Natural Ways to Boost Your Immune System
As the weather turns colder and we head into fall, we hear more and more about the “cold and flu season”, and signs for flu shots pop up all over town, suggesting that you won’t make it through the winter without a shot. Many now believe that if you SUPPORT your body’s natural defense system, instead of overriding its ability to keep you healthy with vaccines and drugs, you will make it through not just this winter, but many, many more to come.
So if you are interested in getting through the upcoming “cold and flu season” without a cold or flu, where do you start? There are many things you can start doing right now to strengthen your immune system, such as:
- Drink more water! Coffee and sodas act as diuretics in the body, pulling out valuable vitamins and minerals, as well as water. Indoor heating adds to the dehydration. Try having 1 or 2 packets of Emergen-C (by Alacer) in an 8 oz glass or bottle a few times at day to replenish not only water, but powerful antioxidants and electrolytes. There a variety of flavors and types available now in many retail stores, most contain 1,000 mg of vitamin C, which is well known for its immune boosting properties.
- Regular exercise! It’s a well-known fact that exercise improves the circulation of immune cells in your blood. The job of these cells is to neutralize pathogens throughout your body. The better these cells circulate, the more efficient your immune system is at locating and defending against viruses and diseases trying to attack your body. Your immune system is your first line of defense against everything from minor illnesses like a cold or the flu right up through devastating, life-threatening diseases like cancer. It’s not possible to be optimally healthy if your immune system is weak or compromised, and exercise plays a crucial role in making sure this is not the case.
- Before discussing foods to boost immune system health, you need to understand how sugar and sugary foods affect your immune system. Eating refined sugar weakens your immune system and promotes yeast overgrowth, both of which are contributing factors to the number one killer: cancer. A weak immune system, in and of itself, is guaranteed to impair your health and promote virtually every disease known to man. High sugar consumption can also lead to adrenal exhaustion, common symptoms of which include feeling mentally and emotionally stressed, sugar and salt cravings, moodiness, and feeling weak and lethargic. Your adrenal glands — those tiny almond-sized nodules that sit on top of your kidneys — are a major part of your stress defense team. One of their duties is to release adrenaline after you eat a lot of sugar or high-carbohydrate foods. While insulin removes sugar from your blood stream, the adrenaline counteracts too much sugar being taken out by releasing stored glucose from your muscles and liver. This is your body at work, trying to maintain homeostasis, or perfect balance, for optimal health. This release of adrenaline is the reason why eating sweets can make you feel jittery, upset, or nervous. Please remember, your adrenals have to perform this emergency procedure EVERY TIME you eat a lot of sugar, which places enormous stress on your entire body.
Most non-diet sodas have 8 teaspoons of sugar in each can! Many packaged cereals have sugar as their major ingredient. While there are some sugars out there that are slightly better for you than the mass marketed refined table sugar found in most homes, no matter what sugar you use, the problem is that sugar actually steals nutrients from the body in order for it to be metabolized. Foods are supposed to ADD nutrients to our systems, not take them away. Vitamin and mineral deficiencies result in a sluggish immune system and a frequently sick you. For this reason, and the myriad of health problems that come from over-consumption, it really should be thrown out of our diets. Being realistic, honestly, how many of us would be happy with that?
You can certainly enjoy a little sugar and still lead a healthy life and have a robust immune system. It helps a little when you choose the less refined (i.e. raw), organic sugars. But don’t get carried away eating these either. Raw sugars do contain some nutrients, but still provide little actual nutrition. Very little.
So what about the artificial sweeteners? Many experts advise us to stay well away from them. These man-made chemicals have no food value and actually trick the body into thinking it is eating something sweet. Your body gets confused – when it is time to digest that sweetness, it can’t find it (our bodies can’t correctly process these chemicals). They also cause a whole host of nasty side-effects. A good suggestion is to find an unrefined stevia product. (For more information on the hazards of artificial sweeteners, that are now be adding to all sorts of foods, with and without labeling, and the benefits of stevia, read the article titled "Stevia – A Safe Alternative To Artificial Sweeteners".)
- So what should you eat? Experts say a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can help you ward off infections like colds and flu. That’s because these super foods contain immune-boosting antioxidants. What are antioxidants? They are vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that protect and repair cells from damage caused by free radicals. Many experts believe this damage plays a part in a number of chronic diseases, including hardening of the arteries (atherosclerosis), cancer, and arthritis. Free radicals can also interfere with your immune system. So fighting off damage with antioxidants helps keep your immune system strong, making you better able to ward off colds, flu, and other infections.
Antioxidants for Immunity: Where to Find Them
Adding more fruit and vegetables of any kind to your diet will improve your health. But some foods are higher in antioxidants than others. The three major antioxidant vitamins are beta-carotene, vitamin C, and vitamin E. You’ll find them in colorful fruits and vegetables – especially those with purple, blue, red, orange, and yellow hues. To get the biggest benefits of antioxidants, eat these foods raw, lightly steamed, or cooked in waterless cookware; don’t overcook or boil. For this reason, waterless cookware is exceptional because of its ability to retain almost all of the vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants in the food.
Beta-carotene and other carotenoids: Apricots, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cantaloupe, carrots, corn, green peppers, kale, mangoes, turnip and collard greens, nectarines, peaches, pink grapefruit, pumpkin, squash, spinach, sweet potato, tangerines, tomatoes, and watermelon.
Vitamin C: Berries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cantaloupe, cauliflower, grapefruit, honeydew, kale, kiwi, mangoes, nectarines, orange, papaya, red, green or yellow peppers, snow peas, sweet potato, strawberries, and tomatoes.
Vitamin E: Broccoli, carrots, chard, mustard and turnip greens, mangoes, nuts, papaya, pumpkin, red peppers, spinach, and sunflower seeds.
Other superfoods that are rich in antioxidants include: Prunes, Apples, Raisins, All berries, Plums, Red grapes, Alfalfa sprouts, Onions, Eggplant and Beans
Vitamins aren’t the only antioxidants in food. Other antioxidants that may help boost immunity include:
- Zinc: Found in oysters, red meat, poultry, beans, nuts, seafood, whole grains, fortified cereals, and dairy products
- Selenium: Found in Brazil nuts, tuna, beef, poultry and fortified breads, and other grain products
Superfoods for Winter
Garlic. This flavorful member of the onion family is a powerful immune booster that stimulates the multiplication of infection-fighting white cells, boosts natural killer cell activity, and increases the efficiency of antibody production. The immune-boosting properties of garlic seem to be due to its sulfur-containing compounds, such as allicin and sulfides. Garlic can also act as an antioxidant that reduces the build-up of free radicals in the bloodstream. Garlic may protect against cancer, though the evidence is controversial. Cultures with a garlic-rich diet have a lower incidence of intestinal cancer. Garlic may also play a part in getting rid of potential carcinogens and other toxic substances. It is also a heart-friendly food since it keeps platelets from sticking together and clogging tiny blood vessels.
Ginger Root. Ginger has been well researched and many of its traditional uses confirmed. It is well known as a remedy for travel sickness, nausea and indigestion. It is a warming remedy, ideal for boosting the circulation, lowering high blood pressure and keeping the blood thin in higher doses. Ginger is anti-viral and makes a warming cold and flu remedy. Ginger is a powerful anti-inflammatory herb and there has been much recent interest in its use for joint problems.
Cinnamon. Cinnamon has one of the highest antioxidant levels on the list, and has an added bonus in that it may help you better regulate your blood-glucose levels. Although I realize that cinnamon’s not exactly a “local” product for those of us not in Indonesia, it doesn’t seem like the worst offender in terms of carbon footprint–one little stick goes a long way.
Pecans. People always lament that the tasty things are the worst things for our health–case in point: French fries. But how about pecans? Yum! Pecans have shown to significantly lower LDL cholesterol and increase HDL. Frequent consumption of nuts is associated with a lowered risk of sudden cardiac death and other coronary heart disease, as well as a lower risk of Type II diabetes in women. A handful of pecans can brighten a meal, add texture and add good fats to your diet.
Dark Chocolate. A Penn State-led review of the available evidence from 66 published studies, supports the view that consuming flavonoid-rich chocolate, in moderation, can be associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular disease. Chocolate that is minimally processed and has the highest cocoa content (which means the darkest chocolate) has the highest level of flavonoids.
Pomegranate Juice. Pomegranates offer very high antioxidant activity–and research shows that drinking pomegranate juice may help with lowering the risk for hardening of the arteries or atherosclerosis. I find eating pomegranate fruit one of life’s simple pleasures, but for a daily dose, pomegranate juice is more accessible.
Frozen Blueberries. Blueberries are the rock stars of high-antioxidant fruit and vegetable family–they have a super high ORAC level, are widely available, and easy to eat. Even though freezing can degrade some of the nutrients, frozen blueberries are available year-round and don’t spoil. Frozen blueberries work well plain, on cereal, in smoothies–and incorporate nicely into baked goods.
Prunes. They generally go by the more rustically-glamorous, marketing-friendly name of dried plums these days, but lets call a prune a prune. Prunes are very high in anti-oxidants, and are a good source of energy in the form of simple sugars, yet they do not cause a rapid rise in blood sugar concentration, possibly because of high fiber, fructose, and sorbitol content. Additionally, the high potassium content of prunes might be beneficial for cardiovascular health. Plums are an important source of boron, which is thought to play a role in prevention of osteoporosis.
Red or Kidney Dried Beans. An excellent source of protein, antioxidants, folic acid, potassium, dietary fiber and complex carbohydrates, beans are flavorful, nutritionally dense, inexpensive and versatile. Have them with brown rice or quinoa for a warming, nutritious meal.
Cabbage. A New York Times article in December suggests that cabbage is the most important [vegetable] in the world from the point of view of nutritional benefits and cancer-fighting ability. Cabbage possesses phytochemicals including sulforaphane, which studies suggest protects the body against cancer-causing free radicals, and indoles, which help metabolize estrogens. It’s also an excellent source of vitamins K and C, and a very good source of dietary fiber, vitamin B6, folate, manganese and Omega 3 fatty acids. Slaw is the obvious application for cabbage, but the winter there are a number of delicious cooked cabbage dishes. Moulin Rouge Cabbage is a delicious French recipe, and there is also the warming and antioxidant rich Indian version called Aloo Patta Gobhi.