If the word “immunity” hasn’t crossed your mind more than a dozen times today, I’m deeply impressed.
As an integrative dietitian trained in functional medicine, I look at this time of targeted attention on the immune system from two angles:
on the lifestyle architecture front, it is a time to strip away the unnecessary, both in life and in food: this is the perfect time to set new routines and rhythms that nurture our mental health [which inevitably takes a toll amidst all the stress]
on the clinical side: it’s a not so subtle nudge to focus on the targeted nutrients the body needs to mount a robust immune response [without spiraling into a state of low-grade chronic immune dysregulation]
Before diving into a step-wise checklist of what to do before you are exposed to an immune system challenge let’s first look at what the immune system IS.
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 system 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 your 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, every second. Our immune system cells then create a series of signals that tell the body to ramp up the immune response. These 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 breakdown is likely to happen. It’s tempting jump straight to the repletion of nutrients [and information] required for a seamless immune response. Instead, the first step is the gentle opening of drainage and detox pathways enabling the immune system to excrete the byproducts of “immune warfare.” In our modern day environment laden with more environmental toxins, chemical pollutants, and heavy metal contamination it is more important than ever to start with “output” before trying to perfect the “input.”
Simple [and ever so gentle] mechanisms for opening up pathways of drainage + detox include:
- consistent [filtered] hydration: flushing the tissue with clean water acts as a global catalyst for optimal tissue drainage
- digestive enzyme support: this could be the utilization of bitters or digestive enzymes before meals. Both are going to increase the excretion of metabolic byproducts while improving the extraction of nutrients from the food you consume.
- sweating: sweat itself is a “vehicle” for detox that can be easily experienced just by working out or engaging in sauna therapy.
- lymph drainage: movement itself induces lymph drainage but other measure such as castor oil packs or skin brushing will also stimulate the lymph [which happens to be the “toxin removal highway” of the body].
- fiber diversification: diversifying your plant intake and amplifying the abundance will give the liver and microbiome the input they need to focus on “output.”
- binding support: as the body works to release toxins and metabolic byproducts via organs of elimination, the utilization of binding agents can be helpful in catalyzing this release. Charcoal, clay, zeolite and chlorella are all gentle binders that can be woven into the day in small doses to elicit a quicker release of toxins from the system.
Once you’ve chosen the most approachable ways to engage in drainage + detox, shift gears and pair your efforts with optimizing input. The 2 combined translate to a more effective immune system operating in the context of what it needs to thrive.
5 powerful ways to improve your “input”
1. Cultured foods: Probiotic-rich foods keep the gut bacteria healthy and in balance. The gut and the bacteria that resides within it offer a key fortification for 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. Click HERE to see how different probiotic-rich foods rank in order of potency.
2. Herbs: botanical herbs are plants with therapeutic properties offering antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support. Research continually demonstrates that a number of these have beneficial effects on immune function. One worth mentioning is astragalus. It’s anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant, and anti-viral properties work to stimulate white blood cell count optimizing inflammatory response.
3. Mushrooms: It turns out certain mushrooms might just be “magical” when it comes to the immune system as well. Because fungi grow in challenging circumstances, they specialize in producing antibiotic and various antiviral compounds. Most importantly, mushroom extracts have been shown to help modulate and balance an overactive immune system. There are many different immune modulating mushrooms each with a defined “super power” of as outlined below. Each attribute ties closely back to the impact mushrooms have on your immune system. Unfortunately, not all are useable in a culinary setting making companies like Host Defense and Foursigmatic great assets to ensure the mushrooms are both palatable and accessible [for adults and children alike!].
- chaga: supports antioxidant status
- cordyceps: supports energy and physical performance
- reishi: supports stress and sleep
- lion’s mane: supports brain power + nervous system support
- shiitake: supports immune system stimulation
4. Ginger: while most roots are warming, ginger pairs it’s warmth with active compounds – gingerols and shogaols – that 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: 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. When you are using a recipe that calls for garlic simply double the amount listed to ensure you and your family experience a “punch” of protection.
While it’s so tempting to do more in a time of immune challenge, fight to choose consistency with less. The immune system responds best when we step out of it’s way which is why focusing on pathways of drainage + detox is most certainly the most targeted place to begin [contrary to what you may be in inclined to do].
Then focusing on the consistency of nutrients referenced above will go much further than amplifying intake of everything at once overnight. Choose 1-2 that you truly enjoy and weave them into your regimen daily. And finally, if inclined to weave supplemental support into your day, consider leaning on this compilation of ideas choosing no more than 2-3 because supplemental support will never make up for a diet lacking in the nutrients listed.
Now it’s time to create a routine [dare I say a “ritual”]. In doing so, you will experience the power of emotional nourishment in this time of newness. The resilience of our psychoneuroimmunology hinges around consistent cues given daily. Let’s call this “vitamin S” for structure!