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With the recent health crisis, it’s a good time to talk about the keto diet and the immune system. Is keto good or bad for the immune system? I compiled my research from the CDC and scientific papers, including how keto may affect the immune system, as well as ways to boost your immune system and reduce your chances of getting sick.
Note: While the statements here are based on scientific research with references, always follow recommendations from your doctor and the CDC.
Does Keto Boost Your Immune System?
We are still early in the process of studying the benefits of keto for the immune system, but so far results look promising:
1. Keto may improve your ability to fight the flu.
In 2019, a study at Yale University found that “mice fed a ketogenic diet were better able to combat the flu” and “had a higher survival rate” compared to those fed a high-carbohydrate diet. The explanation was that keto triggered release of immune system cells (called gamma delta T cells) that produce mucus in the lung cell linings and effectively trap viruses. While there has not yet been a study on humans to confirm this works the same way for people, the researchers behind the study think there’s a good chance it could. [*]
2. Keto can improve nutrient intake (if done right).
Nutrition is a critical determinant of our immune response. In fact, deficiency in even a single micronutrient can hinder our immune systems. [*]
And since micronutrients – especially vitamins A, C, D, E, B2, B6, and B12, folic acid, iron, selenium and zinc – have been shown to be critial for immune system function [*, *], it stands to reason that a whole-foods-based keto lifestyle will do so as well. Some of these vitamins and minerals are found predominantly in meat, a staple on the keto diet.
Of course, there are many ways to do keto (as with almost any dietary lifestyle), but the most beneficial way will focus on whole foods – low carb vegetables, healthy fats, meat, and eggs, with a few nuts, dairy, and berries thrown in. This food combination is nutrient-dense and should include all the necessary micronutrients to boost your immune system.
3. Keto effectively reduces obesity.
Obesity carries a number of risks, one of them being an increased risk of infection, especially respiratory tract infections [*]. Since the keto diet has been shown to be safe and effective in reducing obesity in the long term [*, *], the logic follows that the weight loss will carry over the benefits to reduce infection risk as well.
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Can Keto Make You Sick?
No, keto can’t cause you to catch an infection. You’d have to be exposed to one and that’s independent of your diet, though what you eat can impact your immune response and how effectively you can fight it off. As mentioned above, so far evidence looks promising that a ketogenic diet can actually help.
However, some people wondering whether keto can make you sick are really asking about the keto flu, a set of symptoms some people experience when starting keto. Keto flu is not actually an infection, not contagious, and preventable. Read more about how to prevent keto flu here.
If you’re trying to prevent getting sick in general, here is what to do instead, as recommended by the CDC and the scientific community…
Top 10 Ways To Prevent Getting Sick
While it’s not always possible to avoid getting sick, there are things you can do to reduce your chances significantly.
The following are recommendations from the CDC and/or those backed by scientific studies. Some of these you may already know, but a refresher can be a good thing to stay on track.
1. Wash your hands well and correctly.
This is the single best way to reduce your chance of contracting and spreading illness. And it turns out, most people have been washing our hands “wrong”, or at least not for long enough.
The CDC and Mayo Clinic recommend washing your hands for at least 20 seconds (long enough to sing the happy birthday song twice) and lather thoroughly, including the backs of your hands, between your fingers, and underneath your fingernails.
Don’t bother with antibacterial soaps. They won’t protect against viruses anyway, and have been proven no more effective than regular soap against bacteria. [*]
2. Don’t touch your face.
- Be aware and pay attention. It’s not perfect, but can at least reduce how often you touch your face.
- Keep your hands busy. Trinkets or just folding your hands are a couple of ways to do it.
- Some people wear gloves (any kind!), so that they notice it more if they touch their face.
3. Use hand sanitizer when you can’t wash your hands.
Soap and water is the most effective way to remove all types of germs, from viruses to bacteria to chemicals, but when that’s not an option, hand sanitizers are the next best thing.
According to the CDC, hand sanitizers should have at least 60% alcohol content to protect against viruses. Keep them out of reach of children or pets, because they can cause alcohol poisoning when even small amounts are swallowed. [*]
Even though there is a hand sanitizer shortage at the time of this writing, this hand sanitizer gets great reviews when in stock and has 63% alcohol, as recommended by the CDC. This list of hand sanitizers is still available right now and they contain alcohol per CDC recommendations.
4. Clean and disinfect surfaces.
This includes doorknobs, light switches, remote controls, handles, tabletops, toilets, sinks, and other surfaces that are touched frequently. It’s also a good idea to disinfect your cell phone after you get home from being out.
Use disinfecting wipes or disinfectant spray. If you can’t get your hands on these or want a cheaper option, the CDC recommends a bleach solution of 1/3 cup bleach per gallon of water [*]. Never mix bleach with anything except water, especially not ammonia.
5. Don’t be around and avoid sharing items with people who are sick.
This one sounds obvious, but stay home if you are sick, and reschedule plans with others who have symptoms of illness.
If you or someone in your family is sick, avoid sharing toothbrushes (which is always the case), towels, eating utensils, drinking glasses, etc.
6. Get enough vitamins and minerals.
Vitamins and minerals are essential for immune function, especially vitamins A, C, D, E, B2, B6, and B12, folic acid, iron, selenium and zinc. [*, *] You can (and should!) get these micronutrients from a balanced, whole foods based keto lifestyle.
Get the complete printable keto food list here, and you should get enough of all these micronutrients if you’re eating plenty of low carb vegetables from that list.
7. Take probiotics.
Probiotics have numerous benefits, among the big ones being their antiviral properties [*]. In particular, they have been shown to lessen the severity and duration of respiratory illnesses. Though the data for specific viruses is currently lacking, it couldn’t hurt to supplement with a probiotic. [*]
This is my favorite probiotic, which delivers 15 billion CFU and 15 probiotic strains. Eating yogurt can also deliver probiotics – just choose a full-fat option for a keto lifestyle.
We all know we should exercise anyway, but did you know it can help strengthen your immune system? Studies have shown that exercise encourages key immune cells to recirculate throughout your body, and that being moderately active regularly decreases the incidence of both viral and bacterial infections [*, *].
9. Get enough sleep.
Getting sufficient sleep, preferably at least 8 hours, is crucial to keeping your immune system running optimally, to protect against any kind of virus or bacteria.
A 2009 study at Carnegie Mellon showed that lack of sleep increases your chances of getting sick. In fact, they found that getting less than 6 hours of sleep increases the chances of catching a cold by 4.2 times compared to getting 7 hours of sleep [*].
10. Stay calm and de-stress.
Studies show that, while short-term stress can be beneficial, being in a long-term state of stress can put our immune system at risk [*, *]. In fact, a study in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences showed that people under stress were more likely to catch the common cold when exposed to the virus, and the researchers believe that this would apply to other viruses as well [*].
Even though life can get busy and hectic, taking time for things that help us relax can go a long way. Try:
- Making lists of what you are thankful for
- Your favorite exercise
- Simply carving out time for activities you enjoy
- Got more ideas? Tell me in the comments below!
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Supplements To Boost Immune System
Below are some of the most widely known and researched keto friendly supplements for the immune system, with references. But as always, consult your doctor before taking them.
- Vitamin C – I like this one because it’s extended release. Some evidence suggests that regularly supplementing with vitamin C can reduce the duration of colds, and it’s easy to work into your daily regimen. [*]
- Elderberry Extract – Studies link this natural supplement with shorter, less severe instances of flu. [*] Keep in mind that elderberry syrups and gummies are usually high in sugar. Instead, opt for a pill option like the one linked here.
- Echinacea – Echinacea is a common cold remedy because studies show that it can boost your ability to fight viruses and infections — and may even reduce your chance of developing a cold. [*]
- Colloidal Silver – A non-ionic one like this is recommended for good absorption. Keep in mind, though, this traditional treatment has not been widely studied in humans. However, at least one study showed that colloidal silver could weaken cultured bacterial strains, including E. coli and salmonella. [*] Since it’s a metal, this one is particularly important to check with your doctor before taking.
- Astragalus Root – This one has no fillers, unlike many brands. Supplementing astragalus is linked with higher T cell activation, which improves immunity. [*]
- Olive Leaf Extract – Olive leaf extract contains oleuropein, an anti-inflammatory polyphenol that can help boost immunity. [*]
- Monolaurin – You already convert lauric acid to monolaurin every time you eat coconut oil, but you’d need to eat 3/4 cup per day to get the amount of monolaurin in this supplement. And compared to 18-30 capsules per day to get the equivalent amount from other brands, this one is both effective and inexpensive. Studies indicate supplementing may have benefits over plain coconut oil, including killing harmful bacteria. [*]
Keto Foods To Boost Immune System
For extra benefits, make these keto recipes that boost your immune system:
- Garlic – Although more studies are needed to confirm, one study showed that people with the common cold had fewer days of illness when consuming raw garlic than a placebo group. And, garlic has long been used to combat infectious disease for centuries. [*] To take advantage of its antiviral and antibacterial properties, cut a clove of garlic in half or into a few pieces. Then, swallow with water like pill(s).
- Oven Roasted Mushrooms – Make this recipe with shiitake mushrooms for maximum antiviral benefits and have been shown to boost immune system. [*]
- Keto Frozen Yogurt – Yogurt contains probiotics that help fight viral infections. [*]
- Keto Coleslaw – The dressing in this slaw is made with apple cider vinegar, which has been shown to have antiviral properties.
- Sauteed Broccoli – Broccoli has one of the highest levels of vitamin C, 100mg per cooked cup, which is actually much higher than oranges have.
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Keto Recipes To Make When You Are Sick
Many people think they have to give up a low carb lifestyle when they get sick, since most comfort foods are high in carbs. But it’s not true! Continuing to eat nutritious whole foods (that are also keto friendly) can support your immune system.
You can still make keto dishes that are soothing. Here are the keto recipes I make when I get sick:
- Keto Chicken Soup – Grandma was right: Chicken soup can help fight colds! [*] Plus, it will warm you from the inside out.
- Keto Egg Drop Soup – This soothing soup gets a boost from ginger, which contains compounds that naturally aid in fighting bacteria and viruses. Add even more ginger if you prefer for an extra fragrant and soothing soup.
- Almond Flour Crackers – When you feel like you need to reach for the carb-y crackers, make these instead (or better yet, have a pantry stash ahead of time like I do).
- Bulletproof Tea – Easy on your throat and loaded with healthy fats from coconut oil, this tea is like a hug in a mug.
- Chocolate Fat Bombs – These sweet and creamy bites will keep your energy up, even when you’re feeling worn down (plus, more added coconut oil to get your monolaurin!).
- 90-Second Bread – If you don’t have much of an appetite but are craving bread (a common sick craving!), this quick version takes just a couple of minutes to whip up. Easy enough even if you aren’t feeling well.