I decided to write this post as many folks have been asking me for suggestions on what foods to include in their diet during this time of year when we are more prone to getting sick. To make matters worse, we are now faced with a pandemic that has left us under a great deal of stress. The SARS-CoV 2 virus has caused tremendous fear and anxiety for people across the globe which further undermines our immune system's capacity to defend against pathogens.
Stress, especially prolonged, chronic stress has a suppressive effect on our immune system by decreasing immune cell numbers and function as well as promoting pro-inflammatory mechanisms and cytokine production. (1), (2) One of the most important preventive measures you can take during these challenging times is to practice stress reduction: mindfulness, meditation, breathing, tai chi and yoga all offer great benefits when it comes to reducing stress and turning on the parasympathetic nervous system to promote relaxation and lower inflammation. And you really don't need that much: even 10-15 min a day will do great things for your health!
As a functional nutritionist, I am also a great advocate of using food as medicine. I believe that food (real, unprocessed food) heals the body, and if used to nourish and nurture, it can transform your life and health.
According to an article by Chris Kresser, many Americans are deficient in important life-sustaining nutrients due to the current prevalence of chronic disease, food processing and poor agriculture methods resulting in soil depletion.(3) One of the most important things we can do to improve our health and the health of our planet is to vote with our dollar, choosing nutrient-dense, minimally processed, and organic, locally-grown foods. We can change our eating habits by consuming a plant-based, whole foods diet, and by supporting small farmers who are committed to sustainable agriculture methods. (4),(5)
With this in mind, here is a list of the top immune-boosting, health-sustaining foods you should incorporate into your diet as much as possible:
1. Number one on my list, now and at any time really, is a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables, especially bitter greens (in season now), cruciferous veggies like broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower, roots and tubers (sweet potatoes, yams, parsnips etc.), and low glycemic fruits like berries, cherries and citrus fruits, which are also high in vitamins C, A and other immune-boosting compounds.
2. Garlic and onions are part of the allium family which have potent anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and antibacterial properties.(6) They also contain organosulfur compounds which help increase our body's glutathione levels (a potent antioxidant) and are currently under investigation for their potential to prevent and treat a wide range of diseases.(7) Allium vegetables are also great for our gut health as they are a source of prebiotics - non-digestible fibers that feed the beneficial microorganisms living in our digestive tract and responsible for proper immune function.
3. Herbs and spices like turmeric, ginger, elderberry, echinacea, oregano and thyme are great sources of antioxidant compounds which can be very beneficial for the healthy functioning of our immune system and for preventing a state of amplified cytokine production. (8)
4. Nuts and seeds are a good source of plant-based protein and contain immune boosting minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron. Sesame, sunflower and pumpkin seeds are best sources. See my recipe for roasted cauliflower with lemon-tahini sauce (sesame seed paste). It is absolutely delicious!
5. Cold-water fish is high in omega 3 fatty acids and their metabolites known as pro-resolving mediators (SPMs), which you can also supplement with if you are not a fan of seafood. Omega 3 fats have important immune-regulatory functions and help to enhance both the innate and adaptive immune response. (9)
*Avoid large fish high in heavy metals such as tuna, mackerel, and sea bass and instead focus on smaller, cleaner, and sustainably raised or wild-caught fish like salmon, haddock, cod, sardines and anchovies.
I hope these suggestions help you make healthier food choices and take better care of yourself using food as medicine. Remember that being cooped up at home, although not exactly fun, provides an opportunity to slow down and take charge of your health by preparing nutritious, homemade meals, spending time with loved ones, and prioritizing rest and sleep, which is key for optimal health and strong immune function. (11)
Be Well ♥