6 minute read

Immunity: it’s The Hot Topic of the Moment. Or year. And maybe next year too.

Coronavirus has a lot to answer for: social isolation, fear, anxiety, furlough, home schooling, and the many more challenges that have arisen this year, but there’s also been a brilliant side effect. Suddenly, everyone and their dog are interested in “boosting immunity”.

Out of the blocks, let me clarify that “boosting” immunity is not what we want to be doing; that way lies potential health issues of an entirely different sort. Oh no, what we actually mean is “supporting” immunity so it can operate at its elegant best.

Our immune system is intelligent, complex, and equipped with a range of defences to keep us safe and well in the face of interactions with the myriad foreign invaders that surround us. While a comprehensive review of the immune system and its functioning is offered elsewhere, here I outline three nutrition steps that you could take to ensure your immune system is given the best environment in which to thrive and do its job properly.

“Nutrition tips” mean “food”. Lifestyle measures, such as adequate sleep, movement, and effective stress management, are as, if not more, important, but many people find food easier to start with because we are surrounded by it and consume it so often throughout the day. From my perspective it’s a good starting point because poor nutrition has been shown to impair immune function and increase the risk of infection.

Tip number 1: Variety is key.

Eating a variety of colourful fruit, vegetables and plant-derived foods maximises provision of the micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and fibre) to encourage optimal immune function. The micronutrients we are specifically seeking are vitamins A, C, D, E, the B group, and folate, plus the minerals iron, selenium, and zinc. A diet rich in plant-derived foods can respond to the seasons, for example in the autumn when our food choices naturally switch to dense, warming foods that can provide us with the specifics nutrients our body’s immune system and gut microbiome needs.

The gut microbiome has been attracting a lot of attention in recent time, and its role in supporting immune function has not gone unnoticed. As well as providing the nutrients needed to support optimal immune function, a wide variety of plant-derived foods can provide the fibre required to nurture the gut microbiome. Fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kimchi support the microbiome whilst adding to the variety of foods eaten.

A good goal to include in your immune supporting strategy is to include at least 30 different types of colourful, plant-derived foods in your way of eating over the course of a week. This may seem tricky but it’s simpler than it appears, especially if you are cooking from scratch as herbs and spices count in the total. Yes, that Thursday supper of stir-fried chicken with exotic mushrooms and Camargue rice, Friday night curry with a blend of spices and plenty of garlic and ginger, or Saturday night three-bean chilli with added cumin, paprika and more suddenly makes achieving your goal a lot easier. 

You might like to create a sheet with days of the week along the top where you can note down the plant-derived foods eaten over the course of each day. Add them up at the end of the week – each type is one point, no matter how many times you eat it – and aim to increase that by one, two or three varieties the next week. It’ll help you to connect with what you’re eating too, like a food journal but with added benefits.

Tip number 2: Include protein.

A lot of the immune defences are manufactured from the amino acid building blocks obtained from protein. Protein is used in a lot of other processes too so ensuring your body has adequate supply is essential in supporting its effective function. The usual sources can be good here – higher welfare, grass-fed, preferably organic, animal sources or wild fish such as wild salmon, herring, anchovy and mackerel are good; not only do they provide protein, they also play a part in the inflammatory processes involved in immune defences. Once again, some of our plant-derived foods also feature here: nuts, seeds, legumes, pulses, and tofu if you can tolerate it. Don’t overlook higher welfare, free-range, preferably organic, eggs and natural yoghurt (my clients know I currently favour a really good Greek yoghurt rather than the runnier versions); the fermented drink, kefir, can bring protein whilst supporting the gut microbiome.

Tip number 3: Get the balance right.

Like Jamie in his ‘Five’ book where suddenly an additional ingredient or two would be required from the store cupboard, I’ve been a bit sneaky here. ‘Balance’ could mean any of a number of considerations. 

A key consideration is the balance between omega 3 and 6 fatty acids, focusing on greater provision of omega-3 for its anti-inflammatory effects. This becomes easier to achieve by including oily fish and flax/hemp seeds in regular eating whilst managing levels of red meat and dairy foods and reducing processed foods to a minimum where possible.

‘Balance’ could also refer to the composition of your plate: build your plate with mainly varied plant-derived (not overly starchy) foods with meat or animal proteins being the size of the palm of your hand. A small portion of starchy carbs such as sweet potato or celeriac may complete the plate; you could choose potatoes or brown basmati rice if your individual insulin response permits (don’t know what that is? Contact me to find out more).

“Balance’ could also refer to alcohol consumption across the week, fluid intake across the day – whatever you want it to mean.

I work on the basis that we all know what could benefit from being adjusted, but that sometimes we lack the motivation to overcome inertia to do something different. Maybe supporting your immune defences and staying well during these strange times is sufficient motivation.

One final word in closing: supplements.

Many people appear to have micronutrient deficiencies, in part due to how we produce our food, our lifestyles, and our food choices. Whilst the position regarding unilateral use of vitamin D3 is being updated in response to the pandemic, some people may benefit from a targeted, good quality, all-round multivitamin and mineral supplement to help provide a safety net while dietary adjustments are put in place. This may be particularly of relevance to the older adults, or anyone facing additional health challenges. It is important to ensure that the right product for the individual is selected, to reduce the risks of unwelcome inter-actions with any medications (prescription or Over the Counter) or over-supplementation. If you want my help with that, contact me.

Stay well.

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