per day
    • Broccoli
    • Mushrooms
    • Fresh ginger root
    • Citrus fruits
    • Kiwi
    • Cantaloupe
    • Berries
    • Cinnamon
    • Cardamom
  • Obviously, not all the fruits and veggies on that list are in season, so if you can’t find them fresh, go with frozen. Yes, they may be less nutritious that the fresh ones—and it’s still better than not eating them at all.

Lifestyle choices

  • Check your personal hygiene: follow the information provided by the CDC regarding hand washing, covering your coughs and sneezes, and social distancing—especially if you are the sick person.
  • Now’s the time to quit smoking once and for all and start reducing caffeine and alcohol to moderate levels.
  • Get some sleep: this is when your body repairs itself—give it a chance!
  • Try stress reduction: mindfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, journaling, time with pets, yoga…. The possibilities are endless! Most importantly, stop “future living”—if your mind automatically jumps to “but what if,” start to recognize that the energy you expend on worrying will not change the future, and while we cannot change it, we can prepare for it—without obsessing.
  • Physical activity: get your body moving. If you are not quarantined, find a time and place to go for a brisk walk outdoors, away from other people. If you’re stuck at home, consider workout videos, walking in place, body-weight strength training exercises, stretching…. The internet will help you with this!
  • Sun exposure: especially if it’s sunny out, try to get outside or sit at an open window.
  • Develop a positive mindset: start a gratitude practice, celebrate your own awesomeness, laugh, check out what you can find for positive mindset exercises online.

Practice mental hygiene

Our mental and emotional health are just as important as our physical health! If you want to practice some mental hygiene along with all the handwashing and sneeze-covering, join me for “5 Days of Simple Mental Hygiene” on my podcast—the episodes began on March 22 and ran through March 27, and there’s a handy download to follow along with it.

Think long term

The COVID-19 pandemic is going to be like an earthquake: there will be the initial shock—followed by long-term aftershocks in the worlds of health, economy, and politics.

While you’re taking care of yourself and your loved ones, spare a thought (and take some action) for those less fortunate: if you can, volunteer your time and talents where they are needed; if you can help financially, find some worthy organizations in your own community who are working to help the under-resourced, especially the very young and the elderly, who are hardest-hit when community services are shut down.

And consider what we’re learning about our healthcare, labor, education, and social justice systems during this time: are there changes you’d like to see enacted? Now is the time to think this through and reach out to your elected officials!

WLAA health columnist Liza Baker is a health coach, cookbook author, blogger, podcaster, nonprofit consultant, and woefully underpaid COO of a busy family of four spread across the globe. Liza lives in a half-empty nest in Ann Arbor and is passionate about health and happiness, education and empowerment, SOLE/SOUL food and social justice.