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I love having the flu! Said no one ever. Sadly, too many of us don’t eat enough fresh fruits, vegetables, and other natural foods to keep healthy year-round and maintain a strong immune system. Our immune system is a host defense system made up of a network of organs, tissues, and cells that work together to protect the body from harmful bacteria, viruses, and other organisms. A truly healthy immune system is dependent on a balanced mix of vitamins and minerals, good sleep habits, and daily movement. I call this the Lifestyle Trifecta.
Everyone is born with immunity; however, some are born with stronger immune systems than others. This innate system we are born with involves barriers and processes that help keep harmful pathogens from interfering with your body’s healthy function. This is your body’s first line of internal protection. If a pathogen gets through that barrier line, your immune system is under attack. As I learn more about football from my husband, I now relate our immune system to an offensive line. Using this analogy, the offensive line is responsible for supporting your “team’s” daily game plan. If you consider yourself to be the quarterback, your offensive line would then serve as your immune system’s barrier; providing around-the-clock protection against the likes of Strahan, Mack, Watt, and LT. Get the picture?
During this defensive attack, your body needs extra support to adequately react and respond to the pathogens. Much like a team working together on the field, so does your body during this time. Your body uses its internal immunity, stemming from its gut, which helps restore its weakened system and disrupts the invading infection. So, the moment you feel your body signaling that its immune system is compromised, you want to avoid the sack by introducing nutrient dense foods.
With some exceptions, its best to get your vitamins and minerals from your food rather than in supplement form. If you eat a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods that are full of phytonutrients, vitamins, and minerals, you’ll automatically be supporting your immune system from within.
Here are some natural foods for getting the top vitamins and minerals your immune system needs to perform at its best. I encourage you to try eating a variety of the immune-supporting foods throughout the year and not simply during cold and flu season – aka football season.
Think orange. Carrots, sweet potatoes, and butternut squash are fine examples of foods with vitamin A, which get their color from compounds called carotenoids. Our bodies turn carotenoids into vitamin A, strengthening our immune system and fighting infection. Exchange a sweet potato with a Russet potato next time you’re craving a stuffed baked potato – which not only has more vitamin A than a Russet, but will provide you with more fiber as well.
Many of us know citrus contains large amounts of vitamin C, a powerhouse of antioxidants. However, other foods such as broccoli, red bell peppers, leafy greens, strawberries, and papayas are also wonderful sources of this immune building vitamin. One cup of broccoli has as much vitamin C as an orange!
Aside from getting your vitamin D from the sun, fish such as salmon, tuna, and sardines are loaded with vitamin D, which helps facilitate normal immune function. As for the plant kingdom, try adding more mushrooms into your diet. Similar to humans, mushrooms produce vitamin D following exposure to sunlight making them the only plant source with naturally occurring vitamin D.
Vitamin E helps your body fight off infection and is essential in how your immune system functions. Nuts and seeds such as almonds, Brazil nuts, hazelnuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds are all foods high in vitamin E. I love snacking on a handful or adding them to my morning cereal or yogurt. If you love guacamole, you’re in luck! Avocados are a great source of vitamin E and can be easily be added to your morning toast or topped on your salad.
Selenium plays an important role in your immune system by fighting off bacteria, viruses, and parasites. When your body doesn’t have enough selenium, your immune system cannot function at its best. Garlic is one pungent food rich in selenium. Try adding it to your soups, stews, and salad dressings as often as possible. Another selenium powerhouse is the oyster. Just six raw oysters provide your daily recommendation of selenium and they are also full of iron, and vitamins C and A.
Zinc is essential for cell proliferation, and for this reason, highly proliferating cells such as immune cells are dependent on this mineral. Not to mention, it aids the production of testosterone. If you are a fan of seafood, great! Options like crab, oysters, and lobster offer some of the richest sources of zinc. Otherwise, two of my favorite plant sources are dry roasted cashews and hemp seeds. If you enjoy oatmeal in the morning, sprinkle a small handful of dry roasted cashews or hemp seed over your oats.
Although ginger root does contain a variety of vitamins and minerals, it’s eaten in such small amounts that it’s the medicinal properties I wanted to mention versus its nutritional qualities. Ginger is a diaphoretic, which means that it promotes sweating. If you find yourself with a cold or flu, try adding a few slices of fresh ginger to a cup of hot water and adding honey to taste. Its warming nature helps cleanse the lymphatic system, our network of tissues and organs that help rid the body of unwanted materials, so you can feel better sooner.
Be well and eat your vegetables,
Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz is a natural foods chef and wellness advocate whose works center around a holistic approach to achieving overall wellness – including one’s nutritional journey. Felicia’s primary goal is to educate, empower, and inspire people of color as they work toward reclaiming their health through food and much needed self-care. Her holistic health and wellness background spans over 25 years and she has had the opportunity to work with grassroots activists, urban communities, and professional athletes.
Felicia’s work has been featured in Spirituality and Health, Forks Over Knives, and Food & Wine among many other publications. She presents frequently around the country on plant-based eating, complimentary healing practices, and food sustainability at community events, museums, and universities. Felicia currently lives in Phoenix, Arizona where she is readying her first book due out next year.