Many of us rush to boost our immune system during flu season or when we feel a bit of a scratchy throat. But building your best immune system is a way of life—consistently taking care of your health and wellness by building great habits like quality sleep, hydration, stress management, exercise, and hand-washing, and stocking your pantry with a variety of delicious, immune-boosting foods. First, let’s talk about inflammation and immunity.
Inflammation and Immunity
Inflammation is your body’s response to a threat, like an injury or an infection—a signal to your immune system to heal, repair, and defend itself against invasion. Without this physiological response, we wouldn’t heal.
Inflammation is effective as a quick, short-term response, but causes problems if it becomes sustained and chronic;
it is linked to many illnesses like cancer, arthritis, diabetes, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, heart disease, and stroke. New research is now looking to see if elevated inflammation contributes to an increased risk of depression,
and how it impacts brain health.
The Gut Connection
The microbiome—a community of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms in our digestive tract—breaks down food and is the warning system to trigger our immune system. It works at its best when it is balanced and fed properly on nutritious, anti-inflammatory foods high in omega-3s, fresh fruit and veggies, and healthy fats—and less red and processed meats, dairy, sugars, refined carbs, and trans-fat foods.
Your best immune defence is a body that functions at its best, fed with a diet rich in antioxidants, fibre, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals.
Eat an organic rainbow of colours:
- Leafy greens. Kale, chard, and spinach, loaded with vitamins K and A and fibre, are tasty raw in a salad or smoothie, or cooked in entrees. Think omelets at breakfast, soup at lunch, or stir-fries at dinner.
- Bell peppers. Delicious raw or cooked, they’re packed with vitamins C and A and potassium.
- Berries. Sweet, juicy, loaded with vitamin C and potassium, go for blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, or raspberries.
- Mangoes and papayas. They’re packed with digestive-friendly papain, as well as vitamins, C, A, B6 and K.
- Mushrooms: Umami, rich, and earthy, they’re a great source of vitamins B and D, selenium, and ergothioneine.
- Garlic. Raw or cooked, with antioxidant, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory power, garlic is being studied for its ability to not just support but to stimulate the immune system.
- Ginger. With anti-bacterial, antiseptic, and antioxidant properties, ginger soothes an upset stomach, a sore throat, or inflammation in the body. Add fresh to dishes or steep into tea with honey.
- Legumes. Gut-friendly, protein- and fibre-full, there are many to choose and so many ways to use! Black, kidney, pinto, butter, fava, soy, and mung beans. Peas, chickpeas, and brown, puy, black, green, yellow, or red lentils. The more colourful are higher in antioxidants and, depending on the type, are great sources of B vitamins, magnesium, zinc and potassium. Purée them into a dip, or add to salads, savoury dishes, and baking recipes.
- Nuts. High in nutrients like magnesium, manganese, vitamin E, and heart-healthy fats, a little goes a long way. Snack on a handful, toss in a salad, or get creative with nut butters to add to smoothies, salad dressings, and soups.
- Seeds. A great source of protein, fibre, healthy fats, and minerals like magnesium and zinc, seeds—pumpkin, sunflower, hemp, sesame, chia, or flax—can be sprinkled in or on just about anything savoury or sweet. Some are delicious puréed into butter.
- Oats. Prebiotic, high-fibre whole oats—high in protein, vitamins, and minerals—is theonly food source of avenanthramides, a unique group of antioxidants believed to protect against heart disease. Great for breakfast (add cinnamon for more immune-boosting power), ground into flour, or as a binder in savoury dishes. Slow-cooked, steel-cut are best.
- Herbs and spices. Throughout history, antioxidant-rich herbs and spices have been used for food and medicine. Stock up on antibacterial, antiviral, and antiseptic herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, and sage; digestive-soothing chamomile and peppermint; and stimulating, anti-inflammatory spices like cinnamon, black and red pepper, and cardamom.
- Green tea. Full of polyphenol antioxidants and flavonoids, green tea reduces inflammation with its antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. It’s also a prebiotic benefit to gut bacteria.
An Ayurvedic Perspective
In Ayurvedic medicine, sturdy immunity results from a combination of strong and balanced digestive, liver, and hormonal function and metabolism. Our body is susceptible to infection and disease when it lacks vigour (Ojas) and is filled with toxins (Ama), especially during seasonal changes. And while there are a number of tonics and supplement formulations to address specific imbalances, and restore balance and well-being, here are a few you can try at home:
- Turmeric. This anti-inflammatory, antioxidant powerhouse gets even better when paired with black pepper. Blend into smoothies or golden milk and add to just about any savoury dish for flavour depth.
- Honey. Rich in anti-microbial and antioxidant immune-boosting properties, healing honey has many benefits including help with digestion, sleep, wounds, and allergies.
- Amla (Indian gooseberry). This powerhouse multiplies the antioxidant power of goji berries 75x, pomegranate 60x, and raw blueberries 50x. Super-high in vitamin C, it helps to fight infection, and limit free-radical damage.
- Ashwagandha. Also known as Indian Ginseng, this adaptogen reduces inflammation, and helps the body deal with stress and anxiety.
This article was published in The Good Life magazine.