Fueling for Optimal Immune Function

March 5, 2021

Dear Team Chaski,

I'm hoping to stay healthier this holiday season and I'm curious if what I eat and drink can negatively or positively affect my immune system.  We all love the sweets and decadent foods that generally accompany Thanksgiving and Christmas but I often get sick during or after the holidays.

With the combination of flu season and increasing COVID cases, I'd like to take extra precautions.

Thanks for your guidance,

Basil B.

Great question, Basil! Team Chaski's resident R.D. (registered Dietician) and Coach, Carolyn Stocker is here to answer all your nutrition questions!

There are more viruses in the world than there are stars in the universe. However, most of these viruses are completely harmless to humans and the rest need the proper environment and circumstances for us to become ill.  The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has brought virology to the forefront of everyone's newsfeed and the question we all want to know is how to avoid contracting the virus or how to prepare our bodies to fight against it (and others).

“Let food be thy medicine, and let medicine be thy food.”

What you eat plays a big role in how well your immune system is able to wage war against invading viruses. Here’s what you can do to make sure yours is in top shape and ready for action.

Your immune system is best prepared to take action against viruses when we consume foods that provide a steady stream of key nutrients. Diets centered around whole plant foods, in particular, appear to stimulate natural killer cell activity. Below is a list of food types to focus on and add to your weekly diet for optimal immune system functioning.

1. Lean Proteins

Protein builds up our immune cells and antibodies to help us fight infection.  We know protein helps us recover after exercise, but it also helps us recover from illness.  Lean proteins also provide iron and zinc which are immune-boosting minerals. Suggestions: fish, lean meats, eggs, beans, nuts, nut butters, seeds, quinoa, yogurt, and milk.  Choosing proteins such as fish, walnuts, flaxseeds, and chia seeds additionally provide Omega-3 fatty acids which help decrease inflammation and may influence the function of our immune cells.  

2. Eat the Rainbow with Fruits & Vegetables

Choose the bright colored ones. Vibrant colors signal the presence of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals like carotenes, polyphenols, flavonoids and anthocyanidins. Additionally, fruits and vegetables provide our bodies with antioxidants—Vitamin C, Vitamin A, and Vitamin E.  Antioxidants help reduce damage to our cells and inflammation.  Adding fruits and vegetables of different colors will ensure we are receiving a wide range of antioxidants.  Not the biggest fan of vegetables?  We recommend you add them to your favorite dishes—smoothies, omelets, pizza, pasta, etc.  

3. Feed your Gut

Probiotics (live bacteria) and prebiotics (feed the bacteria as dietary fiber) fight off the bad bacteria in our gut increasing our immune function. Probiotic-rich foods are fermented vegetables (pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut), yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, kombucha, miso, tempeh, and tamari sauce.  Prebiotics are found in the fiber of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans and fuel the healthy bacteria in our gut to thrive.  Foods high in prebiotics are garlic, bananas, onions, and oats.

4. Sunshine Vitamin – Vitamin D

We make Vitamin D through sun exposure but can also incorporate it into our diet.  Vitamin D rich foods include fatty fish, egg yolks, mushrooms, and fortified products such as dairy, orange juice, and cereals.  Vitamin D is critical for proper immune function.  

5. Stay Hydrated

Staying properly hydrated will help our body deliver nutrients to our cells and remove toxins and bad bacteria from our body. Ways to increase your fluid intake are always have a water bottle near you, sip throughout the day, set a hydration goal, and monitor urine color.  If you are not a big fan of plain water, you can use seltzer, fruit juice, milk, soups, watery fruits and vegetables (lettuce, celery, melons), and can add fruits to your water. But nothing is as good as good 'ol water.

Some Final Considerations

  • Get adequate sleep
  • Manage stress appropriately
  • Avoid smoking
  • Limit alcohol consumption
  • Get your levels of Vitamin D and iron tested in a blood test from InsideTracker, or similar commercial blood-panel services, and consider taking a supplement after consulting with your doctor.

Do you have any more questions or thoughts about nutrition and immune health? Have any other topics you'd love to see Team Chaski cover? Shoot us a DM, email, or leave a comment!

— Carolyn Stocker

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