Since we rely on our immune system every day to protect us from a wide array of germs and disease, we want to feel confident that it’s in top-notch working order. So, to start, ask yourself one big question: How’s your diet?
“Most of our immune system is concentrated in the gut,” says Michael Greger, MD, founder of NutritionFacts.org and author. It’s thought about 70 percent of your immune response originates from this digestive command center. The lining of your intestines covers more than 2,000 square feet (!) and is home to friendly bacteria and white blood cells, including those that produce antibodies. Not surprisingly, then, your diet plays a crucial role in your body’s ability to fight viruses and other germs.
Immunity Enemy #1- Excess Alcohol
Relaxing with a glass of wine every other day is OK. But if you’ve started drinking more than usual to cope with stress, it could be harder to fight off germs. In 2019, a European branch of the World Health Organization advised people to limit alcohol consumption because alcohol compromises immunity and carries other health risks. Plus, alcohol harms the liver, which helps fight infections.
Instead: People who like to drink two or three glasses of wine a day can still do so provided they dilute the wine with sparkling water. Take other small steps by drinking every other day rather than daily, or indulge only on weekends.
Immunity Enemy #2- Added Sugars
Diets high in sugar and refined carbs contribute to chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Having a sweet here and there isn’t going to affect our immune system. But, Americans consume about 17 teaspoons a day, when the recommended daily limit is 6 teaspoons for women and 9 for men. These high levels of added sugar can lead to chronic inflammation, which experts believe puts the immune system on overdrive against itself.
Instead: Whenever you want a sweet fix, choose something that contains fiber, which slows the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and helps mitigate the rapid rise and fall in blood sugar and insulin that can damage organs, nerves, and blood vessels. That’s why whole fruit is so good for you! Other high-fiber picks: chocolate-covered almonds or a whole grain muffin.
Immunity Enemy #3- Too Much Sodium
Most Americans consume a lot of salt, especially from packaged, processed, and fast foods. Excess salt is also a risk factor for high blood pressure and heart disease.
Instead: Cooking meals at home with fresh ingredients is the best way to reduce sodium. Shop for low-sodium versions of obvious culprits, such as beans, soups, and cheese. “Reading labels is crucial, since there are many surprising high-sodium foods, including sliced bread – even whole wheat-plus hot dog and hamburger buns, tortillas, flatbreads, store-bought pizza crusts…basically anything bready,” says Jenna Helwig, Real Simple’s food director.
Immunity Ally #1- A Refreshing Glass of Kombucha
Experts believe that keeping the trillions of bacteria in the gut (called the microbiome) healthy is key to immunity.
Eat up! An easy approach to a happy gut: Enjoy one to two daily servings of prebiotic or probiotic foods. Prebiotics (founds in foods like beans, chickpeas, and lentils) are dietary fibers that feed the good bacteria; probiotic foods (such as kombucha, yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kefir) are fermented and contain live bacteria.
Immunity Ally #2- A Crunchy, Colorful Salad
Consider a bowl of rainbow-colored plants your ticket to immunity-boosting nirvana. It’s a satisfying source of a trio of protective antioxidants: vitamins A, C, and E.
Eat Up! Start with a base of kale or arugula. A chemical in these vegetables, called sulforaphane, may help reserve some of the immune decline that comes with age. Then pile on peppers for vitamin C, an “immune superstar” that helps produce infection-fighting antibodies. Toss in carrots for vitamin E. Add other cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, purple cabbage, and cauliflower, for even more sulforaphane.
Immunity Ally #3- Blueberry-Cardamom Compote
When it comes to immunity benefits, blueberries stand out. They’re high in flavonoids, powerful anti-inflammatory antioxidants that help protect against upper respiratory infections. Studies have shown that blueberries boost levels of natural killer cells against viruses. They’re called “natural killer cells” because they don’t require prior exposure to a treat to be activated. While eating blueberries may boost the number of natural killer cells, there’s one cardamom, a spice that might boost their activity even more.
Eat Up! This fruit sauce, from Real Simple, is an easy, delicious way to get your fill of blueberries and cardamom. Mix a 12-ounce bag of frozen blueberries (about 3 cups), 2 tablespoons maple syrup, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract, ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom, and 1/8 teaspoon kosher salt in a medium saucepan. Cook over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until fruit thaws and breaks down, 5 to 10 minutes. Whisk in 2 teaspoons cornstarch to boil, whisking, until sauce is glossy and thickened, about 1 minute. Serve over plain Greek yogurt, oatmeal, pancakes, waffles, or ice cream. Refrigerate in an air-tight container and save for up to 5 days.
*Portions of article reprinted from: Real Simple Magazine. October 2020, pg 83.