Fall is practically here, vacations are winding down, and the new school year has begun. That means colds and flus are lurking nearby, waiting for the earliest chance make their seasonal debut. It’s a good time to start preparing.
We often talk about boosting immunity but, like so many biological systems, the immune system is tremendously complicated. Immune cells have to make difficult decisions from moment to moment: friend or foe? Is this a pathogen that needs to be eliminated, or a cell that must be preserved? If it is a pathogen, how do we fight it?
How our immune cells behave and react has critical implications for health. Failing to identify a foe can lead to a serious infection. However, misidentifying one’s own cells, tissues, organs, etc. as an enemy generates a destructive autoimmune response. When healthy, the immune system is balanced on a knife’s edge, neither over-reacting nor under-reacting. And there are many ways to achieve this equilibrium naturally.
The first step towards balancing our immune response is to provide the right fuel. Remember, immunity is intertwined with virtually every other bodily system: gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, and hormonal. It all works together.
In particular, the digestive system has been called “the second immune system” because of the intense immune development and activity that takes place there. That’s why healthy eating is so critical to strong immunity. We need to make sure our defense mechanisms are well fueled, and that our digestion is strong and efficient. Unhealthy ingredients like refined sugars, trans-fats, and processed food additives have been shown to significantly impair immune function, sometimes right after we eat them. Just think of the long term damage they can do.
So we need to start with the basics of healthy eating: lean protein, sprouted whole grains, nuts and legumes; lots of organic fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats like olive, coconut and omega-3 oils. Brightly colored fruits and veggies are particularly important, as the phytonutrient compounds that give them beautiful pigments also provide exceptional nutritional value in the form of antioxidant activity, anti-inflammatory support, sustenance for immunity and much more. I recommend beets, sweet potatoes, squash, carrots, peppers, mangoes and blueberries, but there are countless options.
Cruciferous vegetables are also important. Broccoli, kale, cabbage and cauliflower contain beneficial glucosinates, molecules that combine glucose, nitrogen and sulfur and have been shown to protect against cancer and support immunity.
Cultured foods like yogurt, miso, sauerkraut and others are rich in probiotic, beneficial bacteria that have been found to play important roles in modulating immune activity — particularly in our digestive system. These friendly microbes work in ways we’re only beginning to understand, such as influencing gene expression to train the immune system for better responsiveness.