Diet for Immune and General Illness support
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
When you think about immune support or illness recovery, you might think of home-made chicken and/or vegetable soup. At least I do. There’s nothing nicer than a warm hearty nourishing soup when you feel run down and unwell or recovering from an illness. There is something very loving, caring and nurturing about soups and broths, but there’s also a science behind them.
Generally, hearty soups are very easy to digest and full of minerals often lost in illness. Then there are the other foods for immune support. And of course, there is love – the energy that goes into making a soup from scratch to care for oneself or another.
Each of these have the same basic theme. They are generally easy to digest, simple in their ingredients, have healing qualities, and are good for your immune system.
So why not focus on love when preparing meals that you make for you or those you care for? Because a little love can go a long way.
This diet is for general immune support. For auto-immune conditions see the more specific Auto-Immune Diet or look for specific conditions listed on the Therapeutics Diets page, such as the Hashimotos Diet.
Whether you are recovering from an illness, or simply want to boost your overall immunity, there are many foods rich in nutrients to support the immune system that are listed below.
If you are unwell or run down, then broths, soups and casseroles are good choices. No matter what time of the year or what type of illness, bone broths are a great drink to help restore the gut lining where your immune system is needed the most.
If you are well but want to boost your immune system, then more salads and fruits rich in vitamins are great options.
One of the best things you can do to support your immune system is to go off foods that are difficult to digest and compromise the immune system, such as gluten, dairy, grains, sugar, food additives, alcohol and caffeine.
These foods and substances add to inflammation, create mucus in the body, congest the digestive system and rob your body of vital nutrients and good bacterial balance.
Substances like sugar and alcohol not only destroy good bacteria, but they feed the bad bacteria, creating an imbalance in the gut which then affects the immune system. Did you know that one teaspoon of sugar can kill 1000 white blood cells which are crucial for our immune system?
While a diet for immune support is not considered a cure, the idea is to eliminate foods considered detrimental, and include foods that support your body to give it the best chance to heal naturally. That’s why it is so important to exclude antagonistic foods and drinks.
Important: Before you commence a new diet, see your medical or health care professional for qualified guidance about what foods and supplements are best for your body. While on the diet do not stop any medications or supplements previously prescribed unless advised otherwise by your medical or health care professional.
Note: During the early stages of a new diet, you may experience symptoms such as fatigue, headaches or body aches, which may occur because your body is detoxifying. However, if you are unsure about a symptom at any time, check immediately with your medical or health care professional.
Vitamin C rich foods
Vitamin C helps to support your immune system by increasing the production of white blood cells that are key to fighting infections.
Popular vitamin C rich foods include:
– Grapefruit, oranges, tangerines/mandarins, lemons and limes
– Red bell peppers (double the vitamin C in citrus, plus rich in beta carotene)
– Broccoli, packed with vitamins A, C, and E, as well as antioxidants
– Spinach is rich in vitamin C and packed with different antioxidants and beta carotene, which may help your immune system to fight infection. Spinach is also rich in vitamin A, which is great to repair the mucus membranes of your internal tissues lining your gut and respiratory system.
– Papaya (paw paw) is another fruit loaded with vitamin C. Papayas also have a digestive enzyme called papain that has anti-inflammatory effects. Papayas have decent amounts of potassium, B vitamins and folate, all of which benefit your immune system.
– Kiwi fruit are naturally full of essential nutrients, including vitamin C, folate, potassium and vitamin K. Kiwi fruits may also protect against respiratory problems, preventing common cold and flu complications such as coughing, wheezing and asthma.
Garlic contains sulphur-containing compounds, such as allicin, well known for its immune-boosting properties.
Yoghurt (coconut based) may stimulate your immune system in a couple of ways. One is due to the ‘friendly bacteria’ that it contains which helps the gut-immune system. The second reason is because it is a rich source of Vitamin D which is great for the immune system.
Vitamin E rich foods
Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant and important to regulate and maintain immune system function. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble vitamin, meaning it requires eating foods containing fat to be absorbed properly. Nuts, especially almonds, are packed with vitamin E as well as the fats needed for absorption.
Other good sources of vitamin E are raw seeds, Swiss chard, mustard greens, spinach, turnip greens, kale, sweet potato, avocado, sunflower seeds and butternut squash. Sunflower seeds are incredibly high in vitamin E and full of other great nutrients such as phosphorous, magnesium and vitamin B-6.
Turmeric is the spice often found in curries. It helps the immune system by reducing inflammation in the body. It seems that we are only just starting to uncover many of the amazing virtues of turmeric.
Great B6 levels in chicken and turkey play an important role in the immune system, supporting many of the chemical reactions that happen within the body, including the formation of new and healthy red blood cells. If possible, organic chicken is preferable or free range.
Zinc is a mineral that can heavily affect our immune system in a good way. Our bodies need zinc so our immune cells can function as intended. Zinc is rich in shellfish, especially oysters, but also in crabs, clams, lobster, mussels and is also rich in pepitas (pumpkin seeds).
Client name and identifying information changed
Zara came to me after being sick on and off for the previous two years. She worked in childcare and it was common for staff to get sick frequently, but it seemed that poor Zara got sick the most. She was using up her sick-leave entitlement and many of her holiday days, trying to recover from the yo-yo of being sick then well, sick then well. She was sick of being sick, but loved the industry, so came to me for advice.
Because 80% of our immune system starts in the gut, we initially explored her digestive system. Unfortunately, due to being consistently unwell, Zara had taken many rounds of antibiotics to kill off the infections so she could get back to work as soon as possible.
The antibiotics destroyed her good bacteria levels and no one told her that she needed to take probiotics after antibiotic treatments. This meant she didn’t have a good bacterial defence for her immune system. Therefore, she was susceptible to catching whatever was doing the rounds at the childcare centre.
The other problem was her poor diet. Because she was often tired, she drank lots of coffee and ate many sweet foods and quick-frozen dinners containing processed foods, pastas and the like. Because she woke tired, she would usually have a piece of toast with jam or honey for breakfast or sometimes fruit. Lunch was often missed due to being busy, and if she did get a break she had a nap in her car.
Zara’s diet had to change.
I encouraged her to eat foods low in sugar and grains, with no gluten, dairy or processed foods, all to help support her body and allow her immune system to rest and repair any damage from the antibiotics.
Good probiotic rich coconut yoghurt was included and bone broth to help rebuild her digestive system. However, by taking out all the processed foods, sugar and grains, Zara needed to eat more vegetables.
Due to her time constraints, we discussed the options of using a slow cooker for chicken and vegetable casseroles, soups and curries, as well as other slow cooked meals with various meats, legumes, pulses, broths and soups. It was winter, so this was quite easy for her…and welcomed. Zara took some of the broths and meals to work in a thermos and had them at tea breaks and lunchtime, which was quick, easy and nourishing.
Zara still craved sweet things for breakfast so she would make a smoothie with leafy green veggies, berries for sweetness, a splash of coconut milk, coconut oil, some vitamin C rich goji berries, a teaspoon of Spirulina powder, nuts and seeds (that she soaked overnight to make them easier to digest), some fermented probiotic powder I recommended, and water to liquefy the brew.
Within two weeks she felt much better and stronger from her new diet. The most important part of this diet was taking her off gluten, dairy and sugar and limiting her coffee to one cup a day (made on coconut milk). The extra nutrients would have also really helped.
I find it quite common when the digestive system is given a chance to heal, then the immune system is so much stronger
Now Zara only gets sick if she has a big night out on the town drinking alcohol. Then she gets run down, tired and eats badly again. Each time this happens, she sends me an email saying “I’ve just gotta stop doing this to myself” and plans to look after her body much better.