Diet for immune and general illness support
by Sue Kira, Naturopath & Clinical Nutritionist
The immune system is one of the most complex systems of your body and consists primarily of different types of white blood cells that reside in the blood and specific tissues. The role of the immune system is to eliminate foreign or infectious compounds such as bacteria, viruses, cancer cells, allergens and chemicals.
That’s the quick version…find out more at Our Amazing Immune System
Many things can decimate your immune system and make you vulnerable to whatever bugs are around. These ‘things’ include illness, disease, poor hygiene, stress, being run-down or physically exhausted, alcohol, cigarettes, sugar, food choices and eating habits, toxicity, nutrient deficiency, limited exercise and poor lifestyle choices. In essence – lack of self-care.
Conversely, a healthy immune system means your body has a much better chance to fight off viruses, sickness and disease.
The good news is you can do something about it.
Your body has a remarkable ability to recover and self-generate from low immunity…provided you don’t leave it too late.
This article looks at one of the main factors that affects your immune system for better or worse. Diet! It’s not about going on a diet, it’s about the true meaning of diet, what you put into your mouth, day in and day out.
It’s simply a matter of making food choices to give your body a much better chance to ward off nasties that are waiting to attack and drain your energy.
Who is this diet for?
First: this is a diet to support those with compromised immune systems who can benefit from increased resilience to help the body ward off foreign or infectious compounds.
Second: the immune support diet is also beneficial as a preventative measure against illness and disease, particularly with the ongoing threat of new strains of viruses each year.
Whether used as a protective or preventative measure, an immune support diet containing many of the nutrients listed below can help you to regain and maintain a strong immune system and ongoing vitality.
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 hearty home-made soups and broths and the science behind them, because they’re easy to digest and full of minerals depleted by illness.
Then there’s the energy of love that goes into making a soup from scratch to care for oneself or another, which of course makes it taste much better 🙂
Here are some great foods to support your immunity…
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 than citrus, plus rich in beta carotene)
- Broccoli is packed with vitamins A, C, and E, as well as antioxidants
- Spinach is is rich in vitamin C and packed with a number of different antioxidants and beta carotene, which may help your immune system to fight infection. Spinach is also rich in vitamin A, which is great for repairing 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, which all 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 you 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 vibrant orange 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.
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).
This diet is for general immunity support. However for those with auto-immune conditions such as Hashimoto’s, an auto-immune diet is more specific.
As seen above, there are many foods rich in nutrients that can support the immune system, whether you are recovering from an illness or simply trying to boost your overall immunity.
If you are unwell or run down, then broths, soups and casseroles are good choices. If you are well but need to boost your immune system, then more salads and fruits rich in vitamins are great options.
No matter what time of the year and for most illnesses, bone broths are a great drink to help restore the gut lining where 80% of your immune system lives.
One of the best things you can do to support your immune system is to stop eating 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, they feed 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?
Keep the sweet options to a minimum whilst recovering or boosting your immune system.
In a diet for immune support the idea is to include foods that support and bring balance to the body, and eliminate foods considered detrimental, to help your body to do its natural job of healing.
With any therapeutic diet, it is advisable to first check with your health care professional and do not stop taking any prescribed medications or supplements unless advised otherwise by your practitioner.
Note: During the early stages of your 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.
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 poor Zara seemed to get sick the most.
She had used up her sick-leave entitlement and much of her holidays in 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.
Due to being consistently unwell Zara had taken many rounds of antibiotics to kill off the infections to get back to work as soon as possible.
Unfortunately antibiotics destroyed her good bacteria levels and no one told her she needed to take probiotics after antibiotic treatments to balance her stomach bacteria. This meant her immune system had poor bacterial defences and Zara 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.
When she woke tired, she usually had 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 napped 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, which would 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 options of using a slow cooker for chicken and vegetable casseroles, soups and curries, and 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’d 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 also have 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.
It’s gradually happening