Strengthening the immune system is a huge topic right now--especially as we begin to head into Flu Season while still being in the midst of a pandemic! A lot of people are concerned about how to stay healthy, and there is a lot of so-called “conventional wisdom” out there that may not actually be the most helpful advice when it comes to building a resilient immune system.
Today, I would like to share four tips to help you and your family members stay healthy this winter! Remember, the BEST time to build and strengthen your immune system is BEFORE you get sick!
While there are many ideas and recommendations about this topic, here are just four tips I like to share with clients and customers who come to our farm.
1. Avoid Sugar
Sugar comes in many forms and is not just limited to the white refined sugar we often think about. Grains, for instance, also fall into this category because the body converts carbohydrates into glucose (aka sugar). Now, we need a certain amount of glucose to help provide energy storage for our bodies, but too much will flood our system; spiking blood sugar levels and putting our pancreas into overdrive to send out insulin. A carbohydrate-heavy diet (one based on grains, sugars, and flours) promotes inflammation and insulin resistance, which leads to weight gain. Inflammation provides the ideal environment for certain viruses (like the flu and COVID-19) to thrive.
Now, I am NOT saying you have to completely give up all sugar (although I certainly won’t stop you if you want to 😊!). What I am saying is that a diet heavily built on carbohydrates (which most Americans do) is the first and best thing you can change to build a robust immune system (and a WHOLE HOST of other health benefits)!
Finally, THE WORST thing you can eat when your sick is sugar!! Why? Because your body will focus its energy on lowering blood sugar, making it much more difficult for your cells to receive the nutrients and other hormonal signals they need to restore health and healing.
This segues beautifully into the next tip.
2. Get Vitamin C from the Right Foods
I haven’t conducted a study to confirm this, but my gut tells me I am right. If you say “immune system”, I bet the number one image people think of is oranges!
I LOVE ORANGES! Don’t get me wrong! I love all citrus fruits!
Citrus fruits are LOADED with fructose, which is another form of sugar! So…. when you eat a whole bunch of fruit, your blood sugar will spike the same as if you ate a donut. Now, you will certainly get other minerals and vitamins the donut doesn’t have, but when you are sick, no. Again, the body will focus on stabilizing blood sugar as quickly as it can, which means you won’t be able to effectively assimilate the good nutrients in the fruit.
So, when you are sick, eating fruits and drinking juice (even if it’s 100% organic, fresh-squeeze, etc.) will NOT help you heal and feel better because of all the concentrated fructose going into your body. In fact, you may even prolong recovery.
This is, perhaps, the most mind-blowing concept in this article because our culture, for decades, has told us that orange juice, fruits, citrus-laden gummies, cough drops, fizzy drink packets, etc., are necessary to consume when you’re sick because of all the Vitamin C you’ll get (and need).
The truth? Citrus DOES contain incredible amounts of Vitamin C!
BUT, these fruits (and their derivative products) also contain very high levels of fructose, which means your body isn’t going to get hardly ANY of that Vitamin C because of the way it tries to lower your blood sugar levels.
Instead, here are a few of my favorite Vitamin C-rich vegetables to eat:
And there are plenty more!
Vegetables with lots of Vitamin C will not spike blood sugar, which means your body will be much more able to assimilate Vitamin C and strengthen your immune system! So the next time you have a cold or the flu, eat sliced red bell peppers (my favorite)! They’re soooo yummy!
3. Strengthen your Gut with Good Foods
A healthy microbiome in your gut is your biggest weapon when building your immune system! The word microbiome is basically a fancy word for the micro-organism universe in your gut. There is a lot that goes into strengthening the gut and microbiome, but one of the most important ways is by consuming foods rich in probiotics. Here are some of my favorite foods that help build and sustain gut health:
Raw Milk Kefir (a fermented milk drink) - I LOVE kefir and make it on a daily basis with raw milk from grass-fed cows. It’s definitely sour and tart, but it’s my absolute favorite probiotic food!
Icelandic Skyr or Greek Yogurt - These dairy products are rich in live probiotics cultures! Just make sure you don’t consume brands and varieties with lots of added sugar (you can sweeten plain varieties in other ways). Then, you can even make your own with raw milk from grass-fed cows, which will add even more nutrients to it!
Fermented Veggies - You can ferment veggies at home, which will turn already amazing vegetables into probiotic bombs! Saurkraut is a favorite that my fiance and I love to make at home!
Bone Broth - When you make broth from the bones of grass-fed animals, your gut will thank you like no other! (And it’s so good and comforting when you are sick!)
Apple Cider Vinegar - I feel like Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is everywhere nowadays in the health world! BUT, raw ACV with a mother culture is an incredible source of good probiotic cultures to strengthen the gut and immune system. I usually add 1 or 2 teaspoons to my day’s first 20-oz bottle of water. Most people take it with less water, but hey, it’s an acquired taste, and if you’re starting out, give yourself time (and more water) to help in the process!
4. Get Outside!
I mentioned the microbiome previously but reference it again here. Since gut health is the foundation of your immune system, another important aspect of gut health is making sure you get outside so you can be exposed to the microorganisms in your natural, local environment. Having microorganisms in our gut that match those in our surrounding environment is a HUGE way to boost your immune system. BUT, again, the best time to do this is BEFORE YOU GET SICK so your body can learn, acclimate to, and incorporate new microorganism species into the microbiome.
So get outside in nature regularly! Take a walk or jog in an area where you are exposed to lots of grass and trees. Scoop up a handful of dirt from your garden or the forest and smell it! Rake up a pile of leaves and jump in it (or sit and repeatedly toss them up and around you)! Activities like these will allow you to breathe in the beautiful microorganisms that are abundant in your natural environment. Then, they will help strengthen your gut health and, by default, your immune system!
Stay healthy! Be well!
Joseph Shumway is a certified Primal Health Coach