15 Food Swaps For A Better Immune System
Stay Healthy Year-Round With These Super Practical Tips
I haven’t had a cold, flu, or sinus infection for 11 years. I’ve never even missed a day of work! What’s my secret? How can we stay healthy when traveling, or over the winter, or when around someone who is sick? Or if you’re reading this when it came out, you’re wondering what you can do to protect yourself and those you love from going to the hospital with COVID-19.
I recorded a podcast on how to boost your immune system with lifestyle, dietary, and supplement recommendations. You can check it out here. However, I wanted to use the blog to get REALLY practical. What does it actually look like to eat in a way that promotes the best immune system? Read on for action steps you can start taking today!
Eat Less Sugar
Sugar suppresses the immune system (1). One of the ways it does this is by blocking Vitamin C uptake by white blood cells that fight infection (2). This can allow viruses and fungi to start replicating faster. Once they’ve reached a certain level of replication, we call this infection. Even before they reach that critical load, however, these microbes can be in just high enough amounts to go undetected yet make you feel not so stellar. So how can you cut out added sugars?
- Coffee or tea: replace your 2 spoons of sugar with cinnamon, vanilla extract, or MCT or coconut oil (which have a slightly sweet taste).
- Lemonade or sweet tea: combine plain lemon water or unsweet tea with flavorful herbal teas such as citrus, lemon chamomile, mint, or hibiscus. Or use a little powdered stevia or monk fruit for a natural, calorie-free alternative to any recipe that calls for sugar.
- Baked goods: Certain fruits are great at sweetening your homemade creations! Applesauce, bananas, pumpkin, or dates are all great whole food, natural replacements for sugar. You need to use a recipe that was created to use one of these, so look online for no sugar-added or Whole30 recipes.
- Oatmeal or yogurt: purchase varieties that do not have any form of sugar listed in the ingredients. Instead of adding honey or maple syrup, add 1 cup of your favorite sweet fruit! Grapes, peaches, apples, or pears are wonderful alternatives if berries aren’t sweet enough for you.
- Chocolate: if you’re like me, a day would feel incomplete without a little chocolate in some way. While most chocolate bars and chips have sugar in them, you can get it less processed in the form of cocao nibs or cocoa powder.
Eat More Plant-Based Foods
Food is medicine. It sends messages to the body to turn on or off certain pathways. Food can also feed specific microbes in the gut, which can make you more or less inflamed. Did you know 75% of your immune system is in your gut!? What messages are you sending to your body with the foods you’re choosing? See below for ideas on how to give it all the right signals! (yes, I’m basically teaching you how to flirt with your flora)
- Quercetin is an antioxidant that not only decreases histamine, but also is an anti-viral. Studies show in those who are older and exercise (using their lungs quite a bit), quercetin decreases upper respiratory infections (3). It’s also been shown to inhibit a type of coronavirus in mice, where the food with quercetin had a stronger effect than the extract itself (4). Easy ways to increase quercetin are to blend one bunch of cilantro into your soups or salads, use kale more than other greens, throw cranberries in your smoothies, swap out other berries for blueberries more often, chop leafy greens into your sauces, and swap out celery sticks for raw okra.
- Vitamin C: an article about the immune system would be incomplete without this famous nutrient. To get more, eat red bell pepper instead of green, broccoli instead of cauliflower, and kiwi instead of cutie/mandarin oranges. And it’s hard to believe, but swap strawberries for oranges! They have half the sugar, and yet more Vitamin C!
- Prebiotic foods feed good gut bacteria. These suggestions will increase your prebiotic consumption, but beware of possible gas if you do too much too fast. Swap out green beans with asparagus, and add garlic and artichoke to pasta and dips. You can also replace french-fried potatoes with jicama fries! Jicama can be peeled, boiled, and baked in the oven as fries.
- Another way to increase prebiotics is to eat more plant-based proteins. The legume family is high in fiber and protein. At lunch, try swapping out meat in your soups or salads for lentils or peas, and swap your burger for a homemade black bean burger.
- Antioxidants stop the process that can lead to chronic inflammation. Cruciferous vegetables are high in nutrients that increase your body’s own production of antioxidants. Swap out your rice for riced broccoli or cauliflower. Use a cabbage or collard leaf for your wraps and tacos, and add in some chopped radishes. Swap out baby red potatoes for roasted balsamic Brussels sprouts.
- Herbs are another way to increase antioxidants. Swap out seasoning mixes for homemade pesto sauces using cilantro, basil, or parsley. Also, add rosemary and oregano, fresh or dried, to your meat.
- Finally, spices are also a great source of anti-inflammatory compounds. The two superstars here are turmeric and ginger roots. Swap out your coffee or tea for a turmeric latte. For more ideas on using roots and herbs, check this out.
Eat For Better Sleep
I fall into the same trap as you all do: I’m busy, I need my downtime, and so sleep will be the first thing to go. We think it’s dispensable. It’s really not! Trust me, I’ve only come to this conclusion by being confronted with so much evidence that I could no longer ignore it. Sleep is ESSENTIAL to our optimal functioning, and especially to our immune system. So read on for how food can help you get better sleep.
- Don’t eat close to bed. If your body is digesting, it’s not recovering. Give your body a break while you sleep by finishing eating 3 hours before you go to bed. This keeps your circadian rhythm on track so that the inflammation from the day can be resolved. Swap out a late night snack for a dessert-flavored tea if you need to.
- Balance blood sugar throughout the day. If your blood sugar swings a lot during the day (do you get hangry?), then it’ll also swing at night. A blood sugar swing while you’re fasting in your sleep will lead to an adrenaline spike. Of course, adrenaline is not the best sleep drug. So if you want to stay asleep all night, eat 3-4 meals per day around the same time, and follow this advice.
- No alcohol. I saved it for last so you wouldn’t stop reading after seeing this one! Haha. Alcohol has a special ability to make you sleep well in the first half of the night, and totally disrupt your sleep the second half of the night (5). This is actually a withdrawal, or rebound effect that occurs even on the first night of drinking. If you are going to have alcohol, keep it to one drink, and finish it 4-6 hours before you go to sleep.
Learn to implement these over time and you’ll have an immune system that’s a force to be reckoned with! What have YOU noticed makes you more likely to get sick, or has helped you ward off infection? Leave a comment below!
- Acute and sustained inflammation and metabolic dysfunction induced by high refined carbohydrate‐containing diet in mice. 2012.
- Vitamin C and Immune Function. 2017.
- Quercetin supplementation and upper respiratory tract infection: A randomized community clinical trial. 2010.
- Evaluation of antiviral activities of Houttuynia cordata Thunb. extract, quercetin, quercetrin and cinanserin on murine coronavirus and dengue virus infection. 2016.
- Alcohol and sleep I: effects on normal sleep. 2013.