Now that we’re in the second year of the covid pandemic and flu season is here, many of us are looking at ways to boost immunity naturally with proper nutrition. It’s well documented that being overweight and obesity are risk factors for more severe illness from covid. One study found that those with preexisting conditions were more likely to suffer from post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), or what’s been referred to as “long covid.” While more research is needed, nutrient-dense foods can offer immune-supportive health benefits regardless.
While many supplements on the market can offer immune-supporting benefits, the ideal way to build a strong foundation for a healthy immune system is to load up on antioxidant-rich foods, especially vegetables and fruits. Focus on colorful foods – the immune-boosting phytonutrients in foods are what give them their color. To stay within low-carb parameters during weight loss, focus more on non-starchy vegetables such as leafy greens, peppers, zucchini, and low-glycemic fruit like berries or green apples. Not only do vegetables and fruits promote a healthy immune system, they’re full of heart-healthy fiber which also increases satiety.
We all know about the benefits of vitamin C for immunity, and that oranges are chock-full of vitamin C. But did you know that vegetables like red peppers, broccoli, red cabbage, and other fruits like strawberries, kiwi and cantaloupe are also excellent sources of vitamin C? In addition to immune support, vitamin C helps your body with the absorption of iron and collagen – both of which support healthy hair, skin and nails. While you can get your vitamin C from supplements, it’s always preferable to derive your vitamins from natural sources like fruits and veggies.
Another excellent way to build up your immune system nutritionally is by incorporating more onions and garlic into your diet. Onions and garlic contain a polyphenol called quercetin which has antiviral properties. Garlic contains a compound called allicin which works by inhibiting specific metabolic enzymes which in turn induce stress on bacteria and impede the growth of microorganisms. The easiest way to add more onions and garlic to your diet is by flavoring your foods with them. Consider simple recipes like sauteing chopped kale or spinach in olive oil with onions, garlic, lemon and a dash of sea salt. Quercetin and allicin can also be taken in supplement form, which may be preferable for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or have a sensitivity to onions and garlic. Remember to check with your healthcare practitioner before taking supplements.
You can also add onions and garlic to a tasty bone broth, and receive the combined benefits from all three. Broth, when prepared properly, is packed with amino acids, the building blocks of protein. A steady supply of amino acids are necessary for immune cell growth and proliferation and help our bodies create an immune response. Bone broth can be sipped alone or used as a soup base. We recommend making your own, but if you’re in a time crunch, consider purchasing quality brands like Bonafide and Kettle and Fire. Other good sources of amino acids include chicken, eggs, tofu and seitan.
Immunity starts in the gut and fermented foods are another great way to enhance immunity due to the probiotics they contain. Probiotics work by inhibiting the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Consuming a half of a cup of fermented foods like sauerkraut or kimchi can support a healthy gut. Kombucha can be a gut-healthy option as well, but be sure to check the label, as many brands contain high amounts of sugar. Other good options include plain kefir and yogurt, including dairy-free options like Cocoyo. If you prefer to take probiotics in supplement form, a broad spectrum probiotic like Garden of Life Once Daily is a good option for most people. Those with sensitive GI tracts may need to start with a lower dose, such as LifeBiome Gut Restore, or a kids probiotic. Probiotics contain many different strains, and researchers are still in the beginning stages of discovering the benefits of each. Furthermore, each person has their own unique microbiome much like a fingerprint, so if you’re sensitive to probiotics talk to your practitioner first.
Another immunity-enhancing nutrient to add to your diet is zinc. In addition to immune support, zinc plays a role in protein synthesis and is necessary for a sense of taste and smell. Good sources include oysters, poultry, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds, cashews, almonds and eggs. Red meat is also a good source of zinc, but stick to lean, unprocessed cuts that are low in saturated fat and sodium. Although legumes are good sources of zinc, the phytate content of beans (and grains) can inhibit zinc absorption, which is why supplementing may be a good idea for vegetarians.
While improving your immunity by consuming healthy, unprocessed foods is always preferred, it may be necessary to supplement. Additional immune boosting supplements include vitamin D, an omega-3 or fish oil, and a good quality multivitamin. Don’t forget that a healthy immune system is not only about eating well. Healthy weight, proper sleep hygiene, stress management and proper hydration are all key to fostering a robust immune system.