In my experience, I’ve noticed that for many people who struggle with establishing sustainable healthy eating habits it’s commonly a result of things like; feeling obligated to make certain food choices, insecurities and fear of being judged, seeking approval or attention of others by changing how your body looks, obsessions with weight loss, etc. All of these motivators are rooted in outside pressures, and external sources of validation. And I’ve talked about this before in previous posts (HERE, HERE, and HERE) – internal motivation begins to develop when you start making choices from a place of self-care. Eating foods that you actually enjoy, that make you feel energized and vibrant, and that nourish and support your health motivate you to keep doing those things. That’s what I want to talk about today… good health. The weather is getting colder, the air is getting dryer, and now it seems like everyone is getting sick! When we are so focused on eating to lose weight, or eating to change our outward appearance we often overlook the most vital role that food plays… keeping our body strong, disease-free, and functioning properly in order to support LIFE.
So, what makes us more vulnerable to infection this time of year? And what things can we do to prevent getting sick? Studying the immune system is extremely difficult due to its complexity - so many systems must work in unison to develop and support our immune cells. Finding that ONE herb, that ONE superfood, or that ONE nutrient that can enhance immunity is extremely complicated. And it may not come to you as a surprise, but the most important contributing factors to a healthy and strong immune system are the combination of DIET, EXERCISE, STRESS, and SLEEP!
But, I think it’s important to talk about and acts as a good reminder to sustain healthy habits throughout the winter when it’s cold, dark, and all you want to do is snuggle under a blanket and eat Christmas cookies. This time of year it seems like all of these factors (poor eating habits, lack of exercise, stress, and sleep deprivation) pile up – making you even more susceptible to an infection. With that, I encourage you to do your best at making decisions that honor your health. You don’t have to do everything perfectly in order to reap the benefits, do what you can… even if it’s just one thing you did for yourself that day!
Here are some things to consider this winter to help fight off the cold and flu:
Like I said earlier, finding that one herb or nutrient to boost your immunity is complicated. However, there are some overarching themes in regards to the foods we eat and how they support our immune cells. And while vitamins and supplementation can help fill in the gaps in your diet, the best way to load up on essential nutrients is to get them straight from food. I’ll be sharing food sources of immune boosting nutrients throughout this article.
Fun fact: more than 70% of our immune system is comprised in our gut! Our health isn’t just dependent upon the food we consume, but we have to properly break down, digest, and absorb those nutrients as well! In addition, the quality and types of food we eat either support healthy bacteria in our GI tract, or kill them off. Don’t worry, having bacteria living in our digestive tract is completely normal and actually supports our health! But, our gut becomes compromised when we no longer have the proper balance of good and bad bacteria. A compromised gut is a result of an imbalance where bad bacteria start to take over, our body starts to become inflamed weakening our immune system.
You can support the good guys by feeding them plenty of high-fiber foods, also known as pre-biotics. Here are some examples of foods containing pre-biotics:
In general, fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains are great sources of pre-biotic fiber.
You can also reintroduce new healthy bacteria to your gut by adding sources of probiotics into your daily routine. Probiotics are the live active cultures found in fermented foods.
Like anything, maintaining or developing a healthy gut requires consistent nourishment and support. However, a great way to give your microbiome a quick boost when you first start to feel a cold coming on is to take a probiotic supplement to kick your immune system into high gear. Look for one with a variety of bacterial strains with a CFU (colony forming units) in the billions.
LEARN MORE ABOUT GUT HEALTH HERE (includes symptoms of an unhealthy gut, 5 strategies you can start implementing to heal your gut + 15 gut-healing recipes)
Vitamin D not only helps with calcium absorption and supporting bone health, but helps keeps your immune system active and strong, too! When our skin is exposed to sunlight our body actually synthesized Vitamin D. The current recommendation is to expose your face, arms, legs, or back to the sun about twice a week for 5-10 minutes between the hours of 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM. However, during the winter months it’s cold, we unfortunately spend more time indoors, and we have fewer hours of sunlight ☹
Very few foods contain Vitamin D, but the best sources are fatty fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel), cheese, and egg yolks. Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for adults 19-50 years old is 600 IU of Vitamin D per day. During these dark winter months it may be beneficial to supplement, especially if you don’t frequently consume fish, cheese, or egg yolk. Since Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin there is concern that excessive intake from mega doses of supplementation can pose health risks, therefore it is recommended to consume under 4,000 IU per day.
Deficiencies in B Vitamins can have a negative impact on the immune system, increasing vulnerability to infections. More specifically B6, B12, and Folate (B9) deficiencies have been shown to impair immune function.
B12 Sources: Salmon, tuna, rainbow trout, beef, ham, chicken, clams, beef liver, milk, yogurt, cheese, eggs
Folate (B9) Sources: beef liver, spinach, asparagus, brussels sprouts, romaine, avocado, broccoli, mustard greens, green peas, rice, kidney beans, peanuts, orange, banana, eggs
B6 Sources: Chickpeas, beef liver, tuna, salmon, chicken breast, turkey, beef, potatoes, banana, cottage cheese, bulgur
Select minerals also play crucial roles in the development and expression of immune responses, therefore mineral deficiencies can cause immunosuppression and increase susceptibility to infections. Specifically, Zinc, Selenium, Iron, and Copper deficiencies have been shown to impair immune function.
Zinc Sources: Beef, pork chop, chicken, swiss cheese, chickpeas, kidney beans, oats, cashews, almonds
Selenium Sources: brazil nuts, cashews, seafood, beef, chicken, eggs, dairy, whole wheat bread, oats, brown rice, spinach, lentils, green peas, bananas
-Animal Sources: turkey, chicken, salmon, tuna, ham, beef, clams, mussels, oysters, sardines
-Plant Sources: lentils, kidney beans, black beans, spinach, broccoli, edamame, chickpeas, swiss chard, beet greens, bok choy, raisins, millet, kale, plain tempeh.
Copper Sources: beef liver, oysters, crab, clams, dark leafy greens, cashews, sunflower seeds, hazelnuts, almonds, peanut butter, chickpeas, lentils, potatoes, mushrooms, chocolate
These chemical compounds found in plants protect our cells (#plantpower) making fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, herbs, and whole grains responsible for protective health benefits beyond their vitamin and mineral content! Flavonoids, Phenolic Acids, and Lignans are some of the major groups of phytochemicals that have the potential to improve immune function, decrease inflammation, and protect our cells from the damage of free radicals.
Foods High in Phytochemicals (they give plants their color, flavor, and scent. Think about rich colored fruits and vegetables like blueberries and carrots, and pungent flavors like garlic and onion).
Vegetables: cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale), leafy green vegetables, capsaicin (found in red chili pepper), carrots, tomatoes, garlic, onion, leeks
Fruits: berries, grapes, oranges, lemons, grapefruit, apples
Legumes: Soy, beans
Whole Grains: oats, rice
Beverages: coffee, black and green tea, red wine
Other: curcumin (found in turmeric), cocoa, olives, flaxseed
Antioxidants like Vitamins A, C, and E protect our cells and decrease our risk of infection by reducing the damage of free radicals. Free radicals are byproducts of environmental pollutants, smoking, and inflammation which suppresses our immune system.
Vitamin A Sources: egg yolk, fish, fish oil, milk, green leafy vegetables, sweet potato, spinach, carrots, cantaloupe, red bell peppers, mango, apricot, broccoli
Vitamin C Sources: red bell pepper, green bell pepper, orange juice, orange, grapefruit juice, grapefruit, kiwi, broccoli, strawberries, Brussels sprouts, tomato juice, cantaloupe, cabbage, cauliflower, tomatoes, spinach
Vitamin E Sources: sunflower seeds, almonds, Vegetable oil (sunflower, safflower, corn, soybean) hazelnuts, peanut butter, peanuts, spinach, broccoli, kiwi, mango, tomato
Consuming adequate amounts of carbohydrates in your diet is critical for optimal immune function. Restricting carbohydrates too drastically can increase the stress hormone, cortisol, and cause inflammation in your body. A stressed out and inflamed body is less able to fight off infections. So, if you’ve been trying to reduce your carb intake and frequently getting sick, that may be why!
It’s important to note that not all carbohydrates are created equal, and some have more health benefits than others. You should be trying to get most of your daily carbohydrates from high-fiber sources like vegetables, fruit, beans, lentils, potatoes, sweet potatoes, rice, and oats. Excessive amounts of refined flour and sugar can have a negative impact on our gut health and is detrimental to our immune system.
Fats are important for supporting a healthy immune system by ensuring proper absorption of specific vitamins. Vitamin D, A, E, and K are fat soluble vitamins, meaning they require the presence of fat in order to be utilized by the body. So, eat your vegetables but add a source of healthy fat too! Natural, unprocessed sources of fat also help decrease inflammation in the body, and we now know that a malnourished and inflamed body is less likely to fight off bacteria and infections like the common cold.
Sources: salmon, olives, cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, unrefined virgin coconut oil, coconut milk, whole eggs, avocado, nuts (especially walnuts), nut butters, seeds (especially flax and chia), grass-fed meat, grass-fed butter, ghee
Movement isn’t just great for improving cardiovascular health and maintaining lean muscle mass, but it also increases production of immune cells. Regular moderate-intensity exercise is a great way to strengthen your immune system, however pushing yourself too hard and over exercising can weaken your immune system. If you love your grueling, high intensity workouts you don’t have to necessarily give them up… I would just recommend balancing them out with gentle, restorative movement like walking, yoga, swimming, or low-intensity cycling.
If you’re working out hard and not seeing results (strength gains, improved endurance), if you’re experiencing poor recovery and your workouts feel increasingly difficult, or you feel chronically fatigued then you know it’s time to back off and incorporate more rest. Give yourself an entire rest day, then sprinkle in low-intensity, gentle “active recovery” in between your higher intensity days.
Stress on the body could be a result of emotional stress, work stress, family stress, holiday stress. Or even a result from physical stress due to sleep deprivation, over exercising, inadequate carbohydrate intake, poor blood sugar stability, poor gut health, and inflammation. Be on the lookout for an entire blog post all about stress in the future, but for now I just want to bring awareness to stress and its impact on our immune system. Takeaway: chronically elevated stress hormones increase inflammation and suppress immune function.
When I swam in college I would always get sick at the end of December! It was like clockwork. The stress of final exams, pulling all nighters, holiday travelling, poor eating habits, and peak training season left me completely zapped. Things can quickly add up this time of year if you don’t prioritize your health and wellbeing. Create moments in your day when you can meal prep healthy meals, carry your water bottle with you, meditate for 5 minutes, laugh with friends (or opt for a cat video in times of need), move your body… you may not be doing all of the things, but doing something is better than nothing.