KaTrina Samuels-Garrison

KaTrina Samuels-Garrison of AM Nutrition Services in Avondale and Glendale offers tips for healthy eating during social distancing. 

Keeping your immune system strong is important—now more than ever—as the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic continues to spread, West Valley nutrition and health experts say.

The challenges are different, even within the same household, said KaTrina Samuels-Garrison, a registered dietician and nutrition specialist at AM Nutrition Services in Avondale and Glendale. 

Older residents need to eat carefully to keep their immune system strong, she said. And the middle-aged working from home have to learn to not snack all day long. 

“I have gone to the grocery stores and I see a lot of food items that are being taken from shelves, like dry goods,” Samuels-Garrison said. “But I see a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables that are still sitting on the shelves. These are the things people should be eating.”

Eating a nutritious, balanced diet is important for your overall health and your immune system, she noted.

For all adults, especially older people, Samuels-Garrison said eating the right foods is essential to beating an infection and keeping your immune system operating at top levels. She said she tells her patients to fuel up on foods that are high in vitamin A, vitamin C and magnesium, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, romaine lettuce and oranges.

“When I have a patient that comes in who tends to be stressed out or anxious, I tell them to go and  get this magnesium,” Samuels-Garrison said. “A lot of people feel their anxiety and their stress come down after taking magnesium.”

One of the most important things to keep healthy, especially during any disease outbreak, is make sure you’re getting enough sleep and try to minimize stress.

Alex Juarez, communications director for AARP Arizona, said getting plenty of exercise, meditating and doing breathing exercises can help.

“There’s a strong link between your immune health and your mental health,” Juarez said. “When you’re under chronic stress or anxiety, your body produces stress hormones that suppress your immune system.” 

And rest can be crucial. A 2015 study from the journal SLEEP, an official publication of the Sleep Research Society, found that people who sleep at least seven hours were four times less likely to come down with a cold than those who clocked less than six.

AARP has produced multiple reports on the advantages of exercise to older adults. Exercise has a multitude of benefits, including decreasing inflammation and improving immune regulation, Juarez said.

“Working out is a powerful way to boost your immune system. It causes your body’s antibodies and white blood cells to circulate more rapidly,” Juarez said.

But Samuels-Garrison said exercise and diet sometimes isn’t enough. Many factors go into lowering one’s immune system, and while a change in diet might not alter an immune system immediately, it can help ward off illness.

“With seniors, because of their age, they may have diseases or conditions in the human body or have to take medications, or they may have chronic stress,” Samuels-Garrison said. “You can’t change those things overnight.”

While social distancing has more people cooking at home and staying in, Samuels-Garrison cautioned about portions and healthy options. 

Instead of eating junk food and continuously snacking, opt for fruits and vegetables, which contain a lot of fiber and water and therefore give the feeling of being full.

“If you hit your fullness cue and you’re still trying to eat, it usually is a sign of something else,” Samuels-Garrison said. “So if you’re finding that you’re walking into the kitchen because you’re stressed out or bored, you need to find some other activity.”