Fall is in the air and while fall is by far my favorite season, I can’t help but recognize what’s right on its tail, winter and it’s sidekick, cold and flu season. Just as some of our animal friends are taking advantage of the fall abundance to prepare for winters challenges, we should be doing the same thing too. Embrace this season of change with some nutrient and lifestyle shifts to prepare you and your immune system for the winter months ahead- laying the groundwork now can help keep those winter colds at bay.
As both a holistic and clinical nutritionist, I look at this time of transition from summer to fall from two angles. On the traditional side, it is a time to strip away the unnecessary, both in life and in food. As summer vacation’s come to an end and kids go back to school, this is the perfect time to set new routines and rhythms that create balance, consistency and ease in our daily lives. On the clinical side, it’s a time to focus on nourishing the body with the elements it needs to strengthen our body’s defense system.
Lifestyle nourishment to foster a strong immune system
When we look at traditional medicine side of immunity- fall routines abound. In Chinese medicine fall is the season of metal. And just like metal is refined by a metal smith, we too need to determine what needs to be removed and stripped away from our daily routines. The organ of focus for this is the large intestine (a key player in immunity!) and throughout the fall we are encouraged to let go of the old and make room for the new.
Ayurvedic medicine identifies the fall as vata season; a time of cool, dry and windy conditions. It is a time to be filled with warmth in the form of loving relationships, routines and a focus on being grounded. Foods focused on providing oils and warmth (think spices and cooked foods) will help to keep vata in balance.
If you tend to juggle unnecessary commitments, fall is the time to embrace the growth from summer and let go of what no longer serves you.
The clinical side of immunity looks more at the nutrients your body needs to renew itself daily and defend itself optimally. I am always fascinated by how the science we conduct in our modern world supports these ancient traditions. But before we jump into the key recommendations for optimizing your immunity, let’s get a brief biology lesson in your immune system.
The immune system is an intricate network of specialized cells, each with a unique role in fighting infection. Everything from colds, to inflammation or cancer prevention, relies upon the immune system. The different types of immune cells act as tiny soldiers, battling foreign invaders to keep your body healthy. Some of these cells act as intelligence scouts searching for danger and alerting the rest of our body when danger is encountered. Other cells act as front-line combatants, responding to these signals and attacking foreign invaders. The regulation of immunity depends on cell communication. There are literally thousands of biochemical processes that occur on every single cell, at every second! Our immune cells create a series of signals that tell the body to ramp up the immune response. Cells also signal when the coast is clear, and the immune response can be resolved.
Just like any other army, our tiny immunity soldiers need ammunition to fight. And that ammunition is food. Without a rich supply of key nutrients, to nourish and support the immune system, a break down is likely to happen. Here are the top 5 immune boosting foods:
Rev up your immune potential:
1. Probiotic-rich foods keep the gut bacteria healthy and in balance. Remember how traditional Chinese medicine focus on the large intestine during the fall season? Well, the gut and the bacteria that resides within it is one of the key fortresses in your body’s defense system. Beneficial bacteria like those found in probiotic-rich foods help create a physical barrier along the digestive tract and also crowd out harmful bacteria before they can multiply. Rotate kimchi, sauerkraut, yogurt, kefir and kombucha into your diet to reap these GI strengthening benefits.
2. Unfortunately, more than 40% of Americans are walking around with a deficiency of vitamin D. Vitamin D deficiency is implicated in a number of chronic illnesses and it plays a significant role in immunity. I encourage most of my clients to get their vitamin D levels checked by their doctors and if low consider supplementing with D3. Our bodies make vitamin D from the sun, but in winter months it becomes a challenge to get enough sun, especially if you live in a northern climate. Cod liver oil, mushrooms, fish [like salmon and sardines], and egg yolks are great ways to get vitamin D in your diet.
3. Eating cruciferous vegetables can help the liver to flush the body of harmful substances. Cabbage even has a compound called glutamine, an amino acid, which helps repair and replace injured gut cells (an important primary defense against sickness). In addition, cruciferous vegetables have a number of powerful antioxidants that help to reduce chronic inflammation (a result of an immune response that won’t shut down). Incorporate a cruciferous vegetable into at least one meal a day.
4. Ginger root is a warming, anti-inflammatory spice used in traditional Asian cooking. The active compounds in ginger – gingerols and shogaols – have powerful anti-microbial properties that can create a negative environment for viruses and bacteria to multiply. Sip ginger tea, add fresh ginger to smoothies or use it to add flavor to dressings, marinades and stir fries.
5. Garlic is truly an immune boosting superstar. It contains the active molecule, allicin, which helps us to fight off infection and bacteria. In addition, it contains a sulfur compound (also found in egg yolks, onions, and cruciferous vegetables) that has been shown to enhance the activity of defense cells, creating a stronger immune response.
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