We're all about boosting your immunity during this year's challenge. For this second week of our wellness challenge, we're focusing on NUTRITION.
Covid-19 has brought on so many unknowns, and now with the flu season upon us, it’s time to pump our bodies full of healthy foods. Daily self-care, such as managing stress, getting enough sleep, staying hydrated and good nutrition are all important pieces to staying healthy. BUT, food matters! Have you thought about what foods to focus on right now? Or, should you be taking any supplements? Let’s talk about key nutrients to tune into and ways you can get your pantry ready for cold and flu season!
Our immune system is complex and influenced by many factors, including a balanced diet that incorporates a variety of foods and nutrients. The following nutrients are what I consider to be my “short list” before and during flu season. No one food or nutrient can offer special protection, so it is important to stay focused on a healthy diet pattern that includes whole foods (and minimally processed) all year long. Here’s a few to chew on.
Zinc is essential for immune system function. It is needed for immune cell development and communication and plays a key role in the inflammatory response. Zinc is often added to supplements and other healthcare products such as lozenges that are meant to boost your immune system. Using these products and supplementing with Zinc temporarily has been shown to protect against respiratory tract infections (like the common cold) and/or help to reduce their duration. Too much Zinc (more than 40 mg daily), however, may suppress your immune response. A consistent intake of foods rich in Zinc is the best way to allow Zinc to do its magic. Zinc is best absorbed from animal sources such as beef, poultry, and seafood. Zinc can also be found in nuts, beans, tofu, whole grains, fortified breakfast cereals, eggs, and dairy products.
Vitamin C is the most popular nutrient known for its role in immune health. This nutrient supports immune cell function and enhances their ability to protect against infection. It is also a powerful antioxidant which helps to protect against oxidative stress that happens when free radicals enter the body. Much research has been conducted on vitamin C supplementation, including high doses, with positive results. Most people consume enough vitamin C through diet alone. The daily upper limit for vitamin C is 2000 mg. Consuming foods rich in vitamin C is the best way to boost your intake. Citrus fruits or juices (orange, grapefruit, lemon), berries, melons, kiwifruit, tomatoes or tomato juice, bell peppers, broccoli and brussels sprouts are among the best sources of vitamin C.
Omega-3 fatty acids have excellent anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation is the first phase of the overall immune response. There are different types of Omega-3s but the most important are ALA, EPA, and DHA. ALA is mostly found in plants, while EPA and DHA are mostly found in animal foods like fatty fish. ALA needs to be converted by the body into EPA or DHA before it can be utilized for something other than energy, but the process is very inefficient. EPA and DHA play different but important roles in fighting inflammation, brain health, and protecting against certain health problems. Food sources of omega-3s include fatty fish, grass-fed animal products (dairy and meats), algae, kale, spinach, soybeans, walnuts, and many seeds such as chia, flax, and hemp.
Magnesium is an essential mineral that is crucial to many of the body’s functions such as blood pressure, strong bones, and heart rhythm. Magnesium also has anti-inflammatory properties. Many of us may not be getting enough of this essential nutrient which is why I am highlighting it here. Foods rich in magnesium include green leafy vegetables, whole grains, beans, and nuts. Milk and yogurt also supply magnesium, as do fortified foods, such as some breakfast cereals.
Vitamin D plays multiple roles in our health. It is a key nutrient in keeping our bones and teeth strong, but it also is one of the most important immune system-strengthening nutrients. It does this by enhancing the pathogen-fighting effects of our white blood cells and decreasing inflammation, which helps promote an immune response, particularly against respiratory infections. It is known as the “sunshine vitamin” because our bodies convert sunlight into vitamin D after it hits unprotected skin. Daily unprotected sun exposure of 10 to 15 minutes for fair skin and up to 30 minutes for darker skin is what our bodies need to produce enough vitamin D. In the winter months, especially in Wisconsin, this is virtually impossible, so vitamin D rich foods and supplements are important to consider starting in October or November to support proper vitamin D levels in the blood. Very few foods naturally have vitamin D. Best sources include fatty fish such as salmon and mackerel, egg yolks, beef liver and mushrooms grown under UV lights. Fortified foods supply the most vitamin D in our diets and include most milk and dairy products, cereal, some brands of orange juice and non-dairy beverages such as soy and almond milk. Check the ingredient label for vitamin D2 or D3.
Special note on supplements: We should always try to get our nutrients from foods first, but sometimes supplementation for certain situations or populations may help to fill nutritional gaps. A general multi-vitamin providing the recommended dietary allowances (RDA) along with a healthy eating pattern may be helpful to boost your immunity during the flu season. Supplements that offer many times the RDA (mega dosing) do not appear justified and can sometimes be harmful or even suppress the immune system (I.e. as with Zinc). A separate vitamin D supplement may also be called for, especially for cold weather climates when exposure to sunlight is minimal (depending on blood levels, between 1000-4000 IUs is sufficient for most people, choose form D3). Look for supplements with the USP Verified mark, AND always consult your doctor before taking any supplements, especially if you are on other medications.
What sounds good when we are sick? Chicken soup! And, homemade whenever possible. If you are stretched for time, simply stock your pantry with convenient soups, electrolyte drinks (such as Gatorade), tea and honey. Just be mindful of the sodium and sugar content of the soups and beverages you choose. Canned soups tend to have A LOT of sodium! In general, highly processed foods (especially those made with white flour and sugar) should be avoided when sick since they promote inflammation in the body. Consider making your own whenever possible – it's cheaper and healthier in the end.
Let’s take a look in your pantry! Be sure to stock up on your own must-haves for flu season. You know better than anyone else what you like when you are sick. There are several things, however, you may already have in your pantry to help fight the cold or flu. Many herbs and spices have multiple anti-viral, anti-bacterial properties. These can be kept fresh or dried, used in cooking, or kept as essential oils. I also like to stock up on carrots, celery and apple cider vinegar along with my herbs and spices to make soups and BONE BROTH (more on that later). Lemons and fresh ginger are excellent choices for making tea, your own electrolyte drink or haymaker’s punch (see recipes below). Don’t like tea? Keep 100% fruit juice on hand. Diluting your fruit juice, such as cranberry juice or cherry juice, can keep you hydrated as a natural electrolyte drink. And, don’t forget the honey for your tea or homemade drinks! Honey has many anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties, plus it helps to soothe a sore throat.
What is BONE BROTH you ask? One might call it the next “miracle drink” but there isn’t really any research to back that up. It is, however, a highly nutritious broth that has been around for ages and recently gained popularity as a health drink. It is known to promote gut health and fight inflammation, both important to boosting your immunity. Bone broth is made by simmering the bones and connective tissue of animals with water, apple cider vinegar, vegetables, herbs, and spices. It holds many important vitamins and minerals from the connective tissue and marrow that are pulled out after simmering the bones overnight. It is also rich in collagen which helps to boost the immune system. I divide my bone broth between mason jars and then freeze them to have on hand. A daily mug of bone broth just might keep the doctor away this season!