While it's too early for to learn about proven approaches to protect ourselves from this global pandemic, we can focus on our efforts on what we do know. Optimizing our diet allows us to stay resilient to infection.
We can obtain the majority of our vitamin and mineral requirements through diet alone. Food based nutrients are accompanied by many non-essential but beneficial nutrients (carotenoids, flavonoids, minerals and antioxidants) that aren't in most supplements. While supplements do have their purpose, it's unclear how well synthetic forms are absorbed and used in the body. So focusing on consuming a diverse range of whole, nutrient-dense foods is a great strategy to strengthen immunity.
"Death from infections in the developing world is often not due to the infection itself but the body’s inability to fight it because of nutrient deficiencies." -Dr. Mark Hyman
Our top tips to improve diet quality include:
1. Avoid inflammatory oils such as Canola, Corn, Cottonseed, Soy, Sunflower, Safflower, Grapeseed, Rice bran, Refined Palm oil (It’s not very high in PUFAs, but the refining is often more intense) plus anything that says hydrogenated.
These oils contain a high percentage of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). PUFAs are unstable, and break down rapidly when exposed to chemical stress. We do obtain PUFA from whole foods like sunflower, chia or flax seeds, in a form that is well protected by antioxidants naturally built into the seed. The refining process not only strips away antioxidants, it makes PUFAs toxic by exposing them to heat, pressure, metals and bleaching agents. This chemically alters the molecules into a wide variety of potent toxins. These molecules are toxic because they promote free-radical reactions that damage our cellular machinery including mitochondria, enzymes, hormone receptors, and DNA.
Instead use unrefined low-PUFA fats and oils such as Avocado oil, Butter, Coconut Oil, Ghee, Lard, Olive oil (only for low temp cooking or as a dressing for salads). Anything that says cold pressed and unrefined is safe to use. Avoid any oils that are labelled "refined."
Increase your Omega 3 intake to get a 1:1 ratio of Omega 3:6 through high quality food sources such as wild caught fish, pasture raised eggs, grass fed red meat, avocados, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and seaweed. Aim for a 1/3 of your fat intake from saturated sources (red meat, coconut, butter, full fat dairy products), 1/3 from monounsaturated sources (almonds, macadamia nuts, avos, EVOO, eggs), and 1/3 from polyunsaturated sources (walnuts, sunflower seeds, flax seeds, wild caught fish, chia seeds).
2. Avoid simple sugars such as those found in most packaged and processed foods. A diet high in refined sugar triggers the release of cytokines, which are pro-inflammatory molecules that can suppress the immune system for hours after ingested. Sugar also reduces the body’s ability to defend against bacterial infection and can cause insulin resistance, leading to diseases such as type 2 diabetes which impair the immune system.
3. Eat multiple servings of colorful fruits and vegetables high in vitamins A, C and phytonutrients that support the immune system. Rotate through 1-2 different coloured vegetables at each grocery shop to obtain a diverse range of vitamins, minerals and optimize your gut microbiome (check out Dr Hyman's post for the benefits of different coloured vegetables).
4. Include a quality protein source at each meal/snack. Proteins are the building blocks of the body, including your immune and detoxification systems. Organic, grass-fed animal protein and wild-caught fish, as well as plant-based proteins (if consumed in enough quantity) are important to consume with each meal and snack. Rotate through 1-2 different protein sources each week to obtain a diverse profile of amino acids, vitamins and minerals.
5. Add herbs to your cooking. Not only does this add flavour to your cooking, but these natural foods possess a number of beneficial properties and work to reduce inflammation, improve the health of your heart, boost the immune system, prevent and fight disease and can be more nutrient dense than a piece of broccoli! Add minced garlic (available in the refrigerated section at most grocery stores), onions, ginger (reduces inflammation and optimizes gut health as it is not only a strong anti-inflammatory, but also an powerful anti-microbial), and dried spices such as oregano, turmeric (the active component curcumin is one of the most powerful anti-inflammatory supplements when combined with black pepper extract to maximize absorption), rosemary, thyme, etc... to your next meal.
6. Eat fermented foods to support your microbiome and immunity. Poor gut health can lead to immune dysfunction. Bacteria found in fermented foods produces an acid that binds to receptors in the gut that spur the immune system into action. A diverse and healthy intestinal microbiome also plays a role in improving the immune system and wards off damaging inflammation inside the body. Add sauerkraut (Nature's Fare sells a great Sriracha flavoured option), kimchi, natto, miso, tempeh, unsweetened yogurt and kefir to your meals.
7. Stay hydrated. Consuming adequate fluids is essential to a well functioning immune system. Ensure your drinking water is filtered and avoid drinking from plastic bottles. Make soups and stews with bone broth, or drink a cup on its own as it contains components that strengthen the immune system. The slow cooking process of bone broth draws all the nutrients out of the bones, which makes it heavily concentrated in food based immune strengthening minerals. For example, glycine receptors have been identified on the outer surface of several different types of immune cells. The effect is a dampening of the immune response, resulting in reduced inflammatory signaling molecules and oxidative stress that may reduce damage to lungs and other tissues.