Supporting a healthy immune system is important, especially during a pandemic, and your diet is a critical component. Vitamins and supplements have their place, but the very best way to absorb nutrients is through food. Let's look at key nutrients that play a role in immunity, and where to get them.
Beta carotene converts to Vitamin A, which helps antibodies respond to toxins and foreign substances. Good sources include carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes, apricots, spinach, kale, broccoli, squash, and cantaloupe. Blending these into a smoothie is a great way to ensure you're getting enough, especially for kids and picky eaters!
You knew this one already! Vitamin C increases antibody levels in the bloodstream and helps the body determine what kind of protection is needed. Higher Vitamin C levels may reduce the duration of cold and flu symptoms. Try oranges (raw fruit is better than juice!), grapefruit, kiwi, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, red and green peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, and cooked cabbage.
Vitamin D plays a role in the activity and number of white blood cells known as T2 killer lymphocytes, which are as awesome as they sound, reducing the spread of bacteria and viruses. Vitamin D deficiency increases your risk of upper respiratory infection. It's wise to consider a Vitamin D supplement if you aren't getting enough. Your doctor can determine this with a simple blood test. Foods with Vitamin D include fatty fish (like canned salmon or sardines), eggs, fortified milk and plant milk products, cheese, fortified juice, tofu, and mushrooms.
Cells in your immune system rely on Zinc to grow and differentiate into different roles. Some studies indicate that Zinc supplements can shorten the duration of the common cold. Get your daily Zinc with beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, fortified cereal, nuts, seeds, wheat germ, oysters (canned are fine!), crab, lobster, beef, pork chops, dark meat poultry, and yogurt.
Protein is a key building block for antibodies and immune cells. It comes from both animal and plant sources: fish, poultry, beef, milk, yogurt, eggs, cottage cheese, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils. Protein-rich snacks like roasted chickpeas make great substitutes for chips or crackers.
Prebiotics and Probiotics:
These boost the health of your gut, which in turn supports immunity. Prebiotics include whole grains, bananas, onions, garlic, leeks, asparagus, artichokes, and beans. Probiotics include fermented foods like yogurt and kefir, aged cheese, kimchi, sauerkraut, miso, tempeh, kombucha, and sourdough bread. (Bakers, rejoice! If you need a good sourdough recipe, here's Stephanie's!)
Elderberry, which contains bioflavonoids that disrupt viral activity and anthocyanins that support cell health, has been used for centuries for general wellness and viral symptom support. Raw elderberries are toxic. A daily serving of Sweet's Syrup, flavored with raw honey, cinnamon, clove, and ginger (all immune supporters), is a smart addition to a healthy diet. (Note: Consult your doctor before consuming elderberry if you are pregnant or being treated for autoimmune conditions. Children under 12 months should not consume raw honey; however, Sweet's DIY Kits will allow you to prepare a honey-free version.)
Even mild dehydration stresses your body, reducing its ability to resist infection. Women should aim for 90 ounces of fluid daily. Men should consume 125 ounces. This includes all sources of fluid: water-rich foods like fruits and veggies, soups, and of course, water and juices. Coffee, tea, and alcohol set you back in the hydration department, so if you consume these, plan to offset with extra water.
Foods to Avoid:
Some foods weaken your immune response by causing inflammation in the body. If you're tempted toward them, here's a brief "eat this, not that" to help you fulfill those cravings in a healthy way.
- Candy: processed sugar increases inflammation. Go for berries, full of vitamins and antioxidants called flavonoids that fight inflammation.
- Soda and Sweetened Beverages: high in empty calories and sugar, potentially leading to obesity, which suppresses immune response. Try pomegranate juice as a tasty alternative with antioxidant power.
- Alcohol: can disrupt immune pathways and impair sleep, which is critical for immune health. Take a pass entirely, or stick to the recommended intake of no more than one drink a day for women, or two for men. Instead, sip a spritzer (wine mixed with sparkling water) or flavored sparkling water.
- Energy Drinks: very high in sugar, sometimes more than soda, plus excessive caffeine - all likely to increase body inflammation. Focus on a good night's sleep instead of relying on energy drinks.
- Fried/Fast Foods: high in fat, sodium, and calories, these damage the gut microbiome and cause long-term effects on immunity, as well as increase the risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Opt for baking instead of frying and plan ahead by packing healthy foods when you're on the road.
- Sodium: it's in just about everything - frozen meals, canned soups and veggies, cheese, pizza, snacks, deli meat - but it's best to minimize it! High sodium diets increase blood pressure and suppress immune function. Try herbs and spices to maximize flavor instead of using salt, and watch the sodium content on prepared foods you buy.
- Sugar: it's delicious... but sweet foods tend to be full of saturated fat, calories, and sugar, leading to inflammation and weight gain, threatening your immune response. If you're craving ice cream, try yogurt with berries and honey. Bake your own treats with whole-food ingredient substitutions like dates, whole wheat flour, applesauce or mashed banana.
With a steady supply of nutrients like these, your immune system will be better equipped to keep you healthy for years to come.
- Tracy Dygert for Sweet's Syrup