Whether preventing a common cold, the flu or keeping your natural guard strong in the midst of the pandemic, using food as medicine to build a strong immune system is front and center.
We’ve been conditioned to want a quick fix to our health problems. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just take a couple of supplements and feel like our immune system is supported and functioning optimally? While many supplements and specific nutrients are wonderful and effective supports for the immune system, no amount of supplements can make up for an unbalanced diet and poor lifestyle choices.
In naturopathic medicine, we say, “it’s not just about the bug, it’s about the terrain.” This means no matter with what bacteria or virus your body comes into contact, it’s the health of your body, or inner terrain, that will determine if and how it affects you. The healthier your terrain, the more easily you will fight off pathogens. This has been very evident in the past 18 months with COVID-19 where we find 78 percent of people who end up in the hospital are significantly overweight, and 95 percent of deaths are in people with three or more comorbidities (or multiple medical conditions.) The body’s terrain is primarily determined by diet and nutritional status, toxin exposure, exercise levels, stress levels and stress management, and relationships.
Arguably some of the best research on nutrition ever done was by Weston A. Price over a hundred years ago. He was a dentist who began questioning why cavities were becoming more prevalent. He set off to do research on this by traveling around the world and studying people of different cultures. What he found was that as soon as any group of people’s diet was made up of more than 20 percent of “white man’s food”—meaning sugar, flour, canned or processed foods—the rate of cavities increased significantly. What he also found was these same groups of people with processed foods in the diet also had increased rates of chronic degenerative diseases, which we see so commonly in our culture but were uncommon back then. More importantly, he found those same groups of people were much more susceptible to the infectious diseases that were prevalent at the time, becoming sick more often and more severely when their diets were higher in processed foods. In modern research, epidemiological studies have found that those who are poorly nourished are at greater riskof bacterial, viral and other infections.
Hopefully, many of the dietary recommendations in this article won’t be much of a surprise. At the same time, this might trigger motivation to make some dietary changes. At its very simplest, the dietary recommendations for supporting the immune system are easy to understand: EAT REAL FOOD!
- Avoid or limit processed sugar and flour. Sugar and four are devoid of nutrients, cause inflammation and impede the body’s immune system. Research has shown that high sugar intake paralyzes white blood cells, hindering the ability to fight off infections.
- The recommended goal is to aim for a diet that is at least 80 percent whole, fresh foods that do not come in packages. This includes organic fresh fruits and vegetables (frozen is second best), nuts and seeds, beans and legumes, whole unprocessed grains (whole oats, rice, quinoa, buckwheat, etc.), wild-caught seafood, free range poultry and eggs, and grass-fed beef.
- Consume at least seven servings of vegetables every day. Aim for a variety of vegetables of different colors to get in a wide spectrum of nutrients and antioxidants. There’s not one or two specific vegetables that support the immune system. They all do! Aim for most vegetables to be of the non-starchy variety, but squashes and root vegetables are very nutritious and can be included unless there is a reason to be on a very low carbohydrate diet.
- Consume 2-3 servings of fruit per day. Fruits contain antioxidants, nutrients, polyphenols and fiber that support the immune system, microbiome and overall health, but overeating fruit may lead to blood sugar imbalances, so keep it to 2-3 servings per day.
- Include healthy fats and a source of quality protein at every meal and snack. Healthy fat sources include nuts and seeds, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, free range eggs, grass-fed butter, and oily fish. Avoid other vegetable oils including canola and soy oil, which are highly inflammatory and may be damaging to the cardiovascular and immune systems.
- Include fermented foods such as real sauerkraut, kimchi, high quality organic yogurt or kefir, or kombucha on a regular basis to support a healthy microbiome.
As far as specific nutrients, research has shown a deficiency of single nutrients can alter the body’s immune response. Animal studies have found that deficiencies can impede immune responses, such as zinc; selenium; iron;copper; folate; and vitamins A, B6, B12, C, Dand E. These nutrients help the immune system in various ways by supporting immune cells, providingantioxidant protection to healthy cells, supporting detoxification and producing antibodies. To ensure adequate intake of these nutrients, start first by looking at you diet. You can easily look up food sources of these nutrients and add these specific foods to your diet. For example zinc is found in high amounts in red meat, but for those who don’t eat red meat, hemp and pumpkin seeds as part of a regular diet can ensure adequate zinc intake. Next you can look at supplementing. Blood tests can help make determine which nutrients you need to supplement. Most naturopathic or functional medicine doctors order these types of tests to create individualized treatment programs for optimal results.
Remember to keep your diet at least 80 percent whole-food based. Enjoy some special treats on holidays but avoid letting the holiday season turn into a month or two of unhealthy diet choices. Eat well, be well, and keep those white blood cells working.