Buffy Ellen Gill is a qualified Nutritionist, Naturopath and Medical Herbalist, founder of Be Good Organics, New Zealand’s largest food blog and recipe site, and author of Be Good: Plant-based recipes for everybody – a cook book with 100 healthy plant-based recipes. Buffy has over 10 years’ experience educating clients and the public around the benefits of a healthy plant-focussed diet and lifestyle, and is passionate about making plant-based food and nutrition easy and affordable.
Wondering how you can improve you and your family’s immunity this winter? From increasing the amount of fruit and vege in your diet, to adding in fermented foods for increased gut health, here are three easy ways to support your immune system as we navigate the chilly season.
Immunity is a topic that’s been on the top of everyone’s mind since Covid. As we move through winter, now’s your opportunity to make sure your immune regime is in top shape.
My top three ways to boost your immunity this winter include reducing stress, increasing your intake of key nutrients like vitamin C, and it may come as a surprise, but improving your gut health is also key.
What Is Gut Health?
The gut microbiome is an ecological community of microorganisms living in the gastrointestinal tract. There are over 100 trillion living in each of our guts, even more if we consume a plant-based diet.
Why Is It So Important?
Encouraging beneficial bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract (whether introducing it from scratch, or stimulating its growth by feeding it), is positive in that it protects us against the invasion of pathogens and infections. It also modulates our immune system, thus dampening any overactive inflammatory responses, and reducing inflammation in the body. In other words – good gut health = optimal immunity.
A healthy gut barrier has also been shown to increase the absorption of vitamins and minerals, improve digestion, promote healthy bowel movements (no more loosies), optimise your skin, reduce heart disease, prevent metabolic disorders such as diabetes, and even counter depression, boost mood, and support your mental health.
1. Reduce Stress And Increase Sleep
Lack of stress and sleep are two of the biggest culprits when it comes to weakening our digestive system. When we’re stressed and move into sympathetic “fight or flight” mode, our digestive system is dampened down. All of our bodily energy instead races out to the extremities (to fight, or run away from that tiger that’s chasing you). Thus pulling it away from supporting our normal digestive function. This impacts your ability to break down and absorb nutrients, which is why many people are deficient in numerous vitamins, minerals, and coenzymes, even if they’re eating a healthy diet. Stress has furthermore been shown to reduce both the number and diversity of beneficial bacteria in our gut.
Sleep meanwhile functions in a similar way. When we sleep, the first few hours are spent breaking down the nutrients from our meals the night before. If we eat very heavy meat-laden meals late at night (washed down with alcohol), our digestive system is put under extra pressure to process all this food. This prevents our liver from doing its all important work come 3am, which is to move out to all our essential organs and eliminate and kill off any abnormal cells that have formed.
Eating a heavy diet rich in meat, dairy, alcohol and processed foods, late at night, and then getting very limited sleep, is a sure fire way to reduce your gastrointestinal tracts ability to carry out its functions well. Research has shown that even short term sleep deprivation has the ability to reduce the amount of good bacteria in our gut, thus increasing our risks of immune threats, weight gain, and depression.
2. Increase Fruits, Veggies, And Legumes
Fruits, vegetables and legumes are the best source of prebiotics for the digestive system. Prebiotics are a type of dietary fibre that arrive undigested in the colon, where they are fermented by beneficial bacteria allowing those bacteria to grow and thrive. Pre-biotic foods are also cheap! And readily available all year round. All fruits, vegetables, legumes, and wholegrains are abundant in prebiotics, but some of my favourites include garlic, onion, leeks, artichokes, asparagus, peas, lentils, chickpeas, black beans, and oats.
Note that if you start introducing a lot of pre-biotic rich foods into your diet quickly, you may notice an increase in gas. This is normal, and reflective of a non-diverse gut microbiome. If you have irritable bowel syndrome, bloating, or wind already, introduce your prebiotics slowly. Once your microbiome adjusts and becomes more diverse, these symptoms will happily subside. Interestingly enough, individuals on plant-based diets have been shown to have a much wider range of gut bacteria in their digestive tracts, meaning they’re less susceptible to infection and illness.
Other specific foods that can boost the immune system directly include:
- Oranges, Grapefruit and Lemon – for vitamin C
- Turmeric and Ginger – as anti-inflammatories
- Garlic and Oregano – for their anti-viral and anti-bacterial action, and
- Parsley – to cleanse the blood and liver
3. Increase Fermented Foods
The third way to boost your gut health and immunity is via probiotics and fermented foods.
In contrast to prebiotics which act as food for our beneficial bacteria, probiotics are the beneficial bacteria themselves – pre-formed outside of the body. To make things extra fabulous, when you consume both together (prebiotics and probiotics), they work even more synergistically. For example – oats with coconut yoghurt, a chickpea and kumara salad with a glass of kombucha.
Whilst you can take probiotics in capsule form, an even tastier way to consume them is via fermented foods! These include things like sauerkraut, coconut yoghurt, tempeh, miso, kefir, and kombucha. We have all of these in our fridge at any one time, as they’re all so easy to incorporate into your daily meals.
Include An Immune Boosting Supplement
Sometimes diet alone is not enough to keep our immune system from being affected by external threats. The reasons for this are three fold:
- As we age, our ability to absorb nutrients from our food declines. Meaning that when we ate an orange as a 5 year old, we were likely to absorb a greater percentage of the vitamin C. As a 35/45/55 year old, this % continues to reduce over time, meaning we need more of these foods to achieve the same vitamin levels as we did as a child.
- Our food systems are such that an orange contains half the vitamin C that it did 50 years ago, due to mono cropping, pesticides, and sprays. Again, meaning we need twice as much food to achieve the vitamin C and other nutrients that our grandparents were absorbing.
- As adults, we may already be in a deficiency state, in any one of the numerous vitamins, minerals and co-enzymes for optimal immune health. These include things like vitamin C, as well a vitamin D, zinc, and selenium. It’s not possible to blood test for all of these nutrients, and unless you want to pursue expensive hair and urine testing ($1000+), you’re better off taking a good quality broad spectrum multi vitamin or immune focussed supplement. For adults I like using doTERRA’s Lifelong Vitality multivitamin, and ImmunePro or Armaforce by BioPractica for additional immune support (all available through a Naturopathic practitioner like myself). For children I like using doTERRA’s A2Z multivitamin, and MadeFrom’s all new powerful antioxidant vitamin C Gummies for added immune support www.madefrom.co.nz – made from real food with no sugars added and they are super tasty so it’s an easy way to help supplement fussy eaters!