These last few months I have found myself feeling like something has been lacking from the reporting as I hear news stories on COVID rates, the search for treatments and a vaccine. It's the same feeling I experience each flu season when the prevention conversation focuses solely on the flu vaccine. What I feel is missing from the conversation is any substantial dialogue around what we know about how people can strengthen the immune system using lifestyle changes, especially nutrition. Food provides the building blocks needed to build and maintain a healthy immune system. When we prioritize the foods that offer the most nutritional benefit and minimize the foods that are nutrient deficient, our immune system has the best chance to optimally function. Let's dive into some simple ways you can transform your diet to optimize your immune function.
Avoid Inflammatory Foods
Many products we call food really don’t deserve that title. I usually call the center of the grocery store the place where I can find “food like products”, which are items that lack nutrients and are instead high in things like saturated fats, trans fats, sodium, added sugar, artificial sweeteners, preservatives and other additives. My rule is that if you can’t recognize an ingredient on the label there’s a good chance that your body won’t be able to either. Instead, we can focus on shopping on the perimeter of the grocery store where you have a better chance of finding real, whole foods that are high in nutrients and low in junk. We can also focus on swapping out low nutrient, pro-inflammatory foods for more nutrient dense options. An example would be exchanging instant potatoes for mashed cauliflower or swapping out milk chocolate for raw cacao/dark chocolate. The less fake food we put in the body, the easier it is for the body to stay healthy and this includes maintaining a strong immune system.
Eat the Rainbow
Eating a wide variety of colorful plant-based foods is the simplest and most effective way to boost immune health. These foods contain a wide variety of phytonutrients that are important for immune function and protecting the body from inflammation. The goal is to aim for 9 to 13 servings of colorful plant-based foods each day. This includes eating vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, gluten-free whole-grains, beans, legumes, mushrooms and herbs. An example of what a serving looks like is ½ a cup of cooked vegetable, 1 cup raw vegetable or one medium fruit. Start by trying to add three or more servings of plant-based food to each meal. Next play with adding a variety of color. This could look like making a smoothie with spinach, blueberries and flax seeds, or crafting a salad using a variety of greens, avocado, strawberries and walnuts. The possibilities are really endless. Make a list of your favorite plant-based foods and consider how you can easily add them in to your meals, and even include them as snacks throughout the day.
Inside the body we have an amazingly intricate network of microorganisms that help us maintain health. Most of our microbiome is located in the gut where they play a major role in regulating immune function. By eating a diet high in plant based food and fiber we provide the microbes in our gut with the "prebiotic" fuel they need to thrive. Powerful prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, Jerusalem artichokes, bananas, and seaweed, but if you simply focus on eating a variety of plant-based foods as a general rule, you will be doing an excellent job supporting your microbiome. You can also eat probiotic foods which contain live helpful bacteria. Examples of probiotic foods can include kefir, yogurt, kimchi, miso, fermented vegetables, sauerkraut and tempeh. Maintaining good microbial health is an integral part of healthy immunity.
Mushrooms can be a wonderful addition to your immune support regimen. Many of the commercially available mushroom varieties like portobello, cremini and white “button” mushrooms do not pack a powerful immune punch and when eaten in large quantities, can actually be considered carcinogenic. On the other hand, there are varieties of mushrooms that are medicinal, and can be a helpful tool to bolster immune function. It is important to note that some mushrooms can only be used as medicinal supplements in tinctures or capsules. Others can be used medicinally or in culinary dishes. Examples of mushrooms that are strictly medicinal include reishi and turkeys tail. Mushrooms like enoki, maitake, and shitake varieties can be used medicinally and eaten by adding to salads, soups, or stir fry dishes. Mushroom blends like ImmuCore® by Metagenics (enter code EFM to create an account and order) and Immunitone Plus™ by Designs for Health, can make it easy to incorporate mushrooms into your immune health plan.
There is no replacement for food when it comes to ensuring that your body has the nutrients that it needs to maintain a strong immune system. That being said, our modern lifestyle can often make it difficult to get the nutrients that we need, exclusively through the diet. Adding supplements can be a way to cover our nutritional bases as we work to improve and maintain healthy eating. Specific nutrients we want to focus on for building a foundation of immune health include vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, NAC, and quercetin. There are supplements that include these individual nutrients together in one product making it easier to supplement. Examples include Immune Active™ by Metagenics (enter code EFM to create an account and order) and BioFizz™ Immune by Designs for Health.
By following these simple nutrition tips you can empower yourself to feel your best and stay healthy throughout your lifetime.
If you need support to personalize nutrition or supplement recommendations for you, please call us at 470-266-1380. We are now offering immune support consults.
Rabia Vaughns, MMS, PA-C is a certified physician assistant who specializes in functional medicine, integrative medicine and lifestyle medicine, helping people overcome chronic illness using a personalized approach to healing. She is also a co-owner of Elevate Functional Medicine.
Phytonutrient Spectrum Comprehensive Guide. Institute for Functional Medicine, 2020.
Mushrooms For Good Health? Andrew Weil, MD, February 17, 2014. https://www.drweil.com/diet-nutrition/nutrition/mushrooms-for-good-health
Nutrition and Immunity. Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/nutrition-and-immunity
COVID-19: Nutraceutical and Botanical Recommendations for Patients. Institute for Functional Medicine, 2020.