Five Tips For A Healthy Immune System

It’s cold and flu season.  I get my yearly flu shot, but honestly, my best defense against disease is not magical.  Read on for things you can do to boost your immunity.

1- Eat The Rainbow

This certainly is not a new concept to most people, but may be the hardest thing to do.  Why?  Because our fat and sugar-laden American diet is so appealing that it over powers our desire for colorful fruits and vegetables.  I know what you’re thinking.  I’ll just take a supplement to cover my mistakes in eating.  That will not do the trick because it’s not just about the vitamins and minerals in plants, although they are very important.  The real workhorses are the tiny phytochemicals such as curcumin from tumeric, genistein from soybean, tea polyphenols from green tea, resveratrol from grapes, sulforaphane from broccoli, isothiocyanates from cruciferous vegetables, diallyl sulfide from garlic, lycopene from tomato, rosmarinic acid from rosemary, apigenin from parsley, and gingerol from gingers, just to name a few.

All of these phytochemicals and there are thousands of them fight hard in our bodies.  They fight cancer, they protect our heart, they stimulate our immune systems.   If we don’t EAT the plant then we don’t get the full benefit.  And the benefits are amazing.

Try for at least 8 to 10 servings of whole fruits and vegetables each day.  That’s about two servings per meal.

  • Buy them at the store each time you shop to make sure you get fresh.
  • Choose the rainbow, that is choose a wide variety of fruits and vegetables in order to get a wide variety of phytochemicals since each plant comes with it’s own very specific nutrient profile.
  • Cut them up and place in baggies to make them accessible.
  • Throw them into a salad, a soup, a stir-fry.  Check out my Vegetables or Fruit tabs on the blog for lots of ideas.  Get munching!!

Here’s a good overview article from the archives of Today’s Dietitian about the benefits of phytochemicals in our body.

2-Get Enough Prebiotics and Probiotics

Our gut health is a new frontier in the study of immunity.  We understand the human genome much better than we do the vast and complex genome of the gut.  We do know that the GI tract comprises over 70 percent of our immune system.  Millions of bacteria call the gut their home and each come with it’s own set of DNA sequencing.  Research is fascinating but very complex.  What we do know is that a healthy gut means a larger percentage of good bacteria versus bad bacteria.  Bad bacteria feed on fat and sugar, weakening the immune system.  Good bacteria feed on nutrient-dense foods and high fiber foods, specifically prebiotics

Prebiotics (aka bacteria food) help nourish our good microbial friends. Essentially, prebiotics are a form of semi-digestible fiber. You should get at least two to three servings of prebiotic-rich foods each day.

Some of the best whole-food sources of prebiotics are:

  • Vegetables: asparagus, garlic, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks and onions
  • Carbs: barley, beans, oats, quinoa, rye, wheat, potatoes and yams
  • Fruits: apples, bananas, berries, citrus fruits, kiwifruit
  • Fats: flaxseed and chia seeds

Probiotics (the good bacteria themselves) help us stay healthy and recover faster once we get sick.  If you’re healthy, aim for one to two servings of probiotic-rich foods each day

Some of the best whole-food sources of probiotics are:

  • Dairy: yogurt, cheese and kefir with live and active cultures
  • Fermented vegetables: pickles, sauerkraut, kimchi
  • Fermented soy: miso, tempeh
  • Miscellaneous: soy sauce, wine, kombucha

You can also take a probiotic supplement to give your healthy gut bacteria an extra helping hand.  I recommend choosing a brand that has at least 7 strains and over 20 billion live cultures.  (As a comparison, whole food sources have around 50-100 million live cultures, so a supplement is very helpful.)  Eating lots of prebiotics and probiotics will help you fight off viruses and bacterial infections.

3-Eat Your Protein

Paying attention to your protein intake is a critical building block of a good immune system.  Your body uses amino acids found in dietary proteins to help build proteins within your body, including proteins that help make up your immune system. For example, immunoglobulins, also called antibodies, are proteins that circulate in your blood and make up key components of a strong immune system.

In addition protein-rich foods are also great sources of zinc, copper and iron which play a significant role in building our immune systems.  In general, one palm-size portion of protein for women and two palm-size portions for men should be included at each meal.  Popular protein choices include: eggs, chicken, turkey, fish, beans, tofu, red meat and dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese.

4-Cut Back on Sugar and Fat

Eating healthy vegetables and fruits, taking probiotics and choosing lean protein are key food choices in supporting a healthy immune system, but if you’re also eating a higher percentage of your calories from unhealthy fats (like fried foods, fatty processed meats, cream) and sugar (like baked goods, soda, candy bars) then all the healthy food in the world won’t be enough.  Bad bacteria feed off of sugar and fat, thus weakening our immunity.  This is a challenge for most because we love our fast food; we love our desserts and goodies.

I’m not suggesting totally erasing all of these foods from your diet.  I’m saying you should take a look at your diet and cut back on any of those foods you know to be useless or wasteful calories.  If you’re used to a daily dose of fat and sugar, then cut back to every other day.  Cut portions in half.

Don’t forget that there are healthy types of fat and sugar which you should use regularly.  Choose healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado and nut butters in moderation.  Choose natural sugars like fruit, pure maple syrup, agave nectar in moderation.  We need some sugar; we definitely need some fat.

5-Stay Hydrated

Your body needs water to produce lymph.  Lymph is the body’s way of fighting disease.  Lymph fulfills the following functions in your body:

  • It carries water and nutrients to the blood, and through the blood, to the cells of the body.
  • It carries white blood cells and other immune system cells from the thymus and the bone marrow, throughout the body.
  • It removes waste products from the blood.

Water also protects and helps kidneys function properly.  It allows your kidneys to remove waste products from your body as well as taking in healthy nutrients.  If you don’t drink enough water, waste products will build up, weakening your immune system.  Aim for at least half your body weight in ounces (if you weight 150 pounds, drink 75 ounces of water a day).