Food for Health: Natural Immune Boosters
Updated: Jan 16
You’ve probably heard the admonition to “take your vitamins!” at some point, and it’s generally a good idea—especially this time of year, where the cold and dry air keep us inside and help cold and flu viruses circulate. But why? Don’t we get all we need from our diets? The answer, of course, is “not necessarily”. Not everyone eats all the fresh veggies they should, and during the winter we may need more of certain vitamins and minerals than we do other times of the year. A multivitamin or a handful of supplements are helpful, yes, but in order to get the full possible benefits for our bodies and brains it’s best to get most of what we need from a healthy, fresh, varied diet. Some substances work best together (like vitamin D and calcium, or vitamins C and E), and whole, unprocessed foods contain much more than just simple vitamins (like fiber and amino acids). So how do we get the most from our diet at a time of year when sunlight and warmth are in short supply? The answer is, in short, eat strategically.
Vitamin C, or ascorbic acid, is a popular supplement this time of year (from fizzy drink sachets to cough drops); it helps the immune system work properly as well as preventing and treating scurvy, assisting with heart function, preventing damage from radiation therapy, and helping the body absorb iron. We think of oranges when we think of Vitamin C—but this important vitamin isn’t just found in citrus fruit. Red bell peppers, spinach, broccoli, and papayas all include huge amounts of Vitamin C (red bell peppers have proportionally twice as much as citrus fruit). Since this is one of the vitamins that our bodies neither produce nor store, it’s important to get your daily intake from outside sources regularly, and eating a variety of whole, raw fruits and veggies is the best way to do that. Spinach, like a lot of vegetables, is best raw or lightly cooked to retain as many of its vitamins and minerals (vitamin C, vitamin A, and antioxidants); broccoli, too, is best raw (full of vitamins K, C, and A, as well as fiber).
B vitamins are important for a lot of functions (metabolism, the nervous system, immune response, and red blood cell production, among others), and they’re found primarily in proteins (like meat, fish, and dairy products). If you’re vegetarian or vegan, it’s even more important to make sure you’re getting your daily dose in your diet. Nutritional yeast is full of B-12, and its cheesy, nutty flavor makes it a popular ingredient in a lot of vegan foods (and a great popcorn topping). Leafy greens, beans, and peas all contain B vitamins, though to a lesser extent than animal products; also, a lot of cereals and breads are fortified with vitamins.
Vitamin D is especially important this time of year for those of us who live in northern climates and don’t get to see the sun nearly as much as we’d like. It helps the body process calcium and make strong bones and teeth (severe vitamin D deficiency can cause soft bones, or rickets); also, it helps with mood regulation and immune system function. While most commonly found in dairy products, fish, and eggs, there are fortified cereals and orange juice available for vegans and vegetarians.
Vitamin E is fat-soluble and found in a variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, and eggs (nuts such as almonds are an excellent source as well); it’s important for immune health as well as vision and skin health and is a powerful antioxidant, potentially reducing the harmful effects of environmental free radicals. Since vitamin E absorbs best when combined with vitamin C, getting your vitamins from a varied diet (instead of individual supplements) is the most efficient way to go.
Cold weather can bring out the aches and pains; anti-inflammatories can help. Turmeric (the bright yellow spice found in curry powder) contains curcumin, which can provide pain relief from arthritis as well as exercise-induced muscle damage. Ginger contains gingerol, which is a relative of capsaicin (the chemical that gives hot peppers their heat); both gingerol and capsaicin can help with chronic pain, and in fact, capsaicin is used in skin creams for its numbing effects. Ginger also helps settle the stomach and reduce nausea. Garlic is another food popular both for its flavor and its medicinal properties; garlic has been used for centuries for its immune-boosting power and also may help fight infections and lower blood pressure.
Multivitamins and supplements are helpful, but trying to get most of your intake through unprocessed foods will give you more benefits than just the vitamins. Eating fresh or lightly-cooked fruits and vegetables lets you maximize the nutrition content—plus eating crisp, tasty, brightly-colored whole foods will give you emotional benefits as well as just physical. It’s very true that people “eat with their eyes”—food that looks pleasing is far more appealing. Portion control is important, of course—don’t eat too much of anything, and make sure you’re getting the recommended ratios of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Get as much sleep as you can (make sure you’re not sleeping too much, as that may be a sign of physical ailments or depression) and get a light box to make sure you’re getting enough sunlight; even when it’s cold out, bundling up and getting even a little fresh air will help boost your mood and metabolism. And if you’re sick—stay home! Trying to power through a cold or flu is not only unhygienic, but getting worn out will just hamper your ability to recover and drag out the illness. Winter won’t last forever, and sooner than we think it’ll be sunshine, warmth, and gardening season—so make sure to take extra care of yourself!