SUPport Immune Function with Food
The role of the immune system is to detect a threat, summon help, and launch a counterattack on anything foreign in the body. An army of cells make up the immune system and patrol every part of the body for cells that are misbehaving or don’t belong. To be able to do the job well, the immune system needs support with specific foods.
The immune system is made up of three parts:
- The barrier system includes the skin, mucous membranes around eyes, sinuses, reproductive organs, and the digestive tract which function to keep invaders out.
- The innate immune cells are the fast-acting fighting cells you’re born will that prevent infection and destroy invaders.
- The adaptive immune cells are highly specialized, learn through exposure to tag and identify invaders or pathogens and produces antibodies to recognize them and prevent pathogen growth. This is very specific to the individual.
The barrier system can be supported through handwashing and staying hydrated with adequate water intake daily which enhances the mucosal layers. Incorporating fermented foods and probiotics add protective microorganisms to the mucous membranes, skin and large intestine and influence the protective abilities.
Our innate and adaptive immune cells are white blood cells that have specific jobs within the body’s army. The supporting lymphatic organs that influence the immune cells are the thymus, spleen, lymph nodes and bone marrow. The nutrition you give these cells and organs matters immensely in the formation and function of the cells. The better the nutrition, the better the cells and function.
The more we are exposed to things that compromise the immune system, the greater the chance of developing chronic inflammation. Inflammation is an immune response to injury, infection, toxins, food sensitivities, mold, parasites, and cancer cells. Inflammation becomes chronic when it is persistent and prolonged causing our immune system to be constantly activated and results in actually weakening the immune system and causing health issues like heart disease, diabetes, depression, asthma.
The wonderful news is that the immune system responds sensitively to subtle nutritional changes.
You can make small changes in the foods you consume and see major improvement in how the immune system functions. We know that eating processed and refined foods, fried foods, sugar and alcohol, results in nutrient deficiencies which rob the immune system and inhibits its function. It’s important to be aware of the foods that weaken or give the immune system a debilitating blow just as much as knowing the foods that can build it up.
For the immune system to function optimally, whole food nutrition is foundational. The nutrients that are critical for immune system function are best obtained from whole foods and include: essential fats, folate, iron, selenium, vitamins A, B6, C, E, D, zinc, antioxidants and probiotic foods.
Incorporating foods high in these nutrients into your everyday meals and snacks is the best way to get these nutrients on a consistent basis. Finding delicious ways to enjoy them is important, so you eat them.
Vitamin C is important as an antioxidant and overall cellular function. Some food sources: peppers, broccoli, berries, mangoes, rose hips, cranberries, cherries, citrus
- Make fruit salads or add high vitamin C fruits to smoothies, oatmeal or blending frozen fruits into sorbet
- Make a relish or compote by blending together cranberries, oranges, mangoes and chia seeds. Use this over oats or yogurt, spread onto avocado toast.
- Soak rose hips to soften and add to a baked fruit cobbler, compote or smoothies.
Vitamin B6 is needed for cellular function and neurotransmitter conversion. Some food sources: pistachio nuts, hemp seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, garlic, chickpeas, avocados, sweet potatoes.
- Make seed balls with sunflower and hemp seeds blended with dates and coconut
- Try a chickpea apple salad.
Essential fatty acids are so important for cellular integrity but also for immune response and hormone regulation. Some food sources: avocados, walnuts, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, cold water fish.
Zinc enhances the immune system by supporting the T helper cells. It has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. It prevents viral replication and may reduce the intensity of symptoms from viruses. Some food sources: lentils, peas, cashews, almonds, pumpkin seeds, raw cacao
- Lentil stew and split pea soup are good choices
- Make a trail mix with mixed nuts & seeds for snacking
- Look for lentil or nut-based brownie recipes using the raw cacao
Selenium is important for many cellular functions in body. It strongly influences the inflammatory and immune responses, is a potent nutritional antioxidant. Some food sources: Brazil nuts, mushrooms, mustard seed, chia, oats, goji berries, sesame seeds, lentils, carob
- Add nuts and goji to trail mix or granola
- A mushroom lentil soup is so hearty and nourishing,
- Soak mustard seeds and then blend with some dates and a little vinegar to make a yummy mustard spread.
- Add goji berries to tea and let soak, eating them as you finish drinking the tea.
- Make a batch of oats with added chia seeds, goji berries and carob
- Sesame seed butter (tahini) mixed with carob and honey makes healthy fudge.
Brightly colored foods have phytonutrients that help with the innate and adaptive immune cell function. Each color represents a different phytonutrient. The more color the higher the nutrient density. Eat the Rainbow to get nutrient diversity. Food sources: carrots, beets, squash, sweet potato, red and yellow peppers, dark leafy greens, herbs, celery, asparagus, broccoli, avocado, kiwi, green apple, red cabbage, plumb, figs, tomatoes, berries, pomegranate, watermelon, cherries, currants, black beans, bananas, pineapple…
- Make a pan of roasted sweet potatoes, beets, carrots and peppers, season with herbs or chili spices
- Sauté leafy greens, kale, chard, mustard, collards, spinach and cabbage with lots of garlic
- Greens salad with tomatoes, peppers, red cabbage and pomegranate seeds
- fruit salad
- Make avocado toast or chocolate avocado pudding
- Make a mixed vegetable soup
- Mexican stuffed sweet potato
Probiotics are one of the first lines of defense in the immune system and essential for optimal barrier protection. Having a good population with a variety of bacterial strains helps with nutrient absorption and production of neurotransmitters, vitamins and immunoglobulins that influence immune system function. Food sources: kefir, active cultures yogurt, kombucha, miso, tempeh, raw krauts and pickles, cultured vegetables and fruits.
- Eat or drink small amounts of kefir, kombucha r krauts ahead of meals or as condiments
- Enjoy as snacks, they actually quell hunger
There are also specific foods that have modulating effects on the immune system and increasing their consumption during the times when your immune system is bombarded can reduce your susceptibility and improve your body’s ability to defend itself. Some of these include:
Shiitake mushrooms possess benefits ranging from anti-cancer to immunity-boosting and stress relief. In China and Japan, they are a long-standing remedy for colds and flu because of the compound lentinan, which stimulates immune response. Shiitake mushrooms add a delicious umami flavor to soups, sauces, gravy and main dishes.
Garlic is a strong antimicrobial food and helps the immune system. Garlic has a full spectrum effect as antibiotic, anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-parasitic. Garlic is most potent if chopped or crushed and allowed to sit for 10 to 15 minutes before eating or cooking. This significantly increases the amount of allicin it produces. Allicin is the component responsible for its powerful affects. Try it in hummus, pesto, garlic paste on toast or blend it into juices, or make Nature’s Flu Shot:
- Blend together 1 ½ cups pineapple juice, ¾ cup lemon juice, 1 large garlic clove, ½ teaspoon turmeric, ½ teaspoon ginger, 1/8 teaspoon cayenne, 1 tablespoon honey. Drink ½ cup per day.
Onions are natural sources of quercetin, a bioflavonoid that has shown to suppress the rhinoviruses which are the underlying cause of the common cold. Add onions to vegetable sautés, salads, soups and roasted vegetables or heat on med low heat to caramelize and use as a topping for almost anything…so good.
Ginger is a spicy root that stimulates circulation and helps keep the sinuses clear of mucus, fights intestinal infections, and is particularly famous for supporting immune system against cold and flu. Ginger can be stewed in boiling water to make ginger tea, added to stir fried vegetables or grated into tahini with some tamari and enjoyed as a veggie sauce or dip.
Fresh and Dry Herbs add medicinal qualities to meals. They have phytonutrients that are potent for immune system modulation; think ‘Spice of Life’. Consider using rosemary, thyme, garlic, ginger, oregano, turmeric, cilantro, basil, paprika, cardamom, Ceylon cinnamon, chili, elderberry, Echinacea, astragalus, rose hips. Usually found in bulk section of health food store.
- Echinacea/golden seal, green, garlic, or ginger tea during flu season
- Infuse herbs and spices into water for broth and cooking liquids for grains
- Add fresh and dried herbs to simmer in soups, sauces and grains.
- Make Golden Milk to get a wonderful blend of herbs and spices
- Fresh herbs blended into a pesto or chimichurri sauce for use over grains or veggies.
Green Tea is known to help prevent flu and the common cold. Catechins have been shown to inhibit the activity of the common cold adenovirus as well as influenza viruses. To maximize the release of catechins, add a bit of orange or lemon juice to your tea, the vitamin C increases availability. Steep tea for 5 minutes.
Culinary medicine is the idea of choosing an entire herb or food for its medicinal benefit first, then taste, when preparing a meal.
This approach is one of the safest methods of natural healing, as it relies upon our body’s natural protection measures. For example, it would be difficult to overdose on basil, as the physical volume of a lethal dose is simply impractical to consume in one sitting. Culinary medicine in many traditional cultures is the oldest form of medicine, prevention, and healing. I suggest using whole herbs, onions, garlic and ginger in as many of your dishes possible. Not only will this approach taste good, but it will also improve the gut microbiome, which comprises 70% of the immune system, and help keep pathogens in check.
Whole foods and herbs have many nutritional cofactors and phytonutrients that help nutrients work optimally and improve the body’s assimilation of those nutrients. However, supplementing with nutrients can be beneficial when there is a deficiency. Specific supplements for immune support include ones mentioned above in addition to a vitamin D3.
To ensure you get plenty of immune-boosting nutrients:
- Load up on colorful fruits and vegetables. Eat vegetables raw or steam them for best nutritional density.
- Eat clean proteins, more plant sources than animal, and whole grains.
- Have a clove of garlic a day for its anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.
- Add herbs and spices that have immune supporting nutrients to recipes
- Avoid fried foods as this introduces harmful free radicals that increase inflammation which suppresses immune response.
- Avoid sugar so you don’t suppress your immune response.
- An easy way of insuring you get plenty of colorful phytonutrients is from my favorite concentrated food source.