It’s that time of year when students fill their backpacks with textbooks, notebooks, pens, and pencils as schools once again re-open for the fall. Although a fresh new school year can be full of promise and possibility, it can also bring the not-so-fun season of colds, stomach bugs, and flus.
Below are some simple strategies to support a healthy immune system, keeping the bugs and viruses at bay.
Eat the Rainbow:
Eating a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and fungi can help provide the vitamin, minerals, and nutrients necessary to support an optimally functioning immune system. An easy way to approach healthy eating is to think about eating the rainbow; eating vegetables and fruits from across the color spectrum ensures you get enough of the antioxidants, phytonutrients, and anti-inflammatory components that these foods have to offer.
Lean into those leafy greens, blueberries, apples, carrots, peppers, squashes, and garlic to not only make your plate more colorful, but more nutritious as well.
One important aspect of diet that often gets overlooked in conversations on food and immunity is eating enough calories and protein in order to power your immune system. Fighting off viruses and bugs takes effort, and your body needs enough fuel to combat these invaders effectively. Making sure that you are eating enough throughout the day is essential for immune health during cold and flu season.
Getting adequate protein is also essential. Protein provides the necessary building blocks for the immune system, it helps in recovery from illnesses, and is required for antibody production. I often recommend folks have snacks handy for between meals that pair a protein with a carbohydrate, such as hummus and crackers or sliced apples and nut butter.
Spice it Up:
Herbs and spices not only help to flavor food, they also are often rich in antiviral, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant components. Some superheroes of the spice and herb world include:
- Garlic: With antiviral and antibacterial properties, garlic is a dynamo when it comes to staving off illness. To activate the enzyme that releases garlic’s immune boosting components, let the garlic rest after cutting or crushing for about 15 minutes before cooking.
- Turmeric: Not only does turmeric enhance the flavor of many dishes, it also is a powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.
- Thyme: This versatile herb is both antibacterial and antispasmodic. Add it liberally to soups and other dishes to help fight off colds and coughs. The volatile oils (the smelly bits) are most potent and can be inhaled via a strong tea or add the leaves to a hot bath.
Munch on Mushrooms:
Mushrooms contain polysaccharides called beta-glucans which act as immunomodulators, meaning they help to balance the immune system, encouraging it to activate when sick and to calm down when overstimulated. All edible mushrooms carry some medicinal benefit when they are cooked — allowing them to be properly absorbed by the digestive tract. Common powerhouses of the medicinal mushroom world include shiitake, lion’s mane, maitake, reishi, and turkey tail (the latter two more easily taken via tincture, powder or capsule).
Feed Your Microbiome:
Cultivating a healthy, diverse, and balanced community of microbes in the gut is an essential component of immunity. Like mushrooms, they are essential for regulating a healthy, well-balanced immune system. When these microbes aren’t at healthy levels or diverse enough, then they can cause immune dysregulation and exacerbate autoimmune issues. You can encourage a healthy microbiome by feeding it foods high in fiber (vegetables, chia seeds, whole grains) and fermented foods such as kimchi, miso, kefir, and kombucha. For further support, probiotics can also be helpful in boosting healthy bacterial populations in the gut.
For an extra boost during cold and flu season, specific vitamins and minerals can be a great addition to your immunity arsenal.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D helps your immune system recognize and eliminate pathogens quickly while also preventing an excessive response that could be damaging to the body. Unfortunately, if you live year-round in the Pacific Northwest it can be difficult to get adequate vitamin D from sun exposure. Supplementation with D3 can help ensure you obtain adequate levels for healthy immune function. Consult your health care provider for appropriate dosing as it is important to avoid dosing too high as this can cause serious health effects.
- Zinc: Zinc is necessary for the production and proliferation of immune cells. It also can have direct antiviral activity on rhinoviruses and have been shown to decrease the severity and duration of cold symptoms. Foods that are high in zinc include pumpkin seeds, oysters, beef, turkey, Swiss chard, oats, and mustard greens. Supplementation is also an option but be sure to take it with food as zinc can cause nausea on an empty stomach.
- Selenium: Selenium plays an important role as an antioxidant, ensuring the body rids itself of the free radicals that the immune system uses to kill off invaders after those free radicals have done their job. This helps prevent damage to healthy human cells during and after an illness. Brazil nuts have high amounts of selenium and just three per day provide supplement level doses.
By Kelley Garrison, ND
Dr. Garrison is a licensed naturopath at Northwest Life Medicine Clinic who specializes in stress and stress-related conditions such as anxiety, panic disorder, and irritable bowel syndrome. She enjoys working with patients to find the root cause of their symptoms and helps them cultivate the resources needed to feel healthy and resilient. You can find her at nwlifemedicine.com.