The immune system is extremely complex. There are many types of immune cells housed everywhere from your skin to your gut to your bone marrow. You have probably heard the term, "boost your immune system." While this sounds ideal if you were to boost your immune system, you could technically create an overactive stream of events that could result in the body attacking itself, as in the case with autoimmune disorders. Instead, we want to support the immune system with what it needs to act reasonably and efficiently, clearing pathogens out of the way so that we can thrive and feel our best.
There are many factors that can influence your immune system and one of them is food. Certain foods and components in them can either activate or deactivate your body’s defenses when you are exposed to pathogens like bacteria and viruses. Things that can disrupt the immune system include environmental toxins, smoking, alcohol, stress, lack of sleep, vitamin D deficiency, and a diet heavy in sugar, saturated fat, animal products and processed foods.
Immune Health Starts in the Gut
Approximately 70 percent of the immune system lies in the gut. The immune system is separated by a single layer of cells that is a fraction of a strand of hair width from trillions of microbes that make up your gut microbiome. The immune system and microbiome are in constant communication; therefore, a healthy gut supports a healthy immune system. If you've read any other purely planted blogs, then this next point might sound like a broken record, but you know which foods foster a healthy gut, right? Yes, smarty pants, it's plants!😃
The foundation for a healthy gut is a variety of fiber-rich, plant-based foods. Including a variety of plant-based foods ensures that you get various types of fiber and nutrients that healthy bacteria need to thrive. Including probiotic-rich fermented foods, like kimchi, sauerkraut, plant-based yogurt and kefir, daily can also help to diversify bacteria in your gut. Foods that are high fiber include vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds. While there are specific nutrients that deserve special recognition for their role in immune health, the overall foundation to immune health is a plant-centric diet that includes a variety of plant-based foods.
In addition to fiber, vitamins and minerals, plants deliver phytonutrients. Studies show that a large portion of these phytonutrients pass through the small intestine unabsorbed and reach the colon where bacteria get to go to town on them (a good thing!). The bacteria break them down into smaller particles that are reabsorbed into the circulation where they create their anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antioxidant effects.
There is also strong support for certain vitamins and minerals and their role in a tuned-up immune system. Vitamins A, B12, C, D, E, and folate as well as minerals zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, and copper all play important roles in immunity. A whole food plant-based diet can provide adequate amounts of vitamin A (in the form of beta carotene), vitamin C, folate, zinc, iron, selenium, magnesium, and copper. What may fall short are B12 and vitamin D (which is an issue for everyone, not just plant-based folks). If you eat 100% plant-based, I typically recommend a B12 and vitamin D supplement, but always check with your dietitian or healthcare provider before supplementing to see which dose is right for you.
Eating a whole plant-based foods diet does not necessarily make you bulletproof. However, when you include a diverse plant-based diet with adequate sleep, regular exercise, stress management, and social connection, you increase your odds of staying healthy and recovering faster from illness.
Below are 17 everyday foods, many of which may already be in your kitchen, that include many of the nutrients needed to power your immune system with what it needs to fight foreign invaders before they attack.
Berries. All types of berries including strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, are high in phytonutrients and vitamins that can foster a healthy immune system. Blueberries also have a phytonutrient called pterostilbene, which acts like an antioxidant, fighting inflammation and disease. Berries can easily be enjoyed as a snack all on their own, but they are also delicious in smoothies, oatmeal, dairy-free yogurt, and salads. You can also blend blueberries in your favorite vinaigrette for an antioxidant charged salad dressing! Moms, as you know, most kids love berries so offer them a berry snack often!
Kiwi. Snacking on kiwi has been shown to reduce the duration of the common cold. In fact, one study revealed that kiwi reduced symptoms and incidences of the common cold in children 2–5 years of age. Grandparents should enjoy some vitamin C, antioxidant and phytonutrient-rich kiwi as well as it’s been shown to decrease the duration of respiratory infections in the elderly. Include kiwi in a lunchbox or add sliced kiwi to a salad for lunch or bowl of oatmeal for breakfast.
Apples. An apple a day … is an excellent source of soluble fiber, which may strengthen your immune system. One study showed “profound, positive changes” in immunity when comparing soluble to insoluble fiber. Apples are also high in antioxidants, which may lower the risk for infections and disease. Enjoy apples as a snack or with your favorite nut or seed butter as a healthy dessert.
Bananas. Slightly unripe bananas contain resistant starch, which acts as a prebiotic (food for healthy bacteria) to help create a healthy microbiome. A healthy microbiome supports a healthy immune system. Freeze bananas for a fun summer treat, blend with berries to make “nice” cream, or create a banana nut (or seed) butter “sandwich.” (Cut the banana in half lengthwise, spread nut or seed butter in between, then add the slices back together for a banana sandwich!)
Citrus. Citrus fruits, in their whole form, are rich in protective antioxidants like vitamin C, which can help to support your immune system and make you less susceptible to infections. One study found that simply smelling citrus fragrances could reduce stress-induced illness. Oranges make delicious snacks, but also consider adding lemon and lime to salad dressings, sauces and a squeeze on top of steamed vegetables.
Cruciferous vegetables. Cruciferous vegetables include broccoli, kale, cauliflower, radish, Brussel sprouts, collard greens, arugula, and bok choy. These powerful veggies are a source of a chemical signal necessary for the immune system to function at its best. They are also rich in sulfur-containing substances called glucosinolates, which make sulforaphane—a phytochemical known for its immune-optimizing and anticancer effects. Mix leafy cruciferous vegetables in smoothies or salads or add any of the cruciferous vegetables on top of plant-based pizza. Chop up broccoli nice and small and hide it in (plant-based) mac and cheese!
Garlic. Garlic offers protection against many bacterial and viral infections. In order to stimulate the release of the enzyme alliinase, fresh garlic must be crushed or chopped. Alliinase then creates allicin, which contains the disease-fighting characteristics. Add a clove of fresh garlic to pasta dishes, stir-fries, and salad dressings.
Leafy Greens. Greens such as spinach, collard greens, watercress, and romaine contain phytonutrients that support a strong immune system. Green vegetables are rich in folate, iron, calcium, and phytonutrients like lutein and zeaxanthin. Folate is important for producing antibodies that help to destroy antigens that can make you sick. Iron is important for immune cells that are fighting off infection. Blend green veggies into smoothies, mix them in pasta dishes or add them to a veggie burger sandwich.
Mushrooms. Even the most common variety of mushrooms like white, cremini, and Portobello, have been studied for their immune modulating and enhancing abilities. Additionally, mushrooms may increase an important immune-balancing compound called secretory IgA. Cooked mushrooms make delicious meat substitutes with their umami flavor in warm sandwiches, noodle dishes, and on pizza.
Onions. From the same allium family as garlic, onions are full of organosulfur compounds. These compounds have known benefits for immunity and are released when alliums are crushed or chopped. Onions also contain quercetin, a compound that may have particularly powerful bacteria-fighting abilities, as well as prebiotic fiber that feeds only the beneficial bacteria in our large intestine. Sauté onions and add them to soups, stir-fries, burritos, and homemade sauces or enjoy them raw in sandwiches and wraps.
Red peppers. Did you know that red peppers have twice as much vitamin C as citrus fruits? They also contain vitamin E and beta-carotene, which may provide extra immune support. Enjoy red peppers raw with hummus dip or in a wrap or add them to stir-fries and soups.
Beans. Legumes, such as chickpeas, black beans, peas, and lentils are chock-full of fiber which aid in a healthy gut. This is important because much of your immunity begins with digestion. Many beans are also rich in antioxidants and phytonutrients that may support strong immunity. Add beans in soups, tacos or create a fun bean spread for dipping vegetables.
Seeds. Chia, flax, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds are rich in disease-preventing nutrients like fiber, healthy omega-3 fatty acids, and micronutrients like vitamin E, iron, zinc, and calcium. Zinc, a mineral known to support a strong immune system, is especially high in pumpkin seeds. Seeds are a perfect afternoon snack and can easily be added with nuts to make a homemade trail mix. They can also easily be tossed in salads, smoothies, oatmeal, and baked goods.
Herbs and Spices
Turmeric. Curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric not only lends to its beautiful orange-hue, but has also been shown to be a potent immune-enhancing substance through its anti-viral and anti-fungal properties. For best absorption, add black pepper to meals cooked with turmeric. It is easy to sneak this earthy spice into almost any meal. Add it to stir-fries, sauces, dressings, smoothies and try a soothing Golden Milk tea made with plant-based milk, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon!
Oregano. Carvacrol and thymol are essential oils in oregano that contain fungicidal and anthelmintic (ability to destroy internal parasites) properties. Oil of oregano has been shown to eradicate intestinal parasites, however, dried oregano also contains these antimicrobial compounds. Research shows that oregano powder may help stimulate healthy bacteria in the gut and boost immunity. Use it daily in salads and cooking.
Ginger. Ginger has been touted as a digestive and immune supporter backed by strong research. Ginger helps to open the lymphatic system and prevents the build-up of toxins that may create infections. Ginger also helps to activate T-cells, which are vital to a healthy immune system and for destroying viruses. Steep fresh ginger in tea, add it to stir-fries or use it in sauces and dressings. One quarter-inch slice of fresh ginger is equal to 1 to 2 grams of powder.
Green tea. Green tea may be the most powerful of all the teas due to its high phytonutrient content. It contains compounds called catechins, as well the antioxidant quercetin and the amino acid L-theanine—they all support a healthy immune system. These compounds help the body fight viruses and many forms of gastrointestinal infections. Try a creamy matcha tea in the morning (with plant-based milk) or sipping on steeped loose leaf green tea throughout the day.
Yum, yum, and more yum. Double this dressing recipe so you have it all week long because it's somewhat addictive (in the best way). Plants are pretty magical in the way that whole plants, like carrots, ginger, and shallots, can blend together to make The.Most.Scrumptious.Dressing.Ever!
Friends, this is one of my favorite salads of all time. It's so nourishing, fulfilling, and a tasty way to get in your daily dose of leafy greens. Immune-supporting ingredients include kale, tempeh, radish, lemon, red onion, miso, and hemp seeds. I hope you love it as much as I do!
Why "ultimate-supporting?" This soup includes 8 of the 17 foods listed above! What's awesome is that these ingredients (leeks, garlic, ginger, turmeric, chickpeas, cauliflower, kale, and cayenne) also lend to this soup's incredible texture and flavor. The leftovers are even better throughout the week.
There's nothing better than a versatile grain bowl that is tasty and nourishing. Start with your favorite grain (in the case of this bowl, it's farro, but you can use any whole grain of choice), then add all your favorite veggies plus your plant protein (nuts, seeds, tofu, or beans), before drizzling a scrumptious sauce or dressing on top. Lemon Miso Dressing in this bowl offers vitamin C-packed citrus and probiotic-rich miso for an extra boost of nutrition on top of those colorful veggies!
Pasta that supports the immune system? Absolutely! When you purchase whole grain or legume pasta, you get lots of fiber and plant-based protein. Then you can add all of the immune-loving goodies to the pasta like spinach, garlic, herbs, and nutritional yeast (another ingredient that has been shown to prevent the common cold!). Mangia!
Have you tried one of the recipes above? Let me know in the comments!
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