Now more than ever we need to activate our defense mechanisms to protect ourselves from ever so spreading novel coronavirus COVID-19, not to mention all other viruses and infections around us. And I don’t mean masks, gloves and other pieces of PPE, I mean our internal mechanism to ward off pathogens – the immune system. Our immunity is an intricate surveillance system that protects us, detects and fights off harmful ivaders using its many mechanisms and compounds. Just like any other system in the body, it needs nutrients to function properly. Therefore, proper nutrition is key when it comes to supporting our immunity.
We don’t necessarily need to stock up on supplements and exotic superfoods in order to activate the superpowers of our immune system, many of the nutritional powerhouses are readily available at most supermarkets, and most of them are grossly inexpensive! You might already have them on your shopping list, so kudos to you for taking care of your health. Now let’s explore them.
- Ginger has been used in traditional medicine of different cultures for thousands of years. It has potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds that help to treat numerous ailments such as colds, nausea, arthritis, migraines, and hypertension (1). Ginger also contains compounds that dilate blood vessels in the lungs and relax their smooth muscles, leading to opening of the airways (2). You can steep fresh cut up ginger root in hot water, or add finely chopped ginger to brewed herbal tea.
- Turmeric. You may know turmeric for its bright orange-yellow hue and particular spicy taste in Indian, Southeast Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisines and the hype over the last decade or so over its profound medicinal properties. The active component of turmeric – curcumin – is the superpower within, claimed to be the therapeutic dietary aid. Turmeric has been studied extensively and many studies confirmed its positive association with anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-microbial, anti-tumor, gastro-, neuro-, cardio-, and hepato-protective activities (3). In its powdered state it can be safely added as a spice to your favorite dishes or even beverages, or you can use the whole root to boil and steep for a hot tea.
- Dark leafy greens. Spinach, swiss chard, collards, spring mix, dandelion – all are wonderful additions to our daily diet for their rich profile of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber. While low in caloric density, they pack a nutritional punch and are so versatile to use – from salad, steamed greens, added to soups and smoothies, they are easy to buy either fresh or frozen.
- Berries. Different colors of berries are signs of different types of flavonoids – bioactive compounds that are responsible for various health benefits of berries, such as prevention of inflammation disorders, cardiovascular diseases, or protective effects to lower the risk of various cancers (4). Berries boost high antioxidant capacity, making them go-to fighters of free radicals that could lead to disease and ageing. Berries are also delicious, easy to incorporate into your diet as part of breakfast on top of an oatmeal or in a smoothie, as a snack or even in a salad – blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries fit well with spinach and bell peppers. If fresh berries are not available, frozen berries are an excellent alternative as they are harvested at the peak of their nutritional maturity and preserve the majority of their benefits due to flash freezing techniques.
- Onion and Garlic. These two belong to the family of Alliums and are purported to have extraordinary antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory properties. During World War I garlic was used to treat wounds in Russian army and later received a nickname – “Russian Antibiotic”. Adding onion and garlic to your regular diet may help scavenge pathogenic activity and prevent contracting some infections and viruses. Besides being so medicinal, they both add tons of flavor to any dish, either fresh or slightly cooked (high heat deactivates their antimicrobial properties). If you are not a frequent onion and garlic consumer, start slow and work your way up the quantities as they contain highly fermentable oligosaccharides – a type of fiber that is a great source of prebiotics (feed for gut microbiome), however may cause some bloating and gas. With time digestive discomfort symptoms lessen and disappear, as your gut bacteria adopts to its new diet.
- Sweet potatoes and yams. This starchy root vegetable is a treasure chest of vitamin A, B, C, potassium, magnesium, iron and fiber. Their different colors (orange, purple, yellow, white) speak for the content of potent antioxidants (anthocyanins, carotenoids, betalains) that are important in proper immune function and disease prevention (5). You can roast them, add them to stews, boil and mash, and even make baked goodies with them.
- Cruciferous vegetables: Broccoli, Cauliflower, Cabbage, Kale, Brussel Sprouts, Arugula. Cruciferous veggies are an excellent sources of folate, vitamin A, C and K, fiber and phytonutrients – plant-sourced compounds that may help lower inflammation, strengthen immune system and reduce the risk of developing cancer (6). One particular compound in cruciferous vegetables, that makes them cancer-fighters is sulforaphane, which can potentially prevent DNA damage, activate defenses against pathogens and pollutants, and boost your liver detox enzymes (7). You can crunch on them raw dipped in your favorite dressing, or they can be added to your regular fare – steamed cauliflower mixes well in mashed potatoes or macaroni-and-cheese, you can top a home-made pizza with fresh arugula and add chopped broccoli to pasta dishes.
- Legumes: Beans, Peas and Lentils. Legumes are a rich source of fiber, vitamins and minerals like vitamin B, iron, calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, and plant protein. High fiber content of these healthy foods will help our tummies with gut microbiome diversity – our friendly gut bacteria feeds and proliferates on fiber. Having a healthy variety of gut bugs helps ward off any infectious intruders, so keeping them fed keeps us healthy. Adequate consumption of foods rich in iron, like beans, prevents and treats iron deficiency anemia, that can make us fatigued and susceptible to disease. Beans and lentils are versatile and could be easily added to soups, chilis, stews, casseroles, salads, eaten as side dishes or blended and used as base for sauces and even baked goods.
In a situation like the one most of us in right now, our financial stability may suffer an economic downfall, leading to being more cautious with spending, even on food. Fortunately, many above-mentioned items are mostly affordable and easily accessible. Dry beans and peas are cheap and could be bought in bulk, sweet potatoes are also inexpensive and last a while in a dry dark place. Berries are cheaper frozen and still pack tons of nutrients. If you used to spend money on processed deli meats, chips and candy, try to limit them or stay away, as they are highly proinflammatory, increasing risk of chronic disease. Saving a few dollars here and there will afford you healthy disease-fighting alternatives.
Stay nourished my friends!
- Neto CC, Vinson JA. Cranberry. In: Benzie IFF, Wachtel-Galor S, editors. Herbal Medicine: Biomolecular and Clinical Aspects. 2nd edition. Boca Raton (FL): CRC Press/Taylor & Francis; 2011. Chapter 6.
- Townsend, Elizabeth A et al. “Effects of ginger and its constituents on airway smooth muscle relaxation and calcium regulation.” American journal of respiratory cell and molecular biology vol. 48,2 (2013): 157-63. doi:10.1165/rcmb.2012-0231OC
- Rahmani, Arshad Husain et al. “Role of Curcumin in Disease Prevention and Treatment.” Advanced biomedical research vol. 7 38. 28 Feb. 2018, doi:10.4103/abr.abr_147_16
- Skrovankova, Sona et al. “Bioactive Compounds and Antioxidant Activity in Different Types of Berries.” International journal of molecular sciences vol. 16,10 24673-706. 16 Oct. 2015, doi:10.3390/ijms161024673
- Petropoulos, Spyridon A et al. “Grown to be Blue-Antioxidant Properties and Health Effects of Colored Vegetables. Part I: Root Vegetables.” Antioxidants (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 8,12 617. 4 Dec. 2019, doi:10.3390/antiox8120617