Winter is approaching, and with that cold and flu season. While nothing can completely stop a cold in its tracks, a healthy immune system can help ward off the germs that cause colds and the flu, and may even minimize a cold’s duration. Overall, a healthy lifestyle that includes eating a balanced diet, adequate fluids, physical activity and adequate sleep is your best investment in immunity. That said, there are some specific things you can do now to boost your immunity. Check out these tips from our Registered Dietitian Lea Basch.
1. Fill your plate with fruits and vegetables. A diet containing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables provides phytonutrients such as bioflavonoids, carotenoids, flavonoids, indoles, sufides and also Vitamins C, D, E, beta-carotene and selenium. Vegetables like spinach, cabbage, kale, orange and yellow squashes, sweet potatoes, carrots and red peppers are all high in phytonutrients and are abundant in the winter. Also the infographic below shows specific groups of foods with specific immune functions. Try to incorporate at least 2 different colors of vegetables or fruits with each meal for a variety of nutrients and flavors!
2. Choose lean protein sources. If you don’t consume enough protein, you’ll manufacture fewer white blood cells that fight infections.
3. Limit your intake of fat. High-fat diets impair the immune system by decreasing the function of T-lymphocytes. Trans fats (found in margarines and many commercial baked goods) and saturated fats contribute to chronic low-grade inflammation in the body. The immune system can become tied up dealing with the inflammation and its resulting damage rather than defending the body.
4. Consume friendly bacteria. Look for yogurt or kefir that contains “live active cultures.” Sauerkraut is also a good source of probiotics, as are supplements. These friendly bacteria colonize the GI tract to help you resist bad bacteria and also detoxify harmful substances. Probiotics, in particular Lactobaccillus Reuteri, are also known to help stimulate immune-cell production.
5. Drinking chicken soup when you’re feeling under the weather is not just an old wive’s tale! When chicken is cooked, the amino acid cysteine is released, which has a similar chemical composition to Acetylcysteine, a medication used to treat bronchitis. Plus there is something so warm and soothing about sipping a big bowl of chicken soup in the winter!
6. Make time for tea. Polyphenols, especially catechins found in green tea stimulates the production and activity of specific cells associated with combating viruses. Black tea and white tea are great sources of polyphenols. The amino acid that is responsible for the immune boost, L-theanine, is abundant in both black and green tea including decaf versions.
7. Exercise regularly. If you want to boost your immune system, get active. Getting your heart rate up for just 20 minutes three times a week or a brisk walk five times a week is associated with increased immune function. Exercise is also associated with increased release of endorphins, natural hormones that boost your mood and improve sleep quality, both of which have positive effects on your immune system. Exercise also helps control weight, cholesterol levels and triglycerides which all impede immune function.
8. Limit foods high in sugar. Consuming too much sugar suppresses white blood cells (immune system cells) responsible for destroying bacteria. Studies have shown that consuming high amounts of sugar can depress immunity for up to 5 hours. I know that cutting out sugar is extremely hard to do for most of us, but just remember, moderation is key. If you’re wondering whether you can get away with just replacing sugar with sugar substitutes, check out my blogpost on Sugars & Sweeteners: Which to Use?
9. Get a dose of sunlight or consider a Vitamin D3 supplement, which not only supports your immune system but also reduces the risk of colon, breast and ovarian cancers and helps increase bone strength. Also, as it gets darker earlier, our decreasing exposure to the sun leads to a drop in serotonin, which can contribute to depression and food cravings. Spend a little time outdoors or spend some time near a window when indoors. Eating whole grains and antioxidant-rich vegetables and fruits also increases your serotonin levels.
10. Multivitamins. Vitamin and mineral supplements may be worth taking, especially if you have a marginal intake of certain nutrients—particularly the B vitamins, A, D, E, C and selenium.
11. Get adequate sleep (7-9 hours a night) and practice relaxation. Chronic stress and fatigue increase cortisol and inflammation in the body therefore depressing immunity. Decreasing stress, getting adequate sleep and having fun (more laughing!) increase endorphins and benefit the immune system. Meditation is also great for relaxation and has been proven to lead to many other health benefits.
12. Stay hydrated. This keeps the mucus membranes in your nose and lungs moist – they are the body’s first line of defense so treat them well!
Lea Basch is a registered dietitian and has been in the nutrition industry for over 30 years, most of which she spent at Longmont United Hospital in Boulder, Colorado, where she was one of the founders of the facility’s nutrition program. Longmont’s Planetree philosophy of caring for the body, mind and spirit of patients is very much in line with Lea’s interest in both traditional and alternative therapies for treating chronic illnesses. Gluten-intolerant herself, Lea now focuses much of her time on the latest research and issues relating to gluten-free diets and other food intolerances. She is a diabetes educator and is a Registered Dietitian with the American Dietetic Association. Lea’s lifelong passion has been combining the science of nutrition with the heart that it takes to change lifelong habits.
Lea received her BS and MS in Nutrition and Dietetics at Florida International University and BA in Education at University of Florida. Ask Lea your nutrition questions at Lea@tastefulpantry.com