We have officially entered the dark times, which I thought we would never have to witness – a pandemic that has spread, against all hopes, throughout the world much faster than anticipated.
Just slightly over two weeks ago the Irish newspapers broke in uproar as the first case of COVID-19 has been confirmed in Ireland, while people watched in terror how Coronavirus swept Italy and China, among other countries, into an endless turmoil.
But this is not another post about how to ‘cure’ Coronavirus. We know that there are no known treatments for the new deadly disease today, and educating about the spread and prevention of the disease is the responsibility of the official healthcare organisations, such as the WHO or HSE.
What I can tell you, however, is that boosting your immune system can help you stay healthy in the long run, and this is especially important in the days like these. The stronger your immune system is, the better and more efficient is its response to disease, Coronavirus or not.
Why Boost Your Immune System
Our immune system depends on many different factors – from the food we eat to the quality of the air we breathe. In go our lifestyles: how active we are, how much time we spend outside in the fresh air, how much we are exposed to toxic substances, what our stress levels are, etc. Some of the factors we don’t have much control over, for example, the quality of air in the area we live in; but there are other factors that we can control: like our response to stress, our physical activity levels and, of course, our diets.
The weather is still not great in many parts of the Northern hemisphere, and after a long winter our bodies are most likely to be depleted of many vital nutrients – this makes us even more susceptible to disease and makes it twice as important to get our diets back on track.
How to Boost Your Immune System with Food
So how can you boost your immune system? The easiest way to answer this question is to say ‘Why, by eating nutritious foods, of course!’
But in reality it’s not as simple. Different people have different levels of understanding of what nutritious is. To complicate things further, food companies use various claims about their products’ nutrition profiles, often without any scientific basis behind it. You see, many of the claims they make on packaging are not regulated for the lack of clear definition. For example, the food must contain at least 12% of energy from protein can be claimed as ‘a source of protein‘ and over 20% of energy from protein can be claimed as ‘high or rich in protein‘, but how do you define and measure ‘Nutritious‘?
You can check what different nutritional and health claims mean here.
So for the purposes of this post, we will look at the essential vitamins and minerals that play a role in building your immune system. Let’s divide them by categories first and talk about each separately.
Vitamins Essential for Immune System
Vitamins are organic compounds that are required in small quantities for the human body to function properly. Many different vitamins play various roles in keeping our immune system up, but in case of seasonal flu and worse ailments, the vitamins that matter the most are Vitamin A, C and D.
‘Have a carrot, my dear! It has Vitamin A’, my mom used to tell me. Of course, I had very little idea why I should even bother with this vitamin A. She would explain that it’s important for healthy vision, and I would argue that I can see great. To be completely honest, I never developed the love for carrots.
But VitA is very important for the immune system as well, partly because of it’s anti-inflammatory properties. Studies have shown that it can play a vital role in protecting against infectious disease and could even have a therapeutic effect.
Preformed VitA can only be found in animal products, as it is synthesised from its inactive form (provitamin) by the animal’s body. However, many orange and fruits and vegetables are rich sources of provitamin A, from which your body makes your own VitA in the amount it requires. So to get your vitamin A safely, include the following foods into your diet:
- Sweet potato (1 potato baked in skin has enough to provide your daily allowance)
- Sweet pepper
- Breakfast cereal and plant-based milk (fortified with VitA)
- Baked beans
Everyone knows about this vitamin and its role in the immune system, the reason for which, again, is the anti-inflammatory properties it possesses. VitC is one of the most powerful antioxidants and may not only keep a doctor away, but also help protect your youthful look and prevent many other non-infectious diseases.
VitC cannot be made in the body, therefore, it is required to be taken through food on a daily basis. The sources of VitC are:
- Red and green peppers
- Oranges and other citrus fruits
- Brussels sprouts
- Potato (baked in skin)
- Green peas
This sunshine vitamin is something that people in Ireland generally lack in. But VitD is capable of modulating the immune response in our bodies, thus reducing our susceptibility to disease. This, along with its bone-strengthening properties, makes VitD very important.
Unfortunately, this vitamin cannot be found in plant foods, so your best bets are VitD fortified cereal and plant-based milks, supplements and sunshine. Luckily, we are now well into spring and the weather should improve soon. Make sure that you catch a bit of sunshine each day that it’s available (15 minutes without wearing any sunscreen).
You can safely get your exposure without interacting with other people, which is important for not increasing anyone’s chances to get infected with COVID-19. Simply go for a stroll on your own, keeping away from passers-by, or ‘lounge’ in your garden or even on a balcony. Sit by the sunlit window, if you wish.
Minerals Essential for Immune System
Minerals, unlike vitamins, are inorganic compounds that are also required for a healthy body. The functions of minerals in the body are many, from building bones to helping transmit the neural impulses and even maintaining the heartbeat. The key point here is that without a regular intake of certain minerals, your body can become depleted and lead to serious health issues. Now let’s take a look at the minerals that play the utmost role in the immune system.
Iron is known to everyone as the mineral that helps deliver oxygen throughout the body. Iron deficiency can cause anaemia, a condition resulting in a low count of red blood cells, or haemoglobin. Aside from anaemia, iron deficiency is known to weaken the immune system and make us prone to infections. In fact, having frequent infections is one of the signs of iron deficiency.
There are two types of iron: heme iron, from animal sources, and non-heme (plant-based) iron. Non-heme iron is inactive form of iron that our bodies need to convert to heme iron to become available. Heme iron is easily absorbed, because an animal body has already done the work for us. However, consuming non-heme iron gives your body control over how much iron it needs to convert and absorb. To avoid the harmful effects of too much iron, I always suggest to load up on non-heme iron instead.
Sources of non-heme iron are:
- Breakfast cereals (fortified with Iron)
- Beans (white, black, red kidney, chickpeas)
- Cashew nuts
- Green peas
- Bread and pasta
- Pistachio nuts
- Parsley (dried)
Magnesium is an essential mineral that takes part in many biochemical processes in the body. Magnesium deficiency is linked to many disorders, such as uncontrollable blood glucose and diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and, of course, inflammation. Frequent infections can also signal that your magnesium stores are depleted. But luckily, magnesium can be found in many yummy foods. Here’s the list:
- Whole wheat products
- Cashew nuts
- Dark chocolate
- Black beans
- Pumpkin seeds
- Sesame seeds
Apart from being another powerful antioxidant with anti-inflammatory properties, Zinc plays a more direct role in the immune system because it is critical for development and function of the immune cells. In fact, it is so crucial for normal immune function that studies have found a link between Zinc deficiency and premature deaths, mostly from infections. Fortunately, Zinc can also be easily obtained from the following foods:
- Brazil nuts (dangerous in large amounts!)
- Pacan nuts
- Ginger root
- Split peas
- Whole wheat grain
- Hemp seeds
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Though seemingly the same, prebiotics and probiotics are two different things. Probiotics are live microorganisms that support the gut health, and we all know that immune system starts in the gut, right? Prebiotics, on the other hand, are compounds, consisting mostly of fermentable carbohydrates, that provide favourable environment for the good bacteria to grow. These two types of nutrients are essential if you want to be healthy.
Known sources of probiotics include: yogurt (plant-based, too!), sauerkraut, pickles, miso and tempeh.
Known sources of prebiotics: garlic powder, steel-cut oats, quinoa, bananas, beans and apples.
Maximising Nutritional Profile
I have emphasised so many times that when choosing your produce, you should always opt for seasonal and local if it’s available, because the foods that are out of season and/or have travelled a long distance to get to your supermarket shelf are most likely to be depleted of many nutrients by the time they reach your table.
However, we now live in the times of crisis. The shelves of supermarkets have gone empty; the supply chain could be suffering and as a result, we have only one option: to buy what is available.
This is where frozen produce could come in handy. Did you know that there is no nutritional disadvantage to frozen fruits and vegetables? In fact, they could be more nutritious because they weren’t lying around in storage rooms or on the shelves for days. Frozen can be a perfect option for such times when fresh fruit and veg are hard to come by.
But hopefully we will be out of this crisis soon and able to go back to our normal grocery shopping routines, not to mention lifestyles!