Real Food Solutions to Support your Immune System

It’s that time year again folks! We are smack dab in the middle of cold and flu season.

It seems like everywhere you turn someone has either been coughing for weeks or spent the past few days under covers with a fever and chills. Most of us wait until we are already sick, and then scramble to find the one food, vitamin, or tincture that is going to cure our illness. But, it’s best to get ahead of the game and try to prevent the sickness from taking hold in the first place. There are so many small things you can do on a daily basis to support your immune system to keep illness at bay, or to help you heal faster once it takes hold.

Here are three of my go-to strategies to help provide your immune system with the support it needs to make it through cold and flu season:

1.Support your gut health by eating the right types of foods- The balance of ‘good’ and ‘not-so-good’ bacteria can have a huge impact on your immune system function. Fun fact, the majority of your immune system (estimated at 70% or more) is located in the gut and it’s ability to function is dependent on the types and amounts of bacteria species living there. The best way to help support a good balance of bacteria in the gut is to focus on probiotic and prebiotic rich foods. Some popular probiotic food options include: fermented veggies, yogurt or kefir (if you can’t tolerate dairy then consider coconut milk kefir). If you are new to eating probiotic rich foods start slowly, adding just a tablespoon or two to regular meals. My favorite way to add probiotic rich foods to my meals with Wildbrine’s red cabbage and beet sauerkraut. Fermented foods are exploding on the market now and can be found in varieties from siracha sauces and ketchups, to pickles and kombucha (a great local option for kombucha in KC is Tea-Biotics). With all these options on the market you should be able to find one that fits your personal tastes. Prebiotic foods act as a food source for the probiotics. Foods containing fiber are great options and some examples of prebiotic foods include: oats, green plantains, fiber rich veggies, jicama and even white potatoes. To get the most resistant starch (prebiotics) from white potatoes heat them up and then let them cool before eating.

2. Reduce sugar (especially added sugar) in your diet- Sugar can play a big role in inhibiting your immune systems reactivity because of it’s impact on neutrophils (which are the body’s initial defense response) and lt’s role in the development of chronic inflammation (which decreases your ability to fight off infections). Unfortunately it seems, when we are sick we tend to crave sugary or highly refined carbohydrate foods, but this is when it is even more important to stand strong and try to reduce sugar consumption and instead support the body with other nutrients it needs. Focus on eating whole foods as close at possible to their form found in nature like quality proteins, healthy fats, vegetables and some fruit.

3. Make sure you are getting 8 hours of sleep- It seems like a no brainer, but getting quality sleep is critical to ensuring that your immune system is working it’s best! If you’ve already come down with the cold or flu it is critical to make sure to take the time off of work or away from other activities to allow your body time to heal. Today’s non-stop world can cause it to feel like you can’t possibly say ‘no’ to daily obligations. This leads to showing up sick and pushing the body too far. Just know that most people will be happy you decided to stay home (and stop the spread of the illness), and you get rid of the sickness so much faster if you allow you body to rest. If you take the time to nurture your body when it needs it most, it will pay off and save you time later!

If you’re wondering what foods you should increase in your diet to support your immune system I’ve rounded up some of my personal favorites here:

• Bone broth- It is actually pretty easy to make your own bone broth especially with awesome kitchen gadgets like the Instapot! But if you don’t want to make your own there are plenty of options to purchase! Bone broth contains some powerhouse nutrients that will help boost the immune system like glycine, magnesium, calcium, and more. Some great local Kansas City options are The Broth Pot and Evolve Paleo
• Vitamin C- Typically oranges are the first food to come to mind when you hear eat more Vitamin C rich foods. These are a great go-to since they travel easily and most people enjoy them. However, there tons of other foods that are excellent sources vitamin C: lemons, strawberry, pineapple, kholrabi, mango, Brussels sprouts and kiwis are also great options. Taking a supplement form of Vitamin C can be beneficial if you feel like you aren’t getting enough in your diet.
• Zinc- Zinc is a mineral that pairs great with Vitamin C to help boost your immune system. A word of caution, it is possible to over-do it on zinc and therefore, the best way to get it is through food. Foods to include that are higher in zinc are: lamb, pumpkin seeds, grass-fed beef, chickpeas, cocoa powder (>70% dark chocolate), mushrooms and spinach. However, if you are prone to illness or are currently ill a little extra in a supplement may be beneficial.
• Elderberries- These have been used as a remedy for illness for centuries due to their potency in antioxidants that support the immune system. They are also rich in Vitamin C. Some research shows that elderberries can even be beneficial as a treatment for flu. You can purchase elderberry in a syrup form (great for kids), a tincture or capsule (best if you are trying to limit sugar). A little bit of elderberry is great preventative measure to make it through cold and flu season.

Here is a simple drink you can add in your daily routine to help prevent cold/flu, but also to help provide extra support to your immune system while you are under weather.

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Written by: Abby Stanley, MS RDN LD
Abby is a Functional Nutritionist at Premier Integrative Health. She is also the owner and CEO of Revive Nutrition Solutions, LLC. She loves helping others improve their health and life through nutrition an advocate for eating REAL food!