Your immune system is capable of incredible things. It’s responsible for fighting off viruses and diseases, but day-to-day, it can be the difference between realising that goal you set out to achieve or nursing a cold from your couch.
To discover some simple ways that we can support our immune system by using food as medicine, we sat down with Clinical Nutritionist and Naturopath, Layla Metcalfe.
Before we begin, it is important to note that a healthy immune system relies on a foundation of nutrition and good health. We recommend speaking with a qualified naturopath or GP for advice tailored to you before making any changes to your diet.
Hydration is the first key tip. As we head into the cooler months, it’s easy to assume that we don’t need to drink as much water – we are less active outside and we aren’t sweating as much as we would in the summer.
However, keeping hydrated all year around is vital to maintaining a solid foundation of nutrition and health. A hydrated body is better able to maintain regular bodily functions and circulation of nutrients throughout the body, ensuring nutrients are delivered to the right places and anything unnecessary can be flushed out.
LAYLA’S PERSONAL TIP – aim for at least 2-3L of pure, still water per day, including herbal, caffeine-free tea. Try echinacea or elderberry tea for the immune system.
2. Warming Foods
Eating cold foods during the winter months, such as smoothies and cold salads, can cause our digestive system to contract. This can reduce circulation, and lead to a slowed digestion which is not going to help you thrive when those cooler temperatures set in.
During winter, we want to boost our circulation and increase our “digestive fire” – our ability to break food down effectively. So, if it's cold outside of our body, we in-turn want to keep our core temperature warm by eating warming foods and beverages like soup, broth, cooked vegetables, and tea.
LAYLA’S PERSONAL TIP – Include warming herbs & spices like cayenne, garlic, chili, ginger, and turmeric to increase circulation, transport nutrients more efficiently around the body and support the immune system.
3. Vitamins & Minerals
Cold and flu season generally starts when there is a drop in temperature. It’s important to prepare for this by incorporating minerals like Zinc into your diet which can be found in both plants and animals. Zinc is a powerful mineral that is essential for immune function, healing, repair and stress management.
Zinc is most concentrated in food sources such as oysters, red meat and other animal products. However, if you consume a plant-based diet, including foods such as chickpeas, nuts and beans in your day can help with increasing your zinc intake.
To help support your immune system further, Vitamin C is essential. As a strong antioxidant and immune system supporter, we should include as much Vitamin C in our diet as we can during cold and flu season. It is found mostly in brightly coloured fruits and vegetables like oranges, carrots, capsicum, strawberries, and sweet potato. Our bodies don’t produce Vitamin C, so it’s important to get it from good quality organic produce if we can.
Zinc and Vitamin C are great friends that work very well together and can help to reduce the severity and life span of a cold.
Another vitamin we should use to help us with our overall health and wellbeing is Vitamin D, which we absorb primarily from the sun. Our bodies convert vitamin D from the sun into Vitamin D3 in our skin, but the potency that we get can vary from place to place and the time of the year, so speak to your naturopath or GP about finding a Vitamin D supplement that you could use to increase your Vitamin D intake. Along with a supplement, getting 10 - 15 minutes of sun every day is important for our wellbeing. We absorb sunlight best through our face and abdomen. If you want to find out the best time of day to get your daily dose of sun, you can use apps like D Minder which uses your location to advise, track and manage your Vitamin D intake.
Sleep and rest are when our bodies really start to repair themselves and Magnesium is a powerful mineral that can help regulate our sleep, mood, and aid in the function of our immune system. Taking a Magnesium supplement is a fast way to get this into our system, but you can also take a hot magnesium salt bath to help relax your muscles and get a good night’s rest.
4. Herbs, Spices & Roots
There are some great herbs out there that we can use to help support our immune system and increase our body’s resilience to external pathogens. Andrographis, Elderberry and Echinacea are all powerful immune boosting herbs that can be prescribed from your naturopath, and many are also found in over the counter supplements and teas. Teas can be very medicinal, so winter is a great time to drink more teas throughout the day. Thyme and Mint are also great common herbs that can be used in teas as they have some antibacterial properties.
Our immune system is very sensitive to stress. When we do stress out, our immune system suffers which can in turn effect our gut health. The better we are at managing our stress, the less likely we are to start compromising our immune system. Ashwagandha is a great herb that can be used to regulate mood, decrease stress, and help with sleep.
Garlic contains a great source of antimicrobials, which means it has not only antiviral properties but anti-fungal and antiviral benefits too. Allicin is the medicinal compound you get from garlic when you crush it, so it's best to crush your raw garlic before you cook it.
Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and can help support the function of our liver. Viruses put our livers under extra stress, so getting some turmeric in our diet can help our liver support the rest of our body to detoxify and fight illness.
Ginger is also great circulatory stimulant, so using ginger and turmeric together works well to ensure the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric get to the organs that need it.
5. Immune Support Tea
For a simple and practical way to boost your immunity this cold and flu season, we have put together a recipe utilising some of the ingredients mentioned above. It’s a quick and easy way to support your health every day. This tea packs a punch, but can be enjoyed warm, used as a throat gargle, or cooled for a daily morning shot.
- 1 inch of Fresh Ginger, or 1 teaspoon of Crushed Ginger
- 1 inch of Fresh Turmeric, or 1 teaspoon of Ground Turmeric
- 2 cloves of Fresh Garlic, or 2 teaspoons of Crushed Garlic
- ¼ tsp of Cayenne Pepper
- ½ a Lemon, juiced
- Thyme and Mint Leaves (optional)
- Manuka Honey – (antimicrobial and soothes a sore throat)
- Pinch of Ground Pepper
- Splash of Nut Milk or 1 tsp Ghee or 1 tsp Coconut Oil
- Combine the Ginger, Turmeric, Garlic, Cayenne Pepper, Lemon, Thyme & Mint Leaves (if using) into a tea pot.
- Fill your tea pot with freshly boiled water and add the fat (coconut oil, ghee or nut milk) & Manuka Honey.
- Let the tea steep for five minutes, then enjoy! Any leftovers can be cooled in the fridge and used as a morning shot.