Food is Medicine: How To Boost Your Immune System

So, at the time of writing, we are in a health crisis caused by a pandemic. We are having to live very differently, conform to rules that we don’t like but are for the greater good. Lives have been turned upside down, families are separated and jobs and finances have uncertain outcomes. This state of chaos can be scary and unpredictable and it can sometimes feel like we have no control.

And yet, right now. we are being given the opportunity to stop what we’ve been doing and reflect, re-evaluate and reset our priorities, focus on what’s important to us, our loved ones, communities and the world at large. We have the chance to question the old and create the new and help to fix things that are broken.

Albert Einstein is believed to have said that “insanity” is doing the same thing over and over again in the same way and expecting different results. We can do things differently and get better results. We can change the old ‘normal’ and think in ways we’ve never done before. Out of chaos will come calm, eventually, and with it a new ‘normal’ and we can choose what that will look like.

Our health and wellbeing could surely now be one of the things we choose to prioritise, to fix. And if we do this for ourselves, the effect on others and the world around us could be transformational.

We can choose to bring health and wellbeing back into our consciousness in a way we haven’t done for years. We have an amazing health service but haven’t we come to rely on it too heavily? Could we support it better by taking more responsibility for our own health and supporting those around us to do the same? If we were already doing this, would we be currently living in a society that is more obese, more medicated, more stressed than ever before?

This is not about blame. Over time, for many reasons, including our ‘busy’ lives, we’ve inadvertently lost our connection to how to be well. We’ve let it slip down our list of priorities and often felt powerless to do anything about it.

So, while we’re safe in our homes, we can do two really useful things: 1. Start to reconnect with our own wellbeing and 2. Boost our immune system. When we keep fit, stay calm, sleep well and eat well, we trigger a more effective immune response that does the healing for us.

And so, I’ve decided to share a series of blogs on various aspects of mindset and nutritional health. Information that I’ve not only learned through training and years of research, but practices that I live by. Those of you that know me, understand the impact this has had on me and therefore my passion for raising awareness and empowering others to do so too.

We can do so much to get our immune system into the best shape possible and one of the most powerful ways is through food. We would not have survived as a species without eating the right foods to support our bodies to fight disease and heal us. Deep down we already know this and we know which foods we need. The problem is we have forgotten to consciously connect to thoughts that remind us that food is one of the greatest medicines we have.

So, let me ask you a question: Why do you eat what you do? Now you may think, well that’s obvious – we eat because we’re hungry, to give us energy or something similar. And yet in reality, most of us choose to eat for so many other reasons. Maybe it’s taste, or cravings, boredom, convenience, social acceptability, a treat, because we’re upset, happy, it’s mealtime and so on. And therefore what and when we choose to eat isn’t necessarily what our bodies need. Our sophisticated brains mean we can choose so many reasons to eat, however, we’ve lost our belief in food as medicine, and that what we eat will nourish our minds and bodies and support us in the best way possible. How often do we consciously think about food being used to repair and renew those millions of cells, working together to keep us healthy.

Before we look at specific foods to help our immune system, let’s look at how we can reconnect with food as medicine. When I was diagnosed with cancer 10 years ago, one of the first things I thought was, ‘how can I stop this happening again?’. Food was one of the areas of my life I began to change – initially out of fear, to help keep me healthy. Foods that would nourish me became my focus and reconnected me with healing. The good news is that you don’t have to get very sick in order to do this! You can start to believe that you have some control over your health, to consciously set an intention when you shop, cook and eat, to choose foods that will nourish you and your family and help keep you well, not just now, but in the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not the food police. I too like the odd glass of wine, bit of chocolate and plate of fish and chips, and our bodies have the ability to deal with these less-than-healthy foods in small amounts but it’s when they become the everyday foods, without the majority of our diet being made up of the good stuff, that the damage is done. Processed food is one such group of foods that causes more harm than good. It’s either made from chemicals or it’s food that has been messed with and is therefore not in it’s natural state. Unnatural substances that the body does not recognise will create inflammation, the pre-cursor to disease. There is often hidden sugars and bad fats in processed food too and a serious lack of nutrients, even in those so-called ‘healthy’ snacks!

Added sugar is one of the most damaging substances that we eat, particularly in the quantities that we now consume. It has been linked to just about every common physical and mental disorder in today’s modern world, including cancer and depression. If it was a new substance created today, it could well be banned due to it’s toxicity. It’s often hidden in food we don’t expect so without realising we can consume more of it than we think.

Instead, getting back to basics and eating real food, in it’s natural form is what will help feed your immune system to function in the way it was designed to do. Eating a rainbow is something I often tell clients. When you look at your plate of food, what colours do you see? If you see all the colours of the rainbow, you are getting a wide variety of nutrients, particularly in vegetables as these are where many immune-boosting vitamins and minerals are found. To fill your plate half full with veg is really we want, forget five a day, that is nowhere near enough to maximise your health. It will also mean you are eating plenty of fibre to rid your body of toxins.

There are particular vitamins, minerals and foods that boost immunity so I’ll give you some foods that are rich in these to help you see where you may want to up your intake.

Let’s start with vitamin A – found in liver, cod liver oil, mackerel, salmon, tuna, cheese eggs, sweet potatoes, carrots, red peppers, kale, chard and spinach. Few of us eat liver and even oily fish these days, so if you don’t, eat a range of the other foods to ensure you’re getting enough.

Vitamin C is a water soluble vitamin which means the body doesn’t store it, and yet it’s vital for our immunity. It’s also destroyed by cooking and time so fresh, raw or frozen sources will mean we get more of it. Found in chillies, yellow peppers, blackcurrants, thyme, parsley, spinach, kale, tomatoes, papaya, strawberries and oranges.

Vitamin D is difficult to get from food and as the main source is sunlight, most people are lacking this one, particularly after a long winter. When we can get outside, exposing our skin safely, without sun cream for a few minutes at a time (without burning of course!) will help to get this from sunlight. Foods that do contain vitamin D are oily fish, egg yolks and mushrooms.

Zinc is a mineral and is found in shellfish, pumpkin seeds, whole grains, cashew and pecan nuts, cocoa, chickpeas, lentils, beans, mushrooms, and spinach.

Magnesium rich foods are leafy greens, almonds, fish, beans and pulses, whole grains, avocados, bananas, figs and dark cocoa.

A group of foods I must mention are mushrooms! These beauties have so many benefits I could do a whole blog on them. They are powerful immune-boosters that help kill viruses, bacteria and yeast. Different mushrooms have different properties so try shitake, reishi, maitake, cordyceps and oyster too. They can be bought fresh, dried and powdered for soups, stews and sauces.

A healthy gut means that the nutrients that we do eat, get to where they are needed so eating pre-biotic foods will help maintain gut health. These are bitter foods such as artichokes, chicory, garlic and onions as well as asparagus, oats, apples, cocoa and flaxseeds.

We use herbs and spices to flavour our food but how often do we think of the goodness in them? They are concentrated nutrients and have powerful, healing properties – ask any herbalist. Common ones particularly helpful for the immune system are sage, rosemary, thyme, garlic, ginger and turmeric.

As many of us have more time on our hands right now, why not try something new, experiment with foods that maybe you haven’t tried before. If you’ve got children at home, get them involved, make it fun and laugh about it if it doesn’t go according to plan. Start to get the next generation connecting with healing food. Google some recipes or try out those from my other blogs such as home made hummus, lentil soup and coleslaw (more on the way).

Let’s stop outsourcing our health. Apart from the social distancing, isolation and hand-washing, we can do something empowering. We can boost our immune system by providing the nutrients to repair and renew those wonderful white blood cells that help us to get well from any illness, not just this one. These cells are our defence, they attack viruses and destroy them. That’s what they do, all the time, most of the time without us realising it’s happening and when we do feel unwell, e.g. feel achey or have a fever, it’s our immune system that’s doing it’s job. How amazing is that.

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