Over the past several months, many of us have developed a heightened drive to keep ourselves healthy — an impulse fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we enter the fall and winter months, being selective about the foods and beverages we consume, nutrition professionals say, can help boost our immune systems and fight against those more familiar germs we encounter at this time of year.
“October is the perfect time to start strengthening our immune systems because we know that there’s a lot more colds and flu in the fall,” says Janelle Glick, corporate wellness dietitian with Lancaster General Health.
"I do find that fall and winter time seems to be the most common time that people need extra boosting of their immune system, mostly because that's the time of year when people get less Vitamin D” from sunlight, says Ann Lee, who practices naturopathic medicine and acupuncture at her Health for Life Clinic in East Hempfield Township.
“Basically, when we’re thinking about supporting our immune system on a daily basis, we have to think about good nutrition, and the types of food choices that we’re making,” says Fran Hadley, registered dietitian with WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital. “There isn’t any magic bullet or supplement, obviously, that's one size fits all.”
Food and nutrients
Certain vitamins, minerals and other nutrients help boost our immune systems and fight disease in a variety of ways, nutritionists say.
And we can get them through lots of familiar foods.
One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to get enough fiber by eating whole grains and a full rainbow of colorful fruits and vegetables, Hadley says.
“Fiber is important to your immune system, primarily for gut health, so when we think about those high-fiber foods ... they help with nutrient absorption and they reduce the transit time in the colon,” Hadley says.
Glick recommends getting a minimum of five fruits and vegetables a day, “but really, more like eight to 10 is optimal.”
Hadley, Glick, Lee and dietician Erica Hornung, outpatient nutrition supervisor for nutrition therapy with UPMC, list a variety of vitamins and minerals that are important in boosting the immune system, and where to find them in our food.
Vitamin A: “It helps protect against infections by keeping your skin and your tissues healthy, in your mouth and your stomach and your intestine and throughout the respiratory system,” Hadley says.
“It also serves as an anti-inflammation vitamin, which plays a critical role in our immune function,” Hornung writes in an email.
We can find it in milk, fortified cereal, sweet potatoes, fish, dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt; deep green leafy vegetables, such as spinach, kale and Swiss chard; along with carrots, broccoli, spinach, red bell pepper, apricots, cantaloupe and eggs.
Vitamin D: It “seems to play a central role in the activation of cells of the immune system,” Hornung says.
“There's not many good food or drink sources for D,” Lee says. “The best source is sunlight, so a lot of people tend to supplement with D3 vitamins during the fall and winter.”
We can also get D through fortified dairy products, orange juice, and cereal, along with leafy greens, egg yolks, mushrooms, salmon, tuna, mackerel, tofu and soy beverages.
Vitamin C: It can also support the immune system, Hadley says, and is “generally pretty easy, I think, for most folks to get on a daily basis.”
Sources include citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruit, lemons, limes, as well as red bell peppers, mangoes, papaya, strawberries, tomato juice, kiwi, wild blueberries, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflower.
Vitamin E: “Studies have shown it can improve the immune response during aging, and reduce the oxidative damage that may contribute to asthma,” Hornung says.
Foods rich in vitamin E include fortified cereals, sunflower seeds, almonds, vegetable oils like sunflower and safflower oil, peanut butter, hazelnuts, avocados, deep green leafy vegetables and wheat germ.
Zinc: It helps combat infection and reduce inflammation, Hornung says. Good sources are spinach, peas, squash, onions, pumpkin seeds, salmon, whole grains, beans, nuts, red meat, poultry, shellfish and oysters.
Protein: “We need to have an adequate amount of protein in our diet, so that we have the building blocks that our body requires to make those immune fighting agents,” Glick says.
“We want to think about lean protein, such as lean red meat — loin or round cuts, for example,” Hadley says, along with “ground, all-white turkey or chicken that you can incorporate in recipes.”
Other sources are seafood, eggs, dairy products such as milk and cheese, nuts, seeds, legumes, edamame (soybeans) and the soy products tofu and tempeh.
“There are also grains that are complete sources (of protein), like quinoa and amaranth,” Hadley adds.
The liquid Glick recommends, above all, in boosting the immune system is water.
"We need to have proper hydration," she says. "If we're dehydrated, we're much more likely to get sick. ... It helps to flush the toxins out of our body. It's important that we drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day — more if we're larger or more active.
“And apple cider vinegar is something you can add to drinks ... as a detox or tonic,” Glick says. “It’s strong to drink by itself. You can use it in salad dressing.
“Green tea is really good because it has a lot of antioxidants in it,” Glick says.
Lee says mushrooms such as chagga, shitake and reishi, along with teas made from those mushrooms, are good for stimulating the immune system.
“They have compounds in them that activate and stiumlate immune cells in the body,” she says.
Glick recommends eating foods that are thought to help reduce inflammation, which has been tied to a lot of chronic diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease.
“Eat dark green leafy vegeables,” she says. “I can't emphasize that enough. They are so, so rich in nutrients and antioxidants that help with the inflammation.
“A lot of our immune system is in our gut and our gut cells. So when we think about adding something to our diet for enhancing our immune system, I like to think about the probiotics,” Glick says.
She recommends adding fruit to plain, unsweetened yogurt.
In addition, she recommends trying fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi.
“The kind (of sauerkraut) most people grab is in the canned vegetable section.” Glick says. “And unfortunately the canning process does away with all the good bacteria. So you really need to go for the refrigerated (type) in the produce or natural food section.”
Lee suggests eating onions and garlic for stimulating the immune system.
“People feel like they can't do garlic and onion, since they're so powerful with the immune system,” Lee says. “People experience symptoms when they're killing off the bacteria and viruses in their body,” Lee says, adding they can start out eating small amounts of both.
Glick also recommends using immunity-boosting ginger and turmeric in cooking, and eating elderberries, which are available in dried form.
“Basically, we are what we eat, right?” Glick says. “When we have all of those necessary nutrients and proper hydration, we can fight off the invading germs that cause illness.”
Here are a few recipes that nutrition professionals say will boost your immune system.
From Janelle Glick, Lancaster General Health:
APPLE CIDER VINEGAR IMMUNE-BOOSTING DRINK
- 1/2 teaspoon each: fresh grated ginger root, fresh grated turmeric root (1/4 tsp each in the powder form can be used, but isn’t as potent as fresh)
- 1 teaspoon honey, raw, local preferred
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 dash cayenne pepper
- 2 dashes ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons organic apple cider vinegar (with the “mother” – the cloudy protein sediment in the bottle)
- 12-16 ounces water
Heat the water to just below boiling. Add all of the ingredients. Allow to sit and steep for 20 minutes. Strain and sip. Can be served warm or chilled.
Adapted from www.draxe.com:
EASY SUPERFOOD SAUERKRAUT
- 1 large head of cabbage
- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of carrots
- Sea salt at a ratio of 1 tablespoon salt to 1 3/4 pounds cabbage
- 3-inch chunk of fresh turmeric, grated
- 1-inch chunk of ginger, grated
- 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Remove the outer leaves of cabbage and set aside. Cut the cabbage into quarter. Remove the core and set aside.
Chop the cabbage so it’s no more than 2-inch shreds. Trim ends off of the carrots and peel. Grate the carrots.
Place the shredded cabbage in a very large bowl and sprinkle with sea salt (see above ratio). Choose a bowl that you can get both of your hands into and massage the cabbage. Massage the cabbage until it begins to sweat.
Add the shredded carrots to the shredded cabbage; add turmeric and black pepper. Mix well. Put a layer of cabbage mixture in the jar and pack down well. Sprinkle in some grated ginger.
Repeat until the jar is nearly full, being mindful to pack down each layer.
Cover vegetable mixture with a layer of cabbage leaves (the outer pieces that you set aside). Then place pieces of the core on top to keep the vegetable mixture submerged in brine, if the jar isn’t completely full to the top.
Cap the jar. Every few days, open the jar lid and let the air escape. You’ll begin to notice the smell of fermentation. Let sit for approximately 1 month. Store in the fridge and eat daily or several times per week.
Adapted from www.thewildgut.com:
- 3 1/2 cups filtered water
- 2/3 cup dried elderberries
- 2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/2 cup honey
On the stove top, add water, elderberries, ginger, cinnamon and cloves to a large pot. Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer.
Allow to simmer for 45-60 minutes, until the liquid has reduced by almost half. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve.
Add honey and stir well. Chill in refrigerator. Keeps for 6 months to 1 year. Standard dose is 1/2 to 1 teaspoon for kids and 1/2 to 1 tablespoon for adults. If the flu does strike, take the normal dose every 2-3 hours instead of once a day until symptoms disappear.
From Fran Hadley, registered dietitian with WellSpan Ephrata Community Hospital:
FASOLADA (TRADITIONAL GREEK SOUP)
Makes 8 servings.
- 1 pound (2 1/2 cups) dried white beans (cannellini or navy beans), soaked overnight and drained
- 3-4 carrots, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 3 stalks of celery, diced
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 (14.5-ounce) can tomato, diced
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 teaspoon paprika (hot or sweet)
- Salt and pepper to taste
If cooking on a stovetop, you must ﬁrst soak the beans. Rinse the beans and pour into a large bowl. Cover with 2 inches of water and 1 tablespoon of salt and let soak on the counter for 4 to 12 hours.
In a large pot, starting with a cold pan, sauté the onion, celery, carrots, and garlic in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. When the vegetables are aromatic, add paprika. After 2 minutes, add the diced tomato and sauté for 1 minute.
Add the soaked beans and cover with enough water to cover the beans by 1 inch. Season generously with salt. Simmer until the beans are tender (30-40 minutes). Add 1/2 cup of extra virgin olive oil and cook for a few more minutes. The olive oil will make the soup thick and creamy.
Rinse the beans. Add onion, celery, carrot, and garlic to the pot. If you can, sauté them ﬁrst, but you don’t have to.
Add the diced tomatoes and paprika. Add beans and enough water to cover by 1 inch. Add 1/2 cup of olive oil. Season generously with salt.
Cook on high for 6 hours. Using a spoon, smash some of the beans to thicken the soup.
Taste the soup and season with salt and pepper. Serve in bowls with crusty peasant bread, olives, and feta cheese.
(Recipe courtesy of North American Olive Oil Association.)
From Ann Lee, naturopathic doctor, of the Health for Life Clinic:
- 4 carrots, chopped
- 2 stalks of celery, chopped
- 1 cup spinach, chopped
- 1 bag frozen peas
- 2 tomatoes, chopped
- 1 inch of fresh ginger root, minced
- 2 onions, chopped (if sensitive, just 1 onion)
- 1 bulb of garlic (about 6-8 cloves), minced (if sensitive, just 1 clove)
- 8 cups of water
- Optional: 1 cup of shiitake mushrooms, fresh or dried, chopped
Place all the ingredients in a pot and bring to a gentle boil. Turn heat down to low and allow to simmer for about an hour before serving.
BLUEBERRY, PISTACHIO AND ARUGULA SALAD WITH CITRUS VINAIGRETTE
Makes 5 servings of 1 ounce of salad and 1 tablespoon dressing.
- 5 ounces baby arugula
- 1 pint fresh blueberries
- 1/4 cup pistachios, unsalted, dry roasted
- 1/2 tablespoon lime zest
- Juice from one lime
- 1 tablespoon orange zest
- 1/2 cup juice from fresh orange
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/2 cup olive oil
In a large bowl, combine all salad ingredients and set aside. For dressing, whisk ingredients together or combine them in a blender.
When ready to serve, drizzle 5 tablespoon salad dressing and toss together or split five ways and add 1 tablespoon dressing to each salad and toast lightly.