Supporting your immune system with nutrition doesn’t have to involve loading up on expensive foods and supplements. In fact, research shows that making simple changes in your food choices, the amount of sugar you eat, and even the timing and pace of meals can boost and strengthen your front line defenses!
Your immune system is a sophisticated collection of cells, chemicals and messaging networks that are constantly learning and re-learning how to protect and defend your body from illness and disease. Supporting your immune system with nutrient-rich foods is ultra-important, because it is the system that truly never sleeps! Science has demonstrated that your immune system needs certain nutrients to function well. Vitamins A, C, D, B6 and E, zinc, selenium, and beta-carotene all have roles to play. While supplements can be beneficial, mega doses of some nutrients may actually depress your immune response, so check in with a knowledgeable health care provider before starting a supplement program.
In the meantime, you can bring all of these nutrients into your daily diet with food! A Mediterranean-style plan is a good place to start. The foods featured in this style of eating, including vegetables and fruit, whole grains, beans, healthy oils, nuts, and small amounts of fish, meat, and poultry, are all good sources of immune-boosting nutrients. For example:
- Inexpensive whole grains, like oats and barley contain a fair amount of selenium and zinc.
- Simple meals prepared with a variety of beans, including garbanzos, kidney beans and lentils provide zinc, selenium, and vitamin B6. In fact, garbanzo beans (chickpeas) are one of the best sources of vitamin B6!
- If you like oysters, just one will provide all the zinc you need in a day, but other fish, shellfish, poultry and beef contain zinc, as well as selenium and vitamin B6. A reminder: if you eat meat, you don’t need much. Just 3 ounces provides a day’s worth of zinc and selenium.
- Brazil nuts are one of the best food sources of selenium (just one a day will meet average needs), but pumpkin seeds, cashews, almonds, and sunflower seeds also contain zinc, selenium, and vitamin E.
- Dark green, orange and red fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables provide beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A), vitamin C and so much more!
Surprisingly, fiber also plays a big role in immunity! A large portion of your immune system operates in your gut, where immune cells and healthy bacteria work together to let nutrients into your body while keeping disease-causing bacteria, viruses and other bad actors out. Fiber feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut and helps to maintain a strong barrier between the contents of your digestive tract and the rest of your body. Fortunately, many of the foods that contain immune-powering nutrients, like beans, lentils, whole grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables, are also packed with fiber.
Sugar is sweet and fun to eat, but in excess, will reduce your body’s ability to attack invaders. Studies show that sugar actually impairs the function of macrophages – a type of white blood cell – to do their job of eating and destroying viruses and bacteria. Take care to reduce the amount of sugar you eat by reading labels (try to buy products with as little added sugars as possible), and enjoy sweet treats in moderation.
Finally, how you eat is just as important as what you eat! Eating at regular intervals, either three meals or three meals and some snacks each day, tells your brain that food is available, and that regular body maintenance can take place. When you skip meals, your brain registers a lack of food and tells your body to reduce the amount of energy it uses for all ‘non-essential’ activities, including repair, replacement and support of immune cells. Similarly, your pace at meals (whether you eat slowly, with pleasure and attention, or fast and distracted by work, chores or television) affects your brain and body in surprising ways. Research demonstrates that when you eat meals and snacks in a slow, relaxed state, paying attention to the pleasure you are getting from food, your brain and body also relax, thus promoting better digestion, healing, and immune function.
Some great online resources for simple immune-boosting, Mediterranean-style meals include Oldways Cultural Food Traditions and YRMC’s Your Healthy Kitchen, where we have stored an extensive collection of cooking tutorials and delicious, simple, and affordable recipes. You can also follow me on Facebook, at YRMC’s Your Healthy Kitchen, where I regularly post photos, videos and recipes for the immune-boosting meals I make at home!