With so many infectious diseases on our minds right now, this may be a good time to think about how to strengthen our own immunity.
Do you ever wonder why some people get sick more frequently? Or why the infection becomes more severe in some, and others just get a cold? Is it luck? Genetics? Or is there something we can actually do about it?
As it turns out, while genetics (and luck) do play a role, we can also alter how our body responds to foreign invaders. When we are exposed to an infectious agent, there are three main factors affecting how sick we may become.
The first, is the virulence of the infecting agent. If it is an extremely virulent strain, it is clearly easier to get sick. There’s not much we can do about this.
The second, is how much of a viral load we are exposed to. And we can play a role in decreasing our exposure – through FREQUENT hand washing, avoiding sharing utensils, covering up when we’re coughing and sneezing, and staying home when we’re sick, so we don’t expose everyone else.
The third is the health of the host. That’s us, and we can definitely play a big role in this. The human body is actually designed to fight foreign invaders, and is masterful at recognizing the threat, deactivating or walling it off, and removing it from the body. This is our immune system at work, which is like a small army waiting for battle. The problem is, it cannot function fully without the correct ammunition, or in our case, nutrition and rest. Without the thousand of phytochemicals, antioxidants, and micronutrients found in plant foods, our immune system becomes suboptimal. And whether we have other comorbidities, or other chronic illnesses, affects our ability to fight disease, so achieving our highest health possible is important.
I remember my days of working in Kenya on the medicine wards – treating infectious diseases such as advanced tuberculosis, cerebral malaria, severe pneumonias, and end-stage AIDS. These poor patients laid 2 people to a bed (that’s all the hospital could do to accommodate so many patients, and yet they were grateful to have a bed at all!), and we did our best to care for them, with the limited supplies we had. But one thing we did not do, is give them adequate nutrition. Instead, they were given white bread and black tea for their meals. Yes, the tea contains some phytochemicals and antioxidants, but that was it. There were no vegetables, fruit, legumes. Nothing to really buff up their immune systems and help their bodies fight these diseases. They were fighting losing battles, and we were not providing them what they really needed.
That was almost 15 years ago, and I have come a long way since then in my knowledge of how to help people prevent and minimize disease. If we want to strengthen our immune systems, which I liken to our guardian angels – always watching over us and taking care of us when we are exposed to something – we have to give it the right supplies.
Here is a list 15 things we can do every day, starting with foods to eat, to build strong immune systems:
1. Eat green leafy vegetables – lots and lots; they are hands-down the most nutrient-containing food we can eat, packed with disease-fighting phytochemicals, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. Blend them into smoothies, eat a salad every day, add to pasta, cook into stir fries or other dishes. Any way you can get them in, just eat them!
2. Colorful vegetables – eat from the rainbow, and don’t miss a color. We need the reds (tomatoes, red peppers), oranges, (carrots, sweet potatoes) yellows (yellow squash, peppers), greens, blues, (blueberries) purples (pomegranate, blackberries, grapes), whites (cauliflower, onions), browns (whole grains, nuts/seeds), blacks (black rice, currants) – they’re ALL good for us and all have different phytochemicals (such as the over 600 carotenoids we get from eating reds, oranges, yellows, and greens) – no pill or supplement even comes close to the healing power of foods!
3. Garlic and onions (This is the allium family, and includes yellow, red, white onions, chives, shallots, leeks, scallions, garlic– they’re ALL good) – these have been known throughout history to help protect against infectious agents - for example, Spanish flu survivors of 1918 remember garlic being worn around people’s necks to offer protection. If food is medicine, this is it! Eat them raw and cooked, season your dishes, sprinkle over salads, add to soups, use as a base to season most cooked dishes (but I’m not sure about wearing them around your neck!)
4. Berries and pomegranates – I call myself the “pomegranate doctor”, because when I work in the urgent care clinic and diagnose upper respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis, sinusitis, ear infections, and others, I often prescribe pomegranates as part of my patients’ healing plans. These little arils are powerful antiviral and antibacterial activity (as well as anticancer – effectively boosting our immune systems). And don’t forget those berries - all berries are high in phytochemicals – fresh, frozen – however you can get them.
5. Mushrooms – These little fungi are essential to boost different components of our immune system, and without them, we cannot function at our best to fight foreign invaders. With just a few mushrooms a day, you will get the immune-enhancing abilities your body needs. But, be sure to lightly cook them, as some raw mushrooms can have a toxin that’s deactivated by cooking.
6. Legumes – this includes all beans and peas. They serve as prebiotics (along with our green and other vegetables) to promote the health of our “good” gut bacteria and crowd out the toxic ones. AS 70% of our immune system lies in our gut, feeding high fiber whole, plant-based foods can give our immune system a big advantage. Work your way up to ½-1 cup every day – but start slowly, as most of us aren’t used to that much prebiotic and fiber all at once.
7. Anti-inflammatory spices – Used for years, these do far more than just season our foods. A few examples include turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, saffron, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, cayenne….Food never tasted so good – and for good reason! Also include some green tea and raw cacao for their high antioxidant and phytochemical loads!
8. Less sugar – If we are eating a high sugar and processed-foods diet, the virus, which also fuels on sugar, can gain strength. This includes white bread, white flour, and white rice, as well as all sugars. Now may be a good time to start eliminating sugar from your diet.
9. Stay well-hydrated.
10. Get adequate sleep – I cannot overstate this! Our immune system breaks down when we are not sleeping enough, and simply cannot function at it’s best. I know we are all busy, but we need to prioritize quality sleep if we want to fight disease.
11. Reduce or learn to handle stress efficiently – This is easier said than done, I know. But with stress comes increased cortisol, which is known to suppress the immune system. Have you ever noticed when people are stressed getting ready for a big event, this is when they often get sick? It’s no coincidence. We can naturally lower chronically elevated cortisol through stress-reduction techniques. Stop and take some deep breaths, learn to meditate, enjoy outdoor time, and even exercise – all helpful to de-stress. Make time for this - your health truly depends on it.
12. Get moderate exercise – Exercise has been shown to boost the immune system, and studies support that those who exercise get less frequent and less severe infections. All exercise counts towards this – so get moving.
13. Wash your hands – a lot. It really helps.
14. If you do get sick, please, stay home, and take time to rest. Give your body what it needs to fight this threat (and don’t spread it to others!)– rest and sleep, fluids to stay hydrated, and more rest. You do not need to worry about eating when you’re sick – in fact, most of us lose our appetite, as a way of our body’s using its energy to fight the disease, not digest food. Just like when an animal is sick, it curls up and sleeps, occasionally drinking water, we should do the same.
15. And of course, see a doctor if your symptoms are worrisome. Some signs include: difficulty breathing or unable to catch your breath, pain with breathing, pain in your chest, back, or abdomen, lightheadedness/fainting, high fever, blood in sputum or stool, unable to keep down fluids, severe headache, vision changes, a known worrisome exposure, or any other concerning symptoms. Thankfully, doctors are here when we need them. But hopefully, if we boost our own immune systems, we won’t need them as much.
Our bodies are truly remarkable with powerful self-healing capacities. Give yourself your best chance to stay healthy this season, and see what a difference it makes!
I wish you all good health!