Food has some pretty strong Kung Fu when it comes to fighting the flu. It is my first line defense before, during and after flu season. Basically I eat nutrient rich, illness-fighting foods all year round to protect myself and as a result I rarely ever even catch a cold.
I do have a confession to make at this point: I don’t get the flu shot.
Not before you think I am taking sides regarding vaccinations – I’m not. It is what my personal choice is and therefore is not meant to be a broad statement of policy regarding vaccinations. There are times and populations for whom vaccinations are certainly indicated. Okay, now that that is out of the way, let’s get into the good stuff shall we?
There is a lot you can do in your own kitchens to help fight off disease and build a strong immune system. I am living proof of that. When I was younger I was often sick and was hospitalized on more that one occasion with an upper respiratory tract infection that just wouldn’t quit. As I moved into adulthood and started to give my body the nutrition and raw materials it needed to build me a robust immune system my bouts with illness steadily declined. I am now at a point where, if I do catch something, my turn-around time is measured in hours not days (currently 24 hours or less).
The scientific field of nutritional immunology is growing by leaps and bounds and scientists in that field are unveiling new evidence of the complex role that nutrition plays in fighting off infectious diseases like influenza. For example, a diet rich in nutrients such as vitamin A, found in colorful fruits and vegetables, and zinc, found in seafood, nuts and pumpkin seeds, can provide the critical ingredients the body needs to fight off disease, heal injuries, and survive illness when it does strike.
The immune system is a very complex dynamic interdependent and intradependent system. Scientists continue to study the interrelationships of those systems and the nutrients that interact with it work together. Frankly, there is still much that we don’t know, but scientists do know that certain vitamins and minerals can improve the body’s ability to fight off infection.
The benefits of good nutrition may have been recognized first by Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician who declared “let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” That is the way I live my own life and I think if you were to adopt any New Year’s resolution that would probably be a good one!
I have always held that you must first get your nutrition from real whole foods. Work diligently to eat a wide variety of vegetables first, then fruit (keeps the insulin load in check) nuts and seeds. However, there are times when life gets in the way and that just isn’t feasible. That is when it is time for an insurance policy.
I, for example, do take some additional zinc, magnesium and B-vitamins. I have suffered from migraines in the past and the magnesium seems to stop them dead in their tracks. Additionally, research has shown that zinc is probably the most valuable additional nutrient you can take and a recent study showed that taking zinc (60mg per day) right at the onset of flu and cold symptoms significantly decreased the time spent under-the-weather.
My favorite whole food sources of zinc are pumpkin seeds and my favorite source of magnesium is anything alive and green – like a nice spring salad mix. When I need a little boost I take the supplements to make sure I am getting all I need (if you want to take a magnesium supplement I would recommend magnesium bisglycinate as it is very absorbable by the body).
Scientists have long known that some vitamins, minerals and other nutrients can play a key role in the immune system by acting as antioxidants. These protect and repair cells from oxidative stress, the damage caused by molecules known as free radicals.
But nutrients work in ways beyond acting as antioxidants. Take for example vitamin A (the precursor, provitamin-A, is found in orange things like sweet potato) can enhance the immune system by stimulating specific proteins necessary for immune function by activating specific genes. It is easy to see that if you have a deficiency in eating orange and red foods you may not be getting enough immune support from vitamin A.
An additional study shows that a deficiency of vitamin B-6, which helps maintain the health of organs that make white blood cells (think immune system cells), can decrease antibody production and suppress the immune response. Some of the highest sources of vitamin B-6 are sunflower seeds and spinach.
All nutritional experts generally agree that the best way to get the right balance of nutrients is a balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds.
In order to maximally boost your immune system I think it is best to avoid processed foods, to eliminate trans fats and to get whole real food in your diet each and every meal. And remember that during this hectic and fun time of year, if you need a little insurance policy to keep your immune system at its best you can take some supplements, like zinc, for a boost!