“So why, you are bound to ask at some point in your life do microbes often want to hurt us? What possible satisfaction could there be to a microbe in having us grow feverish or chilled or disfigured with sores or, above all, deceased? A dead host, after all, is hardly going to provide long term hospitality.” – From A short history of nearly everything by Bill Bryson
Nobody enjoys being taken out by the Almighty micro-organism but, as Bill would say, “The world belongs to the very small”. And, in fact, the human body itself is believed to be composed of only 43% human cellular makeup while the other 57% is made of micro-organisms, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi. Most of these micro-organisms work in symbiosis and are necessary for our overall health, such as having a “healthy gut microbiome”. But there are plenty of enemies out there ready to test our defences! Every year, especially through the cooler months, we are exposed to the spread of cold and flu viruses and occasionally unwittingly we take in food borne bacteria giving us a taste of the “stomach flu”. Unfortunately, exposure to these little villains is inevitable, unless we wrap ourselves in bubble wrap and never leave the house. Instead, actively improving our immune function and therefore our first line of defence will help us weather the storms of the cold and flu season. Here are my top tips to a robust immune system.
1. Support your Gut health
About 70% of our immune cells and functioning is derived in the intestinal lining. The health of our gut is proving to be the very seed of our entire being so caring for our intestinal health is one of the most vital ways to boost our immune system. Having a healthy gut lining is also the first line of defence against harmful pathogens crossing the intestinal barrier into our blood stream. Let the good bacteria prevail! Here are some ways to increase good gut health:
Eating a diet high in fiber rich foods is critical to healthy gut functioning, which has a cascade effect on all our other systems. Foods that are high in fiber include:
- Whole grains such as oats, millet, quinoa, brown rice and whole wheat, also oat and wheat brans.
- Seeds such as flax, chia, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower.
- Nuts including almonds, walnuts’, pine nuts, pistachio and coconut.
- Beans, peas and legumes of all kinds including split peas, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, mung, soy, garden peas and string beans.
- Fruits such as bananas, oranges, apples and berries of all kinds.
- All vegetables including cabbage, celery, broccoli and especially leafy greens such as collards, beet greens, spinach and kale.
Foods that are dense in insoluble fiber and specific food compounds lay the foundation for good bacteria, or “probiotics” to feed upon and colonize in the gut. Foods highest in pre-biotic material include:
- Bananas and apples
- Chickpeas, lentils and kidney beans
- Onions and leeks
- Oats and barley
- Dandelion greens and chicory
The regular inclusion of fermented, pro-biotic rich foods in our diet is critical to a healthy microbiome. These foods contain naturally occurring bacteria that colonize in the intestines, becoming the “good bacteria” that are the superheroes of proper digestion and the building blocks of our overall health. Pro-biotic foods include:
- Plain Yogurt
- Cultured cheese (raw and unpasteurized cheeses carry the highest content of pro-biotic)
- Fermented pickles (different than vinegar pickles)
- Fermented alcohols such as beer and wine (too much isn’t a good thing).
Always remember that adding a variety of whole plant based foods to your diet daily will provide you with fiber and pre-biotic fibres no matter which ones you choose. Just get them on your plate!
2. Culinary and medicinal herbs and spices
Herbs and spices have been used for centuries as plant medicines around the world. We can add them to soups, stews, baking, smoothies, salads and dressings. Some can be infused as teas or taken as supplements. The most commonly used herbs and spices to support the immune system include:
- Cayenne and hot peppers
- Citrus peels
- Green tea
- Medicinal mushrooms
Blend up your own DYI Immune Boosting Tea Blend
3. Vitamins and Minerals
The immune system, like all functions in the body, rely on the presence of anti-oxidants, including essential vitamins and minerals. Making sure your diet includes whole foods that provide a variety of immune boosting nutrients is a sure fire way to boost your defences. Important vitamins and minerals for immune function include:
- Vitamin C from foods such as oranges, lemons, grapefruits, berries, kiwi, bell peppers, kale, spinach, Brussel sprouts, tomatoes and cabbage.
- Vitamin d from foods such as fish liver oils and fatty fish, egg yolks, certain mushrooms, some cheese and fortified foods. Vitamin D is not found in abundance in foods but made in our skim through the exposure to sunlight. It is called the sunshine vitamin, after-all! Vitamin D supplements are often taken through the winter, especially those of us sun deprived through the winter in the Northern Hemisphere. How ever you can get Vitamin D it is critical to immune functioning and many of us are deficient.
- Vitamin E through foods such as almonds, peanuts, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts and their corresponding butters. Also vegetable oils including sunflower, soy bean and safflower.
- Vitamin A from foods such as carrots, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, butternut squash, cantaloupe and dark leafy greens.
- Zinc found in foods such as shellfish, lean meats and poultry, baked beans, yogurt and chickpeas. Many people use zinc supplements to speed up the recovery from an infection.
- Selenium found in foods such as fish, lean meats and poultry, organ meats, cottage cheese and brazil nuts.
4. Sleep, Water, exercise and stress management
It goes without saying but I can’t stress enough the importance of good sleeping habits, staying hydrated and moving your body every day, along with self care techniques to manage stress. Enough said!
5. Essential Oils
Essential oils are also a great way to combat and lessen the symptoms of cold and flue. Keeping some of the following essential oils in your medicine cabinet for diffusing, steaming and for topical use include:
- Tea tree
- Clove bud
Give this Sinus Support Essential Oil Blend a try.
6. Avoid transmission
As always, the very first line of defence is prevention of transmission. Remember to wash your hands, stay home if you are unwell and wear a mask if you have concerns of spreading illness. And for Heaven’s sake, don’t lick doorknobs! Just seeing if you are paying attention! 😉
One last note
There are things we can limit or avoid that compromise and weaken our immune systems. These include:
- Unmanaged stress.
- Excessive alcohol and caffeine.
- Highly processed foods especially white sugar and flour foods such as store bought cookies, muffins, cakes, white breads and pasta.
- High sugar content foods such as sweetened beverages and candy.
- High sodium foods including canned soups, pre-made dips, potato chips and store bought frozen meals such as pizzas or tv dinners.
- Unhealthy fats and fried foods.
- Processed meats such as sandwich meats, bacon, hotdogs and hams.
At the end of the day, as long as you are taking measured steps to improving your over all health with nutrition, exercise, hydration and good sleep your immune system will follow!
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