As you move into the colder darker months of the year, what are you doing to keep your immune system strong? What if this year you don’t get every cold that comes your way? What if you don’t succumb to the flu this year?
Food is one of the most powerful tools you have to help prevent disease and a healthy body begins with a healthy immune system. Over 70% of your immune system is in your gut and what you eat forms the foundation of your health.
A healthy, strong, and balanced immune system is critical in the prevention of infection and even in chronic diseases such as cancer or autoimmune disease. A balanced immune system is also important in managing inflammation in your body. So whether you don’t want to get sick this year, you want to lower your risk for cancer, or you want help in managing chronic inflammation, this post is for you.
10 Foods To Boost Immunity
A balanced nutrient-dense diet filled with a variety of colorful plants and high quality food will absolutely be your best defense against infection or illness. Within this healthy cornucopia, several stars stand out; 10 to be exact.
All mushrooms have immune boosting properties thanks to the beta-glucans found in mushrooms. These compounds are even more concentrated in medicinal mushrooms (shiitake, reishi, maitake)
Garlic is an excellent antimicrobial (anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal), anti-carcinogen, and immune enhancer.
Vitamin C Rich Foods
Vitamin C is an important nutrient to maintain the body’s defenses against infection, to boost the immune system, and to help in tissue repair. During periods of stress your vitamin C needs are higher. Thankfully there are many foods rich in this nutrient; citrus fruits, berries, bell pepper, tomato, kiwifruit, and broccoli.
I’ve spoken before about the connection between your gut and immune system. Increasing the amount and variety of good bacteria in your gut directly enhances your immunity. Add more foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, kombucha, plain yogurt and kefir.
Coconut Oil (& Coconuts)
Coconut oil is rich in lauric acid, which enhances immunity.
Berries (& Other Colorful Fruits/Veggies)
Phytonutrients found in the pigment (color) of plants have a plethora of benefits ranging from immune system support to fighting off disease.
Herbs & Spices
Again as I’ve spoken about before at length, herbs and spices are your greatest culinary ally. Most are high in antioxidants, inflammation lowering, immune supporting, and anti-microbial. Some of my favorites include turmeric, ginger, oregano, thyme, and cinnamon.
Omega-3 fatty acids can boost white blood cell production, help the body fight off infection, as well as help to modulate the inflammatory response. I prefer cold-water fish as my omega-3 source but you can also get omega-3s from flax seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds, walnuts, and algae.
There’s good reason chicken soup has been the go-to remedy for a cold or flu. Bone broth is nutrient-dense and easy to digest, it’s great for the gut, and supports healing. Click here for my favorite bone broth recipe.
Matcha / Green Tea
Green tea is rich in antioxidant polyphenols, specifically EGCG, which boosts the immune system and regulates inflammation. In one study EGCG was found to be 25-100 times more potent than vitamins C & E. And Matcha is more than 100 times as potent in EGCG as regular brewed green tea. Talk about a nutrient boost!
Foods To Avoid
As you fill your plate and your body with nourishing, healing foods, it’s equally important to minimize your exposure to foods that will burden the immune system. Especially during times of acute illness do your best to completely avoid the following.
Sugar: Unfortunately sugar does nothing to support your health. It actually stresses the body causing an increase in inflammation and a weakening of the immune system. Basically the last thing you need in your diet when you’re actively trying to fight off infection or disease.
Bad Fats: This includes fried fats, hydrogenated fats, plus industrial seed and vegetable oils; they are all very inflammatory and even sometimes toxic. Refer to my post on Fats to help determine which fats are healthy and which are best to avoid.
Processed Foods: Packaged and pre-prepared foods are not only usually full of sugar and bad fats but they also contain a plethora of other chemicals to help preserve and flavor the food. These chemicals are toxic and definitely a burden to both the detoxification and immune systems.
Although food will always be your best medicine, there are times when supplemental boosters are helpful. All the following have immune boosting potential. During the winter months I definitely make an effort to add in supplemental vitamin D, probiotics, and fish oil on a daily basis.
Vitamin D3 – vitamin D is a very effective immune system modulator and deficiency has been seen in people with autoimmune disease & cancer. It’s almost impossible to produce enough vitamin D from sunshine during the winter months, thus a supplement is often in order.
Probiotics – we talked about the benefits of fermented foods above; a healthy gut is critical to a healthy and strong immune system. If it’s challenging for you to eat enough fermented foods, then consider adding a probiotic supplement during cold and flu season.
Fish Oil – we talked about the benefits of omega-3 rich foods above. Much like fermented food, if it’s challenging for you to eat enough omega-3 rich foods, then consider adding in a supplement; especially during the winter months.
Vitamin C – is probably the most well-known and accepted immune system booster. In addition to eating vitamin C rich foods sometimes an added supplement is necessary. I personally start supplementing with vitamin C as soon as the people around me (especially my kids) start sniffling and sneezing more.
Elderberry – the berries and flowers of the elder plant have been used medicinally for thousands of years. Elderberry can boost the immune system and lessen the duration of cold or flu symptoms . Much like echinacea, I bring in elderberry at the first sign of infection or illness.
Echinacea – the chemical constituents in echinacea have been shown to have immune stimulating benefits and even immune modulating benefits. It seems to be most effective when used on recurring infections. I personally include echinacea at the very first sign of infection/illness and continue until the symptoms start to dissipate.
Propolis – is a bee resin and considered to be one of the most broad-spectrum antimicrobial substances in the world. I wasn’t as familiar with propolis before moving to France. It is very common here and seems to be used even more so than echinacea. Much like echinacea and elderberry, I will start adding propolis at the first sign of infection or illness.
As always you can’t look solely at your diet without also considering the impact of your lifestyle choices. The following four factors directly influence the health of your immune system.
Sleep – I can’t count the number of times getting to bed early helped me avoid a cold. At the first sign of symptoms, when I can, I go straight to bed. It’s like magic! The healing power of sleep truly can’t be beat.
Fasting – is another tool that has been used for thousands of years and could be considered one of our best medicines. There’s a reason you’re supposed to starve a flu.
Exercise – works in many different ways to boost your immune system and decrease your risk for colds and flu; flush bacteria out of your lungs and airway, boost white blood cell production, increased temperatures during exercise can help the body fight off an infection. It also lowers stress hormones which supports a stronger immune system. Just be mindful to not do too much exercise, as this can actually increase inflammation and lower immunity. There is some truth in “too much of a good thing”.
Stress Management – much like sugar, stress wreaks havoc on your body and on the immune system; it increases inflammation and lowers immunity.
Take Home Message
The most important message you should take away from this article is how much you can do to actually impact your immune system. You are not just a walking target for bacteria or viruses. You absolutely have the power to boost your immune system and to even prevent succumbing to every cold or flu that crosses your path.
Start with your diet and optimize it the best you can. Stock your medicine cabinet with the natural boosters that will help you get through the season. Plus support your efforts by getting enough sleep, exercise, and stress management.
At the first sign of infection or illness, do the following and let nature work it’s magic!
- Warm up with broth and ginger tea.
- Take some echinacea, elderberry, and/or propolis.
- Go to bed!